Critic's Notebook: How 'Legion' Scooped 'Twin Peaks' as 2017's Weird Show to Watch

Showtime's upcoming 'Twin Peaks' revival was supposed to be the year's must-watch freak show, but FX's frenetically original 'Legion' has beat it to the punch.
Michelle Faye/FX
Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza on FX's 'Legion'

The Twin Peaks revival is already either the most anticipated, the saddest or the most dubious TV event of 2017, so it's weird to think the whole thing might be moot already.

The series, which I think ultimately is more a fondly weird memory than a legitimately great piece of television, has been resuscitated by Showtime and will premiere May 21, roughly 26 years after the original went off the air.

If you are a lover of Hail Mary passes, you should definitely tune in.

Nostalgia is a sharp and blind knife. You reach for it and more often than not it cuts you to ribbons. And so it is that the TV world finds itself clamoring for a show that most people can't accurately remember and so many others either never watched when they were alive or missed because they were born after the fact. Showtime could really use a buzzy show. Whatever issues the channel faces — and there are plenty — being tied to one of the riskiest comebacks that nostalgia could ever fuel is probably not where it needs to be right now.

As an admirer of the shocking, game-changing nature of what Twin Peaks and creator David Lynch achieved in that first season — and repeated for a brief instant in the second season before it all vanished in a haze of relentlessly unclear and ultimately uninteresting developments — I understand what a fantastic miracle it would be if, 9,490-something days later, Twin Peaks returned triumphant.

But I am very, very skeptical that this will be the exquisite return of greatness everybody seems to be praying for. For starters, series that attempt comebacks — even those that try to do it before 26 years have gone by — are mostly creative failures. And this is before fans shake the cobwebs out of their unreliable memories and admit, with the joy-killing onset of clarity, that Twin Peaks wasn't really good for most of that second season.

It wasn't.

Weird, yes. It was always gloriously weird. It was even scary. Better, it was visually intriguing, an ambitious and daring idea foisted on network television by a visionary film director. That Lynch and the series couldn't sustain the audaciously twisted visual fugue state that was Twin Peaks in its first season is less an artistic missed opportunity than predictable narrative exhaustion for a team of people who hadn't done it previously in quite the same manner.

There is no shame in the desire to shoot for the moon or, better yet, to shoot entirely through it and explode it into tiny, magnificent shards. We are all, in our way, cheering for that.

What time allows — and I'm hoping we can all agree that 26 years is an enormous span — is for doubt to wash away into nothing and be replaced by a kind of unfettered hope. We all want, on some level, for Twin Peaks to be ridiculously amazing — a cultural event that reinvigorates our collectively blurred memories, resoundingly returns Lynch (who will direct all 18 episodes) to the peak of his creative powers and reaffirms Showtime's relevance.

But the biggest problem facing Twin Peaks is not the weight of our expectations. It's that Legion on FX has already stolen its most precious commodity, and its thunder — though the confirmation of that won't come until it's certain that Twin Peaks can't either match our highest hopes or, more likely, can't match the creative achievement that Legion has already put on the public record.

Here's the thing: Twin Peaks mostly trafficked in the exultation and exhibition of freakiness. It was a mind-f— before that was even much of a standard of achievement in television. A very long time ago, Twin Peaks took The Twilight Zone and added color, evil and believability. That was brilliantly devastating. You might best recall the Lynchian visuals that stuck in the brain like a drug-dipped Japanese shuriken, like the long-haired Killer Bob or The Man From Another Place (aka the dancing dwarf who talked in reverse) or, in a less revered but no less important conceit, the shots of the lone traffic light and the desolation of the woods.

Nearly 26 years later, anyone who watched Twin Peaks can still conjure a visceral reaction to those creative elements.

And yet, a very good argument can be made that Noah Hawley's Legion is a far trippier and aggressively weirder series. There is currently nothing like it on television. Not even close.

And lest you need a reminder, Legion will have put a full eight episodes out two months before Showtime premieres Twin Peaks.

Legion has already redefined not only how to depict mental illness but — wait for it — how to do a Marvel show for thinking adults. Which is the greater achievement?

Seriously, what can Twin Peaks deliver in the realm of freak-tastic visuals that Legion hasn't already tossed out as nightmare bait? The show's exquisitely rendered conception of what life looks like from inside the mind of a mentally unstable person is already, bar none, the best that television has achieved.

Beyond that, Legion has a creepy, saggy-faced, long-limbed, rubbery monster, aka The Devil With the Yellow Eyes, an interior memory that its main protagonist can't shake and that is, to be clear, nightmare-inducing. The series also has a children's book character called The Angriest Boy in the World (or if you want the exact book title: The World's Angriest Boy in the World). That boy looks like Hitler. And also an inflatable balloon that looks like Hitler.

Add to this an older man named Cary who has inside him a young, kick-ass Native American girl named Kerry (yes, she lives inside him), and a dead man from the 1960s currently alive in what looks like a gigantic ice cube and is, we're told, an actual Astral Plane of existence (which opens many, many doors about perception and reality, which Legion tweaks every couple of minutes, not episodes).

If you're into that thing, there's also a cute dog that doesn't exist. What appears to be an evil father. A haunted house. A best female friend who is named Lenny but could actually be a male named Benny, but who is probably just a manifestation of The Devil With the Yellow Eyes.

There's a creepy dude named The Eye (who is evil, so he's really The Evil Eye).

On top of this, you get tons of Marvel superhero-type stuff like people who can make doors fly off and into space, people who can talk to each other telepathically, the movement of objects (sometimes into, say, your face) via telekinesis and one character who is named after the founder of Pink Floyd.

So tell me again how Twin Peaks is going to be weirder than that?

And even if Twin Peaks has (or had) creepiness whistling among the pines and something like the Log Lady or a dancing dwarf or an earnest FBI agent who likes coffee and pie, can it still compete?

It might come down to coherence. And here's where I'm going to introduce some fighting words. Legion creator Hawley has already written and overseen two conceptually audacious seasons of Fargo that asked the audience to suspend belief at times, then delivered more often than not on the explanation needed to tie everything together.

Twin Peaks? Well, it kind of made sense for a while, even though that never seemed much like the point. But after the core murder mystery was addressed, making sense of what you'd seen was not a Lynch strong point or, seemingly, even an interest. And, wow, did that second season disappoint. Maybe Lynch and company have learned how to run a TV series in the meantime, but if not there may be a rude awakening in terms of how badly atmospheric and impressionistic visuals that lack narrative cohesion go over with the savvy Peak TV crowd.

The central element of Legion, much like Mr. Robot, is that it has an unreliable narrator. But even though things are trippy beyond belief or perception on Legion so far, there's a thread of the story that stems from a sense-making core. Meaning, Hawley is rigorously experimenting with what a TV series would look like if it explored mental illness from the inside of a patient's brain, while simultaneously shepherding a Marvel X-Men property where the main character is a mutant with a special power that negates the idea of mental illness (almost) entirely.

So what we have is an intellectually curious creator who doesn't seem particularly interested in the superhero genre unless he can subvert its conventions from the inside and make them fresh and interesting with new purpose and meaning.

That, if you believe Hawley is pulling it off right now and will continue to, is a spectacular example of creativity. And, dare I say it, likely weirder and more fantastical than anything Twin Peaks will come up with, thus negating that series' defining attribute.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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