In the Monday-morning quarterbacking that followed the “Game of Thrones” finale, a frequent criticism has been that the seventh season moved too fast as it sped toward revealing Jon Snow’s lineage and paving the way for the conclusive battles to come.
Yet the stark contrast between the HBO series and “Twin Peaks: The Return” on rival Showtime demonstrates that in the TV version of the tortoise and the hare, a drama that races is generally preferable to one that crawls.
Obviously, that isn’t necessarily an either-or proposition, and there are plenty of first-rate shows – “Better Call Saul” comes to mind – that benefit from spooning out story at a slow but steady clip.
Nevertheless, in an age with so many options and so much ambitious serialized storytelling, there’s a fine line between creating mood and atmosphere and simply wasting the audience’s time.
“Twin Peaks” will conclude with a two-part finale on September 3, wrapping up a season that can be viewed as a disappointment on multiple levels. After the hoopla that surrounded its start, the linear audience per week has slid below 500,000 viewers, a pittance even by pay-TV standards.
Much of that surely has to do with director David Lynch’s filmmaking style, which has reinforced his reputation as an auteur but risked slipping into self-indulgence at best, and self-parody at worst.
Showtime basically gave Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost a carte blanche to make exactly the program they wanted to do. The avant-garde director responded with a series that has teased out about six hours worth of story into something three times that long.
Indeed, letting the show drag on – and on and on – nearly derailed it. Showtime originally contracted for nine episodes, only to see the number double after Lynch shot the project as one long movie, breaking it up into weekly chapters for TV.
While that’s clearly a way to signal Lynch’s creative freedom, it’s a dicey prescription for producing a coherent television show.
“Game of Thrones,” by contrast, has accelerated its pace since moving beyond George R.R. Martin’s books, and one can second-guess whether wrapping it up in two truncated seasons – totaling 13 episodes, instead of the usual 10 episodes per year – might have been too ambitious.
The result, however, has been more bracing than anything else. And if travel times around Westeros have been expedited, the rewards have included disgorging more secrets about Jon Snow’s birthright and the Targaryen dynasty, brilliant scenes involving the various Stark children, massive military showdowns and strategizing to claim the Iron Throne, and preparation for the great war with the army of the dead.
As the New York Times’ James Poniewozik noted, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for quality drama. “Twin Peaks” arrived at a moment when what’s been dubbed “surreality TV” is cresting, as snail’s-pace dramas like “Legion” and “American Gods” have garnered considerable praise from critics.
By contrast, “Game of Thrones” has received more naysaying and nitpicking than usual since adopting its faster approach. The New Republic, for example, groused about how the series “just doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t Jon, Daenerys, or the Night King anymore.”
Yet by speeding up its storytelling, “Game of Thrones” has illustrated the value in operating like the viewer’s time is worth something. And while “Twin Peaks” could still possibly find a measure of redemption in its finish, more than anything Showtime’s revival has felt trapped in the 1990s – before it was quite as easy to tune out, fast forward or devote one’s attention to a second screen.
“Twin Peaks: The Return” concludes with a two-part finale at 8 p.m. on Sept. 3.