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[The following contains spoilers.]

If you were asked to picture Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in your mind’s eye, he would be probably frozen with a grin and a jaunty thumbs-up. One YouTube compilation lists thirteen separate occasions from the original Twin Peaks in which Cooper flashes this classic pose. There is another outbreak of thumbs-ups in episode four of the new season, but the trouble is that Cooper is not present. He is represented in his absence by various doppelgängers or fragments.

Cooper has been “tricked” into returning to the planet not as himself, but as a mindless combo of himself and a frumpy Las Vegas doppelgänger named Dougie Jones. This new being goes under the provisional title of Mr Jackpot. When Mr Jackpot and Dougie’s son Sonny Jim Jones (Pierce Gagnon) first meet, they exchange an exploratory thumbs-up. Afterwards, we cut to South Dakota, where Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch) is due to meet another Cooper doppelgänger, who is imprisoned awaiting felony charges. Thumbs-up open and close this scene too.

So far, so obvious. A thumbs-up is meant to celebrate everything being okay, but everything is evidently not okay. There are imposters attached to these thumbs-ups and so they are really, in fact, thumbs-downs.

More doppelgängers have invaded the town of Twin Peaks. Sheriff Truman is both here and not here, absent and replaced by an interchangeable brother (Robert Forster). James Hurley (James Marshall), the show’s original lone biker, easy rider, and garlanded hate figure, has been also hilariously replaced.

Vice Magazine has christened Hurley as “without a doubt the worst character in David Lynch’s great masterpiece” and suggested that “the writers wanted Hurley to be hated – that much is clear.” The only people who this joke is lost upon are the creators of Game of Thrones, who have replicated Hurley’s wooden dreaminess wholesale in their hero Jon Snow. Lynch’s contempt for Hurley finally comes to the surface during the second season of Twin Peaks, in which James is shown performing a song called “Just You” (naturally to an audience of two girls) in a simpering feminine voice. After this, how could James be any more pulverised? The answer, it transpires, is by replacing him with Michael Cera.

Peaky-faced and lisping, Cera turns up on a motorbike, kitted out like Marlon Brando like James Hurley, to supply an impersonation of Hurley that is even more openly charmless than the original. There are near to five minutes of this and it is exquisitely unwatchable. When it was mentioned in the second episode that James had been in an accident, this was surely what was being referred to. Perhaps, whilst growing up in Twin Peaks, Cera’s character, Wally Brando, has learned everything that he knows at James’ knee. His love-struck parents, Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson), have thus created an unwanted person who already exists. Together, they look like three idiots in a row.

Is Chief Gordon Cole a doppelgänger of Cooper or is it the converse? I can imagine a young Cooper modelling himself on his boss in the FBI headquarters, and quickly picking up his great-to-see-you cheerfulness. In season three, Cole is full of sass and a source of the genial self-certainty that Cooper had previously provided. This is far more than just the director indulging in a cameo. We are gifted the prototype for Cooper’s character, played by Cooper’s actual creator, and yet he still only resembles a weak copy.

Cole and his FBI goons clatter around like a bunch of comical undertakers, with all of the jokes accruing from Cole’s deafness furthering the pantomime. Farcically, these agents are wired up and criss-crossing each other. There is a lady FBI agent called Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) who wants to be taken seriously by the boys. She is sullen and over-professional and she is always being ogled however perfect her professionalism. When she is in Cole’s office, it seems that even the framed photograph of Franz Kafka on the wall behind her is discreetly eyeing her arse.

One always dislikes dropping the word “postmodern” into anything, but it might well be at home here with the acute self-referentiality of these scenes. Dialogue from the meeting between Cole and Cooper could be quoting directly from Kyle MacLachlan’s audition for the new Twin Peaks. MacLachlan confesses to Lynch that, “I haven’t seen you in a long long time… I really really missed spending time together.” Mr Jackpot’s appearance at the Silver Munstang Casino is similarly interpretable. Twin Peaks had been axed after Cooper had entered the Black Lodge, and now he is out again with a new season and hitting the jackpot, with wealth splashing everywhere.

In neither case, however, is this really Cooper or even Twin Peaks. It is only David Lynch, scripting aimless, comfortless essays in Surrealism and taunting us with Cooper’s continued absence.

Cooper’s voice in his interview with Cole is distorted and slowed down, like the Muddy Magnolias song that accompanies his first appearance on the road. Mr Jackpot’s sonny, Jim Jones, shares a name with the cult leader who had ordered over nine hundred of his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Mr Jackpot takes Jonetown’s terror of being brainwashed by the CIA (the rationale for their mass suicide) straight through the looking-glass. He is apparently brainwashed to begin with and he seems to revive after drinking his special drink, a good ole cup o’ deep black Joe.

In its ongoing exile from Twin Peaks, this new season is increasingly courting danger. I write this in the context of the new Twin Peaks being a stunning psycho-audio-visual marvel, so perhaps “danger” is too alarmist a description. What I am trying to describe is instead a problematic consequence of the route that Twin Peaks has chosen to take.

The flippancy – the deliberate evasion of realism – recalls Lynch and his writer Mark Frost’s previous TV collaboration, the obscure 1992 sitcom On the Air. This was a zany, gag-packed farce that normally surprises and horrifies the few fans of Twin Peaks who ever manage to locate it. In the show a 1950s television studio is experimenting with live broadcasting and, during the countdown to transmission, the studio always dissolves into mayhem. Corporate executives are generally on the receiving end of the slapstick – or rather, their boring ideal of seamless television is.

It does not take much to read On the Air as a cathartic vengeance upon the ABC network that had fatally undermined Twin Peaks. And the flippant tone of this sitcom has been ostensibly weaponised anew for Twin Peaks: The Return. Whatever they are, these new Twin Peaks episodes are not realism and they are uninterested in disguising their absence thereof. They make the original Twin Peaks look not just sensible but square.

Destructive violence is being inflicted upon the earlier Twin Peaks. There is a joke about setting Twin Peaks in 2017 which involves the police secretary Lucy fainting in confusion every time that she encounters a mobile phone. If somebody really behaved like this in 2017, it would be considered a mental illness – it is simply not viable as an example of Lucy’s ditziness. Andy tunes into this implausibility when he wonders that, “I can’t understand how this keeps happening, over and over again.”

Next the show is airing the familiar Cinderella piano strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme” by Angelo Badalamenti, but its usage here is almost nakedly sarcastic. The music strikes up outlandishly in the middle of a police briefing, as if somebody was playing a piano outside the window. Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) had a moment ago joked about needing to piss so bad that his teeth were floating in urine. Now he is weeping copiously, in an apparently Pavlovian response to seeing Laura Palmer’s photograph. The Twin Peaks tragedy of yesteryear is being frankly compared to piss.

In Las Vegas, we see Cooper taking a piss for the first time in twenty-five years (it appears to scald). Dougie Jones’ stupor has no basis in medical reality and his wife (Naomi Watts) and son’s airy unconcern towards it is not remotely plausible. Fanciful plotting has ensured that Dougie made it back safe from his love-nest to his family home, via a magical visit to the casino. Here he was serenaded by a kind of frolicsome hobbit (John Ennis). Our patience is being tried – we are required to shrug off one contrivance after another. It may be that Surrealism cannot ultimately cohabit with realism.

Has Twin Peaks junked its original realism? It would have been impossible for ABC to commit to these episodes with Cooper’s doppelgängers in 1992. The show was commercially discredited and Lynch and Frost would have been asking too much from the network. Yet in 2017, the doppelgängery still feels like a temporary or transitional stage. The question is whether Twin Peaks can recover its senses and how.