The Show is Not What it Seems

So I’ve gone and binge watched Twin Peaks. As per The Prophecy and The Rules, I’ve also gone and buried myself in Internet fighting about what the show meant, both textually and in the context of society. Reading the resulting conversations has got me thinking a bit about the tendency of critics to elevate pop culture to something to deconstruct. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and, sure, if you want to deconstruct The Apprentice as a way of looking at commercialism, or The Walking Dead as modern drama, then have at it – who knows, you might win some new converts. However, there tends to be some serious tonal blindness that comes into play when discussing pop culture, and it’s been something that’s been on my mind since well before I watched Twin Peaks. I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a statement that might not really matter: Twin Peaks, at its heart and soul, is not pop culture. The Avengers is. Joss Whedon may be making smart pop culture in The Avengers, but it’s still pop. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s discuss this.

First, The Avengers is a Marvel property that is based in a comic book universe where magic and science interact with each other; being bitten by a radioactive spider will give you superpowers; and a dude literally covered in tumors and feeling nothing but pain can still crack wise all the time. It is a universe where silliness and levity reign supreme. It’s a universe where surrealism is stripped of dreamlike quality and is given a shiny, packageable material, and that is fantastic. However, I’ve consistently been a bit weirded out by the hawkeyed gaze that a lot of people use to discuss the ins and outs of the ethics of SHIELD using a city as a battleground. The thing that separates Marvel from DC, and – frankly – makes Marvel much more successful at the comic book movie game, is that Marvel realizes the inherent nonsensical nature of the films’ universes. It’ll continue to do so, I believe, until the Civil War storyline pops up, and Marvel starts getting social criticism injected in its films. But even then, I think, we’ll see the Stan Lee touch that keeps the things light, whereas DC throws pathos and seriousness at audiences with gravel voices and screaming ubermenschen.

The hawkeyed gaze may best be seen in comment sections, where commenters state that they couldn’t buy the simplicity of Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s something deeply wrong with going into a summer blockbuster movie and thinking that it’s too tonally close to a summer blockbuster movie. Yes, GotG is chock full of accessible plot points, familiar tropes, and your basic, hashed over again and again revelations. However, the movie is not meant to be breaking cinematic ground. The movie is meant to put a new face on already trod upon territory, much the same way that Whedon’s Avengers did. My beef with that sort of criticism is that it applies a Film Criticism outlook on something that is, most assuredly, not going to win the Sundance Film Festival.

On the flip side of this is a TV show that aired in ’90 and ’91: Twin Peaks. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, the show uses the murder of a teenager as a springboard to introduce the overall weird into a soap opera context. The show, I think, has two parts to it. The soul and the skin.

Let’s first take a look at what I think of as the soul of the show. Debuting on ABC at a time where TV wasn’t smeared with heavy-handed (yet well-written) prestige TV, the show had some incredibly bizarre and harrowing moments. It deals with rape, murder, envy, childhood molestation, and the inner demons of what we think of as normal, safe people. Yeah, you could see things like this on TV today – take a look at AMC’s lineup for a cable example, and HBO for premium – but the true hint of what the show really is comes into play in the vision aspect, which is most prominent in the episodes where Lynch is at the helm.

In these episodes, where entities speak in bizarre, quasi-backwards speech, where time stands still in red velvet-draped rooms, and kindly men are very insistent that you drink your warm milk before it goes cool, we’re treated to a dreamscape unlike anything on TV. See, TV is not film. TV cannot be film. TV is ubiquitous. It is the stuff of watercooler discussions in offices worldwide. TV is exported wholesale. If you, as an American, go to Europe, you can be safely assured that Friends or Frasier will be on TV. (If you go to Lebanon, Seinfeld. They seem to like Seinfeld in Lebanon.) In order to be ubiquitous, and in order to communicate even the most basic of messages, TV must speak on certain wavelengths: Romance, low-level intrigue, murder, and a good hint of not-quite-shown-but-more-than-hinted-at sex (yadda yadda yadda) are the lynchpins of a successful show because they’re – by and large – things producers and writers can count on as being accessible to a wide range of people. Film, though, has more freedom by the sheer fact that not all film is Hollywood. Anyone who says that it is, is probably also under the impression that all comics are Marvel/DC, or that all video games are Call of Duty. Every national tradition has this duality in film: Commercial and “art house.” You’ll find the more banal in commercial, stuff ranging from The Avengers to Michael Bay’s Transformers, but in the art house is where you find the interesting, the non-pop, the bit more of freedom.

(Assuming I want to be hand-wavy, dismissive, and make a wide, general statement – which I kinda do –  we’ll say that there doesn’t have to be as much hugging and learning in art house.)

The art house, at least as far as I think of it, isn’t really concerned with making millions, or turning the one-off into a series, or milking something for everything it’s worth. When you don’t have that concern, you’re more able to act in a way that pleases you, the creator, and thus, allows you to create something that’s more personal and means more – not necessarily to a wide swath of humanity, but to those who get it.

The heart and soul of Twin Peaks, the episodes where Special Agent Dale Cooper, the Palmers, and Windom Earle, are visited by entities in visions, live in the art house. These episodes are helmed by Lynch, and one or two other episode directors who were on the same wavelength as Lynch as to the heart and soul of the series. And, as you might expect from the guy who brought you Eraserhead, there’s a lot of weirdness. True weirdness, mind you. Not that brand of weird that’s more randomness aping Monty Python – or Lynch. The weird, as Lynch understands, is the sublimely unnatural forcing itself onto the natural. It’s those moments that bring out what I think of as true horror: That idea that there is something deeply wrong with the world, and that there is absolutely nothing will stop that wrongness from slithering out.

But the thing – the unique thing – about Twin Peaks is that it brought that weirdness to TV, instead of allowing it to fester on film. It did so, though, in an immensely enjoyable way: It magnified soap opera melodrama and forced it back on its viewers, becoming the skin of the show. One question that a critic brought up about the show was that viewers at the time were trying to figure out just what it was that they were watching. One critic suggested that it was pretentious of Lynch and Frost to say that they were not making a detective show. And there’s a little truth to that, because the core of the show revolves around Cooper’s investigation of the murder of Laura Palmer. But the critic got it wrong: The show is not a detective show. It’s a representation of nightmares birthed out of horrible occurrences: Chiefly, murder and molestation.

The show lives on TV, and in doing so, it presents its soap opera face. Think about it, we’ve got conniving businessmen, people who are not what they seem, more extramarital affairs in the show than there are cast members, and, yes, this fact is telegraphed by the first season’s sub-show, Invitation to Love declaring plot points minutes or scenes before they happen. Both the first season and the second season have so much soap opera plotting going on that it’s similar to learning not to smoke by being forced to smoke a carton of cigarettes in one go. And, yes, this does mean that at times the show is gratingly slow or bafflingly frustrating, but that’s more proof to the fact that it’s actually art-masquerading-as-pop.

A quick note: There’s going to be spoilers from here on out. Yes. This is a spoiler warning for a twenty five year-old show. The Internet made me do it.

To marry our two statements above, I’d like to put this forward: If we’re looking at the show, then the heart is BOB, and the skin is Leland Palmer. Palmer is the socially-acceptable, presentable, likeable, mass appeal of the show, and BOB is the nightmare lurking at the heart of it; the reason that it is the way it is. Just as Palmer is a mover and shaker in the town, and is not what he seems, the Lynch aspect of the show is the true heart of it – that portion of the show that makes it so memorable, and what makes it still present in the cultural memory and makeup, twenty five years after it aired.

But then we run into a problem: If we’re looking at something that’s supposed to focus on the weird and nightmarish, then why is so much of the second season given over to the mundane and the soap opera? Well, there is no defending James Hurley. The character is Mr. Pout, and he inevitably ruins every scene he’s in past the point where BOB kills Maddy. I’d like to be able to say something about how James and his storyline are representations of such and such, and how that means this or that, but, frankly, the only thing I can say about his character is that he is a one-note riff on the James Dean tough guy image that should have been kept to a minimum. Just bad writing and direction whenever his storyline takes center stage.

But! Beyond that splotch on the show, the mundane and the soap opera, as mentioned before, is Lynch being Lynch. He is, in fact, giving the viewer what he wants: TV that he has seen before, and will continue to see after this show is gone. And, as the show moves from telegraphing plot points from a soap opera, that mentality is moved from TVs within the show to actions on the show. Characters begin speaking in non-Lynchian. They act like you’d expect from a network show – granted, with a bit more blood and oddness thrown on, but the core, the melodrama of the 90s drama, is still right there on the facade. Josie Packard acts just like a widow of a wealthy industrialist would do on TV; Ben Horne is as much as a snivelling greedy bastard as can be (until he goes insane, at which point, Jakoby is a cliched shrink babbling pseudo-Freud); and teenagers are teenagers. The mundane is forced on the viewer, much like BOB forcing himself on the Palmers.

The practical reason for the middle episodes – from BOB finally showing himself in Leland to, I’d argue, Annie’s appearance in Twin Peaks – being farmed out to other directors (like Diane Keaton!) was that Lynch had other commitments to work on. However, assuming we buy the idea that these episodes are meant to forcefeed soap operas until the viewer cannot take it anymore, then it works. Can you imagine Lynch trying to make James’s storyline work? There would have been giants and turkey babies all over the place. While there’s little memorable in this portion of the series, it’s important to remember that a facet of Twin Peaks is throwing the cultural phenomenon of pop TV back at the viewer. Thus, potentially, having the godawful James storyline play out over so many episodes, is incredibly important. Even though it may be incredibly painful to watch.

The importance of all of this, and the reason I’m writing this thing in the first place, is that while the show happened on network TV, referenced pop culture, and, indeed, became ingrained in pop culture it is nowhere near pop culture. This is why a lot of people have some problems handling the more melodramatic aspects of the show, and why they seem to fall flat. You can only keep up a ruse for so long. Even BOB couldn’t keep from making Leland dance like a bad ventriloquist act.

Again, because I get accused of being an elitist a lot, there is nothing wrong with a show being pop culture. And if pop culture is your thing, then that’s fantastic. And if you want to deconstruct pop culture, then that’s fantastic. However, that doesn’t mean that just because something puts on the mask of being pop culture, that it is pop culture. A further two metaphors: Just because something appears on The Simpsons doesn’t mean it’s pop, and just because you appear to have a very affable and friendly lawyer doesn’t mean you don’t have an otherworldy, demonic, murderer-rapist spirit on your hands.

The TV show is not what it seems.