Brow Beat

Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, and the Sunday-Night Battle for the Soul of TV

Showtime Networks and HBO
That auteur-driven model you like is going to come back in style.

Showtime Networks and HBO

After six seasons of promising “Winter is coming,” Game of Thrones’ seventh-season premiere repeatedly assured us that it was finally here. And yet large chunks of “Dragonstone” still functioned, in effect, as coming attractions for the season ahead. There was Bran Stark’s milky-eyed vision of the Night King leading his White Walker army across ground that turned to ice at his feet; Sandor Clegane’s fiery prophecy of an army of the dead marching past a castle by the sea; and Daenerys Targaryen’s silent, ceremonious return to her ancestral home, culminating with the words “Shall we begin?” And then the episode was over.

Even a show with fans as obsessive as Game of Thrones’ needs to expend some screen time reminding viewers what’s happened before and preparing them for what comes next, but in a season with only seven episodes, devoting an entire hour—minus a spectacular pre-credits scene in which Arya Stark got her vengeance on the surviving members of House Frey—to table-setting seems like a waste of precious resources. But by this point, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know their audience intimately, and they’ve built up enough momentum that they know just which tidbits they need to drop along the way—Did someone say Dragonglass? Was that the farmer and his daughter from Season 4?—to keep them rapt even as the show is mainly shuffling the deck.

If Game of Thrones is an unstoppable freight train, then Twin Peaks, which for the next six weeks will share its Sunday-night time slot, is a haunted hayride, a leisurely meander toward an endpoint that is only slightly more clear 10 hours in than it was when it began. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s original series came wrapped in a murder mystery, which along with Angelo Badalamenti’s sultry score helped to disguise the fact that in addition to being one of the most visually distinctive TV series ever made, it was also one of the slowest. Twenty-six years on, Lynch has lost all attraction to conventional means of driving a narrative forward, and while it’s factually incorrect to refer to the show’s third season, promotionally dubbed Twin Peaks: The Return, as an 18-hour movie—it airs on TV; ergo, it is TV—it’s also plainly uninterested in doing many of the things a TV series traditionally does. With the exception of the standalone post-nuclear fantasia “Part 8,” the episodes don’t end so much as they stop, drifting off as a band plays us toward the exits. Familiar characters like Nadine, the one-eyed housewife–turned–successful drape merchant, turn up for a single shot and then vanish for weeks on end, a perverse kind of fan service that teases us with a reprise of the original series’ kook noir before cruelly snatching it away. Even Badalamenti’s score has been slow to return, replaced not with new, updated musical themes but by ominous drones that linger just at the edge of hearing, instilling a sense of perpetual unease rather than filling in the gaps.

Although Game of Thrones’ massive worldwide audience—still growing, at a time when most series are beginning to sputter—makes it as much of an outlier in its own way as Twin Peaks, it has a far more solid claim on representing The Way We Watch Now. Twin Peaks may have birthed “puzzle TV,” but Game of Thrones has institutionalized it, with an entire cottage industry devoted to scrutinizing and dissecting every episode. Viewers have taken stabs, some more credible than others, at deciphering the new Twin Peaks, but, at least thus far, it resolutely resists solving. Twenty-seven years after the show revealed the answer to “Who killed Laura Palmer?” her tormented spirit still prowls, and though her murderer is long dead, the evil that possessed him still lives. It’s become less a mystery show than a show about mysteries, how we create them to make sense of the world, and how we inevitably fall short. Perhaps the best way to approach life is like the reborn Agent Cooper, wiped clean of all but the most immanent understanding, freed from the need to construct a larger framework of meaning. It’s certainly the best way to watch Twin Peaks.

The expanded landscape of television has room for both Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks, and many more besides, but their temporary overlap poses a conundrum: not just which to watch live and which to stream later, but which direction TV is headed and whether it’s possible to head in both at once. In a sense, both Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are event series, based on or expanded from established commercial properties. But Game of Thrones, for all its scope and scale, is largely TV as we’ve known it: an ensemble series told across multiple seasons, driven by plot twists and bloody conflicts. Twin Peaks is something new, or striving toward it. Like the original series, the new Twin Peaks begins with the raw material of current popular culture: In 1990, it was soap operas; now, it’s prestige TV, with its brooding antiheroes and sexualized violence. Then it warps that material until it turns back on itself. The violence grows uglier, the antiheroes more anti-. Sometimes, as in the original run, the repurposing of stock elements bleeds into lazy indulgence; 10 episodes in, we’ve seen enough innocent women lying in pools of blood to last for several seasons. But just when the show seems to be spinning its wheels, Lynch breaks free and gives us “Part 8,” with its abstract images of the universe boiling away inside a mushroom cloud and inexplicable visions of soot-covered incubi.

TV is hyped as the way forward, a limitless horizon that will allow hitherto unheard voices to have their say, but it’s still bounded by the limitations of what a documentary about the long-form filmmaker Peter Watkins called “the universal clock,” the industrial structures dictating that seasons come in packs of 22 episodes, or now, more often, 13 or 10; that those episodes run around 30 minutes for comedies and around 60 for dramas; that they follow a central character or characters and form parts of a larger ongoing narrative. (The preference for serial storytelling is now every bit as monolithic as the end-credits rest was in the era of sitcoms and procedurals.) Showrunners, the new auteurs, love to tout their episodes as chapters of a novel, or their seasons as one big movie, but Lynch had to publicly announce he was quitting the series in order to get Showtime to give him true creative control, and unless there’s a way to integrate Lost Highway into the Fast and the Furious franchise, it’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances under which he could wield similar clout. You can only bring back Twin Peaks once.

As far as ratings go, Game of Thrones clobbered Twin Peaks, and it will continue to do. But Showtime is reporting record sign-ups in the wake of Twin Peaks’ airings, and with a subscription service, that’s the only currency that matters. There was only one Twin Peaks in 1990, and there is only one now, but its audience shows that there’s a place for visually driven, tenuously narrative content in the commercial marketplace—even at the home of Ray Donovan. Content providers have been falling over themselves for years trying to find the next Game of Thrones. A few of them should be looking for the next Twin Peaks, too.