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Twin Peaks uses glitches, new technology to bring Lynch’s madness into a new age

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The VHS aesthetic of Twin Peaks’ past is now nostalgic

Twin Peaks - Evil Cooper Suzanne Tenner/Showtime

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the 1992 prequel film to Twin Peaks, famously opens with the blue haze of television static. It’s a motif carried through the entire film; our entrance into the horror-tinged uncertainty of the spirit world is communicated through screens, windows and that same foggy blue light. Television, for Fire Walk With Me, is a metaphor for the dreamlike and the horrific.

After 25 years, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s neo-noir soap-opera-turned-supernatural-horror epic has returned to television. But the television of Twin Peaks on display in the new series couldn’t be more different from the one referenced in Fire Walk With Me. The technology of broadcast networks and CRT televisions that engendered the film's famous imagery isn’t even in use anymore. TV static no longer feels like a window into another world. It’s nostalgia.

But Lynch hasn’t abandoned the metaphor. In the new Twin Peaks, television — and the technology surrounding it — is still a window into the unsettling, the surprising and the unknowable. Only this time, the horror of the spirit world has gone digital.

In contrast to its reputation as a quirky, meme-worthy series about a peaceful small town, Twin Peaks has always been preoccupied with currents of evil running just beneath its idyllic surface. Twin Peaks is the sort of place where your dark secrets have dark secrets of their own. The darkest secret of all is the invisible world of supernatural evil and unimaginable power influencing events from behind the veil. This story about a lovely haven of weirdness in the Pacific Northwest is also a story about demonic possession, backward-talking spirits and innocent souls caught rocketing toward annihilation.

In driving home the horror of that other world, the third season of Twin Peaks leans on the peculiarities of digital media.

It starts subtly. When the wife of Bob Hastings (Matthew Lillard), the principal and likely culprit of a vicious crime, is shot by the doppelganger of Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the frame distorts itself for a split second, jerking so minutely that you could easily miss it. Later, when the real Cooper reaches the eerie purple room in the third episode — a strange supernatural space haunted by a woman with no eyes — the scene stutters and jerks unpredictably, speeding up and slowing down in unnerving fashion.

What’s striking about these touches is how they play with the way people are watching the new season of Twin Peaks: streaming.

The vast majority of viewers watched the Twin Peaks revival via Showtime’s streaming offerings, including its stand-alone app and its digital channel available via Amazon. And for an inattentive viewer, these initial touches of surreality could be mistaken for streaming errors — problems with buffering, or frames that were poorly encoded or just glitched out due to a faulty internet connection. Lynch makes use of the vagaries of streaming television to subtly alienate and confuse the audience in a way that draws attention to the artifice of the medium itself.

The story of Bob Hastings has eerie echoes of Twin Peaks’ original murder mystery: the Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) case. Lynch uses intimations of supernatural possession, and when evil Coop intervenes, the twist feels aberrant — a feeling reinforced by the glitched-out image. Likewise with the purple room: The stuttering makes it feel like a frustrating, profoundly alien place. An error in the video player that you can’t seem to fix.

Even more confounding are the digital effects used throughout. As the influence of the spirit world grows increasingly explicit across these initial four episodes, the show leans on digital effects to portray its impossible happenings. A digitized Agent Cooper passes through an electrical socket. Disembodied heads of spirits and the late Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), the father of Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), pass through the ether. Dougie Jones (MacLachlan), a third doppelganger of Cooper possibly manufactured by the evil Coop — it’s, uh, complicated — disappears in a burst of smoke and electricity. What’s most striking about all these special effects, however, isn’t their content, but their composition: Most of them are terrible.

It’s confusing at first. The return of Twin Peaks is clearly well-funded: It has a cast in the hundreds and is beautifully shot with digital cameras, and at one point Lynch even threatened to walk to get Showtime to pony up more cash (his return a month later suggests they did). So why are these special effects so garish? Dougie Jones’ death looks like an effect from a bad FMV video game, and when Cooper stands outside the purple room, the void of space around him looks like a Windows screensaver.

But that's precisely the point. These deliberately low-quality visual effects, juxtaposed with the immaculate digital camera work and the occasional special effect portrayed in a convincing fashion, create an affecting unreality. They straddle a line Lynch loves to move between. They’re fake enough to be funny, but played too seriously to write off entirely as jokes. Instead, they move fully into the realm of the uncanny.

All these effects conspire to construct the spirit world behind Twin Peaks as a place that’s just not quite right. It’s eerily artificial, forcing the viewer to confront the staged nature of the show itself. These touches allow us to see the spirit world as a dreamspace, a separate type of reality — one that might even be conscious of us as viewers. It makes the horror of the spirit world even more vivid, as it comes from a place that already feels consciously impossible. Everything that happens here is intensely otherworldly, caught between being fake and real at the same time, and made the more haunting because of it.

One of the captivating images in the early hours of the new Twin Peaks is a glass box. It’s embedded into a brick wall, an aperture in its rear open to the New York City skyline. It is immaculate, with wires and cables running out of it into mysterious machines beneath. A lattice of digital cameras surrounds it. A young man (Ben Rosenfield) watches it, attending to the precise equipment, waiting.

This is the new Twin Peaks: Self-consciously thrust into the digital era, it points you toward its own artificial space. You watch, waiting for something terrible to happen. When the screen starts to stutter and skip, you can be almost certain it will.

Julie Muncy is a writer, poet and contributor to Wired currently living in Texas. She has very strong feelings about Kanye West.