That Gum You Like is Going to Come Back in Style: TV in the wake of Twin Peaks - Cayley James
That Gum You Like is Going to Come Back in Style: TV in the wake of Twin Peaks
Back in February Amy Roberts and I were invited to Newcastle to talk about Fire Walk With Me as part of Northern Film Media’s “Painting in Perpetual Motion: Art, Film, TV and David Lynch” series. Upon meeting we quickly realized that we had far more to say on the topic of Lynch and his idiosyncratic explorations of narrative then was reasonable for a post-screening discussion.
We reconvened, fortuitously it would seem, just days before Lynch announced that he was pulling out from Season 3 of Twin Peaks on Showtime. Much of what we had sought to discuss was audience participation, cults of pop culture and how that impacts the life of a show and the creative process.
It’s no surprise that Lynch announced his departure on that 21st century soapbox otherwise known as Twitter. It seems incredibly knowing and in the ensuing weeks there has been a rather enthusiastic call for Lynch to stay. Including the somewhat surreal video made by the original cast - some of whom were in character - pondering what Twin Peaks could possibly be without David Lynch?
So on the heels of the screening of Fire Walk With Me at the Star and Shadow Cinema where we explored multiple narratives and the connection between the show and the feature film with artist Toby Phips Lloyd - Amy and I dug deeper into the dynamic of prestige and trash, serial tropes and the future of televisual storytelling.
- Cayley James
Photo: ABC/Richard Beymer
Cayley: One of the things I’ve been completely fascinated by since our discussion at the Star and Shadow was Lynch’s weaving of multiple narratives into his work. Now with internet culture having such an active part in film and tv I’ve been thinking about with the new series of Twin Peaks coming out how much of his work do you think is being geared towards fans than anything else?
Amy: Well I think it’s the same with a lot of shows, like the X-Files coming back. I think the only reason that these shows are able to come back is because of the fans. The creative teams behind the shows don’t really have much of a choice they have to pay attention to the conversations that are happening online within the fan culture. Online fandom rules how TV is constructed these days. Audiences are incredibly powerful but David Lynch however has never struck me as the type of person who wouldn’t let the power of the audience dictate where the stories were going. Even when productions are getting made based on algorithms and knowing exactly what audiences want.
C: But there’s something happening more and more with TV and that’s this inverted conversation. Shows have become less about creating its own universe and commenting on the commentary around the show. This is especially relevant in “zeitgeisty” shows like GIRLS this season. But Lynch’s track record as a director has activey pushed against that - where does this new season fit into that? How can he reconcile the superficial appreciation of his work in this “reblogging culture” and the deeper more analytical side of the universe he’s crafted?
A: I think now with the mythology of Twin Peaks and the whole 25 year delay that David Lynch has had this in the back of his mind that it was an extended narrative that would return after 25 years and re-enter our lives and finish off the story. It’s not just a reboot like “Melrose Place”or “90210”- I’d like to say that Lynch was again smart enough to see where the internet was going as far as the exchange of creative ideas was concerned. From how he promoted his album Crazy Clown Time on Youtube to something like Dumbland, which was a very rough set of cartoons about a stupid, white trash man which he originally only made available to watch on his own website. So as much as Twin Peaks has been stripped of a lot of its context and has been appropriated by the visual culture of social media like “Tumblr”, I still think that internet culture has helped to perpetuate it's success and maintain its relevance: even if it does feel like a bunch of teenagers simply worshipping Audrey Horne's sense of style.
Photo: David Lynch/Asymetrical Productions
C: Yeah and this was my problem with Lynch in the beginning before I knew his work, before I realized the themes and genres he was working in, I was really annoyed by the way people regaled his work in a purely aesthetic way. And for people who just like the look of Audrey Horne’s costumes or the art direction without any engagement in the narrative, substance is done away with in this context-less visual culture of the internet. I mean that’s my snobby cinephile reading of it but if the fan landscape has changed and is fuelling this reboot in a different way what is that going to mean for the final product.
A: I get where you’re coming from with that. I was talking about the Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse trilogy with friends the other day and how it has become this very iconic work on tumblr but how no one seem to understand how absolutely rubbish they are. I mean, I love them visually and watch them with the sound off in the background because the costumes and mise en scene are astounding but everything else is just awful. And there definitely is this completely superficial appreciation of culture on sites like Tumblr which is changing how we discuss and appreciate work, but with Twin Peaks whilst people can definitely be drawn in by its aesthetics, I think younger generations are still appreciating culture visually and then analytically. I mean, Twin Peaks isn't something you can 'enjoy' on a purely aesthetic level. Its oddball and disturbing, you either understand it and adore it, or you don't and despise it. There's no middle ground.
C: But Lynch set the bar so high for the first generation of “prestige” series … and we’ve been riding this 25 year wave of Twin Peaks influence. Yet so many show runners and producers don’t seem to be as ambitious anymore in taking real chances in their storytelling. Do you think maybe with Lynch’s return to TV he’s going to make post-television television?
A: I’ve been thinking, and this is going off track a little bit, but how you mentioned before that TV has become something of a commentary on commentary - I feel like we’re going back to that part of the 90s right after Twin Peaks when you had this weird thing happen when pop culture became incredibly meta. You had the Scream movies and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and even something like The OC which had 'The Valley' - a teen show within a teen show which was a parody of itself and its audience. It was when the internet started to become this place where people could discuss TV shows on forums and show runners definitely used those fan conversations as a way to navigate the stories. So where Twin Peaks actively worked against audience expectations a lot of television shows just seemed to play into what people wanted.
C: That self-referential and self-conscious storytelling is just running dry. Often in the first seasons of things like Girls or Mad Men there is something very exciting and experimental where they approach serial storytelling…
Very free story telling! Like it was exciting because you genuinely felt like you didn't know where those stories were going. But in our culture of recaps and analysis the show started to be made for that audience and almost exclusively for that culture.
A: Mad Men just started to believe its own mythology. Rather than making the show wanted to it became the show we expected it to be.
Exactly. I remember getting really angry at one point where Megan wears a shirt similar to something Sharon Tate wore and then there were tons of references to the Manson murders and there was this prattle on the internet about whether the character was going to get killed off and it just felt like this banal reference was put in there to get people talking about the show but not deliver on any of it.
Photo: AMC and William Helburn/Corbis
C: It feels like these shows slip into becoming a parody of themselves. Which is why I’m so excited to see this new series of Twin Peaks and see how Lynch will rise above or supersede this self-referential culture and for all intents and purposes ignore audience expectations. Because of the relationship with the fans you don’t want to give the audience what they want. In just pandering, you’re going to inevitably lose them.
A: Risk taking in television is key. That’s why something like Grey’s Anatomy has been able to survive for as long as it has. Every character is fair game.
C: That element of surprise and the infusion of the silliness of soap operas and other genre immersions is what I found so captivating with Lynch’s storytelling in Twin Peaks. Its unexpectedness is what has made it timeless.
A: That’s what made it so popular. Because it appeals to a wider audience than it becomes known for. It can appeal to people who are into high art, a good soap opera or genre fans. It’s very smart in that way and it would benefit a lot of show runners to notice how they could mix their genres as opposed to being locked into a single track. I’ve been watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and there’s something going on, so much that isn’t explained but is really ambitious and they’re just going for it. Although it’s something that no one has asked for.
C: Yes! I agree. I was reading a review of it from the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum and to paraphrase her but it’s a case study of trauma. Despite dealing with issues around emotional abuse and PTSD there is a zany Three’s Company screwball sweetness to the show. It’s doing something along the lines of what Twin Peaks did but with more laughs.
A: The combination of elements doesn’t make sense on paper but when mixed together correctly it’s so refreshing.
C: The shows that remain in the cultural memory are like alchemists. Mixing disparate parts to create something new and engage in a conversation that holds a mirror up to society. In the case of Kimmy Schmidt female trauma and feminism is a hot topic and the show is engaging with it in an incredibly original one.
A: And one that is very accessible and easy way.
C: No one wants to make fun of cults. No one wants to make jokes about murdered women (in the case of Twin Peaks) but at the same time the seeds of these shows are successful because of their absurdity. The humour in Twin Peaks is so refreshing because it adds buoyancy to the tragedy. It doesn’t handle the tragedy with kid gloves.
Cayley James is a writer and film festival programmer based in Glasgow. You can follow her on twitter: @cayleybjames
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