The Twin Peaks revival scores with its quirkiness and absurd humour, but fantasy drama American Gods does not add up
It is a trend critics have variously dubbed "weird TV" or "what-the-f*** TV".
Exemplified by shows such as the apocalypse drama The Leftovers, techno-thriller Mr Robot and superhero series Legion, it is a type of experimental television that confounds viewers with ambiguous, rule-breaking storytelling and does not lend itself to definitive answers about what is going on.
But there is good weird and there is bad weird. This is demonstrated by two recent additions to this supra-genre: the Twin Peaks revival and American Gods, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel.
In many ways, director David Lynch's first two seasons of Twin Peaks in 1990 and 1991 signalled the birth of this trend.
What began as a crime drama - FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the murder of a small-town prom queen - morphed into a supernatural thriller involving parallel dimensions, clairvoyant logs and dancing dwarves. The captivating first season was truly seminal when it first aired.
A fresh batch of 18 episodes continues the story 25 years later.
When last seen, Cooper had been trapped in an alternate dimension after his body was possessed by Bob, the malevolent entity that had taken control of Laura's father and made him kill her.
Now Cooper finds himself zapped back into the real world, where his Bob-inhabited doppelganger is still on the loose and dark forces are at work once again, resulting in more grisly murders and ominous portents.
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The parallel dimensions, strange creatures and garbled speech are back too, and as discomfiting as ever.
Few concessions are made to those unfamiliar with the original series or Lynch's films: Viewers are plunged into a melee of characters and arcs that even ardent fans can untangle only by Googling recaps of Seasons 1 and 2.
But despite the bewildering plot, the quirky vignettes of Americana and absurd humour are as appealing as ever. Oddball fan favourites from the large cast - such as the all-seeing Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) and ditsy receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) - reprise their roles, with Lynch himself playing a hilariously hard-of-hearing federal agent.
For all this kookiness, the director soon reminds us what a master of atmospherics he is. Scenes such as the ones involving a scary glass box and a woman with her eyes sealed shut on a platform floating in space are pure edge-of-your-seat horror. Cooper's discombobulation upon his return, meanwhile, channels a more pervasive Kafkaesque dread.
Also setting the show apart is Lynch's inimitable anachronistic aesthetic. His gift is using this, coupled with narrative and tonal dissonance, to constantly destabilise the viewer, thereby tapping into the inarticulable fears that lie at the murky fringes of reality.
When the series hits these notes, it is weird in the best possible way.
What some viewers might lose patience with in the new episodes is the sheer number of odd characters, plots and devices that meander or go nowhere, including several artistically staged but pointless acts of violence against women, a disturbing Lynchian tic.
But if you can relinquish the desire for conventional narrative resolution, and give yourself over to the weirdness, you might find yourself rather enjoying it.
American Gods does not have a conventional storyline either, blending disparate narrative elements and genres such as fantasy, horror, comedy and even road movie.
But whereas Twin Peaks ponders the meaning of things such as creamed corn, this fantasy drama's metaphors are way more obvious and heavy-handed.
The premise: An ex-convict, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), is hired as a bodyguard by a con-man named Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane).
But Shadow soon discovers that neither his employer nor the world is as it seems.
Wednesday is one of of the Old Gods of mythology, and is on a mission to enlist other ancient deities - including the gods of Darkness, Love and Dawn - to join him in a war against the New Gods, who represent things such as Technology, Media and Globalisation.
It is every bit as pretentious and preachy as it sounds. And even though the main characters are proxies for these big ideas, the mechanics of the plot are not that different from your everyday superhero showdown.
Another problem with signposting all those metaphors is it creates the expectation that this will ultimately lead somewhere.
Yet once you peel away the campy spectacle the show puts on, it simply does not add up.
As a discussion of philosophy, politics or ethics, the series offers only shallow insights with its mystical aphorisms and flimsy arguments for American exceptionalism (America is the "only country in the world that wonders what it is", claims Mr Wednesday.)
But once you get past the shock value, you may start interrogating the point of it all, and how it gels with the statement that her power was taken away because "men are threatened by strong women".
It is hard to avoid the feeling the show is just throwing concepts at the wall and seeing what sticks. The weirdness, in this case, is just a lack of coherence.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Weird can be wonderful'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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