Why 'Twin Peaks: The Return' Was the Most Groundbreaking TV Series Ever

David Lynch and Mark Frost's 25-years-later murder mystery was not only a masterpiece – it may have permanently changed the medium

'Twin Peaks' Season 3 isn't just a masterpiece; David Lynch's 25-years-later return to his murder mystery may be the most groundbreaking TV show ever.

When some phrases pass through the prism of Twin Peaks, you can never hear them the same way again. "Damn good coffee" is one; "Gotta light?" is another. We'll submit a third candidate, one that the just-concluded third season of David Lynch and Mark Frost's supernatural murder-mystery masterpiece has marked for permanent retirement from the critical vocabulary: "Like nothing else on television." The TV landscape remains full of singular, spectacular shows, Peak TV fatigue be damned. But just as the original Twin Peaks inspired visionary showrunners from David Chase to Damon Lindelof to create the New Golden Age, the show's revived third season may have leapfrogged them all. What we just witnessed was unmatched in the medium's history.

To explain why, it's worth digging deeper than the obvious ways in which the season broke ground: its wild shifts in mood and style, its avant-garde editing and effects, the atom bomb of an hour that was Episode Eight. Crucial to the show's success was Lynch and Frost's insistence that it wasn't a TV show at all, but a film. This isn't just about treating the season as "one film broken into 18 parts," as Lynch put it, though that's a welcome rejoinder to the voguish notion that any showrunner who thinks of their series in these terms is a pretentious doofus. Good television, like good cinema, can be made in any number of ways; Twin Peaks Season Three will become a textbook example of how a truly movie-like approach can pay off.

But just as importantly, this 18-part movie/series/whatsit fits beautifully in Lynch's overall filmography. Indeed, the more of his work you've seen, the better equipped you'll be to handle what he's throwing at you here. Particularly in its final episodes, The Return relies on a recursive, Möbius-strip structure, in which events echo and loop rather than proceed in straightforward fashion; these repetitions and reflections are distorted and gap-ridden enough, however, to keep the pattern intoxicatingly opaque. Not counting the aptly titled The Straight Story (a rare case in which Lynch worked from a screenplay he himself had no hand in writing), all of the director's post-Peaks prequel films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire – are constructed in this funhouse fashion. He and Frost (and, to their eternal credit, Showtime) either trusted that their television audience would be as willing and able to keep up as the arthouse crowd, or simply did not care.

A side note here: It feels goofy to praise David Lynch for not participating in the usual back-and-forth between showrunner and viewer about the need for answers, closure and a finale that "sticks the landing," which the conclusions of The Sopranos and Lost have rendered a seemingly permanent part of the TV discourse. (It's like giving Stanley Kubrick a shoutout for resisting the temptation to create the Kubrick Cinematic Universe.) Still, even if this wasn't on the filmmaker's mind, as seems likely, it certainly was on ours. How refreshing to watch a show wholly alien to the debates that consumed the final seasons of even the most truly wonderful dramas, from Mad Men to The Leftovers. And how cool to see a series so gloriously unsuited to the era TV takes, too. After "This is the water and this is the well," didn't every article you came across with a title like "Lucy Brennan Proves David Lynch Has a Receptionist Problem" or "Dr. Jacoby's Spray-Painted Shit Shovels Would Work Much Better Using the Netflix Release Model" feel … a little small? Like, even smaller than usual?

To backtrack a bit ("What year is it?"), The Straight Story may be the anomaly in Lynch's past quarter-century of work, in terms of narrative flow, tone and his usual interest in horror and sex. Yet in a roundabout way it too provides a key to understanding what made Twin Peaks Season Three so strong. Its story of an elderly farmer who travels by tractor on a multi-state odyssey to reconnect with his dying brother shares with several Lynch-pins with the series, namely a love of the road, western America's scenic beauty and Harry Dean Stanton.

Most importantly, the film is about aging, and the vast gulfs of space and time we don't realize we've traveled until circumstances force us to confront them. That description fits The Return like a magic ring. Both in the story and behind the scenes, the people of Twin Peaks have grown old; the men in particular, from Bobby Briggs to Deputy Hawk to Big Ed Hurley, have grayed and weathered like stone. And the litany of cast members who died between then and now is long and heartbreaking: Miguel Ferrer, Catherine E. Coulson, Warren Frost, Michael Parks, Frances Bay, Don S. Davis, Jack Nance, Frank Silva and, of course, David Bowie. (The Thin White Duke would probably be delighted to discover his character Philip Jeffries spending eternity as a gigantic steampunk teapot.)

And as much as the Black Lodge itself, aging is the source of so much of Twin Peaks' power and pain. It's not just the 25-year gap that both the audience and Agent Cooper endured. Shelly Briggs watches her daughter Becky fall prey to an abusive husband just as she did as a teenager – while she herself has unwittingly fallen back into a pattern of attraction to "bad boys" with her own new boyfriend, a mysterious and malevolent drug dealer. The Log Lady is dying of cancer, just like Sheriff Harry S. Truman, stranded offscreen as the saga moves on without him. Audrey Horne is trapped, frightened and alone, in a limbo we may never learn the truth about; she was likely raped by the doppelganger of the man she saw as a hero. Coop himself is doomed to repeat his pattern of almost but not quite saving the day, supremely confident until the very moment he realizes he's blown it again. 

Even as an older, living woman, Laura Palmer is forever linked to the house of horrors where she grew up. And her mother Sarah … well, God only knows what's been eating away at her (or through her) all those years. Even America itself is still paying for the sins unleashed by the bomb, itself just the most symbolically resonant manifestation of the country's power to destroy. Sure, Big Ed Hurley may have gotten his happy ending with Norma Jennings, but his forlorn face several episodes earlier as he contemplates the wreck of his life could well be the face of the whole season.

Twin Peaks: The Return was a dazzling work of filmmaking. But unlike its jittering cameras, flashing lights, billowing smoke and ambient whooshing and whirring, its emotional foundations were rock solid. We may marvel at the cosmos Lynch and Frost created – a universe of vast purple oceans, towering metal fortresses, billowing red curtains and infinite fields of stars. We may spend another 25 years attempting to puzzle out Audrey's location, the glass box's bankroller, the true identity of "Judy" and what, exactly, became of the girl with the bug in her mouth. But there's nothing ethereal or mysterious about abuse, trauma and the irresistible death-march of time. That part of Twin Peaks, the part that counts most, is as clear as your reflection in the mirror.