Friday, October 10, 2008

Jill Duffy on Twin Peaks and the Serial TV Show Format

[New Guest Blogger Jill Duffy (girl reporter) started Netflix-ing Twin Peaks, and had a few things to say about the pilot. Someone needs to write a book about the development of television, especially the development of the narrative arc growing from the episode to the season to the series. Twin Peaks would be an important part of that story, I think.]

Twin Peaks, the cult hit television show from David Lynch and Mark Frost, opens as a murder mystery. High school teen homecoming queen Laura Palmer washes up dead, wrapped tightly and neatly in plastic, on a small strip of shore outside a log mill.

In the course of the pilot episode (which ran for two hours when it aired in 1990, with commercials, or about an hour and a half on DVD, which is how I watched it), we're given a surprising amount of information. It's the pilot for a murder mystery, and yet we know:

• Laura Palmer is dead and was murdered
• Where the murder took place
• Laura led a secret life
• Laura was being treated by a psychiatrist
• The FBI agent sent to investigate has information that the sheriff doesn't
• A girl from another town (Teresa Banks) was murdered under very similar conditions
• Another woman was presumably abducted alongside Laura, but was not successfully killed
• At least two of Laura's close friends know something related to Laura's death that they are hiding from the investigators.

For a mystery, that's a lot of information to give away in the pilot episode for a show.

What's more, Twin Peaks debuted in 1990, before serial television programming as we know it was established. At the time, it was in a network's best interest to sign new shows that would be on the air for as long as possible, or at least several years. How did anyone plan to accomplish that with a murder mystery, especially one that shows the scene of the crime in the very first episode? It's a little bit baffling that the show was ever given the green light. (The Wikipedia entry for Twin Peaks gives an overview of how it happened, but not in great detail.)

Twin Peaks ran just two seasons in 1990 and 1991. The murder is actually solved (or as much as one can expect it to be "solved" under the direction of Lynch) mid-way through season two; around the same time, viewers lost interest and the show's rating declined. It was Lynch's intent to continue the program by exploring the characters and their mysterious town, which by many accounts is the main character.

Had Twin Peaks debuted 10 or 15 years later than it had, it might have had a better run. It wasn't until the late 1990s that television network executives, and show creators and writers, started toying with the way they air television. By now, viewers are used to shows that have a pre-determined number of episodes or seasons. In 2000, Survivor had to have an ending. We know when Lost will have its last cliffhanger. And neither The Wire nor Sopranos would go on forever. 1999's Freaks and Geeks was canceled after 12 episodes, but has a wonderfully crafted ending, leaving the series feeling complete.

Had Lynch had this finite serial format in place, he might have been able to better map out the murder mystery that was Twin Peaks and kept the show alive for four or five seasons, rather than watch it come apart at the seams (from the network executives' point of view at least) after one and half. In that sense, the show was too ahead of its time.

[Chuck Barris, creator of the Gong Show and self-confessed CIA hitman, once said that he considered being ahead of his time to be a mistake equal to being behind the times.]

[Update: I originally attributed that claim to Chuck Barry and Scott pointed out that I meant Chuck Barris. For the record I do not know for a fact that Chuck Barry did not say that. ]


Curtis P. Whitacre said...

My girlfriend and I started rewatching Twin Peaks in its entirety about six months ago. While the series definitely spins its wheels for quite some time in the second season, I think it holds up very well (I'd argue that it has aged better than The X-Files).

I know this is random, but I'd love to see Jill (or someone) do an episode by episode analysis of the program, much like Jason is doing with Claremont's X-Men run.

scott91777 said...

That's Chuck Barris, Geoff... Chuck Berry wrote "Johnny B. Goode" what is it with you of the spelling for proper names? Chris Clairemont? Neal Gaiman? tsk tsk :)

Marc Caputo said...

What's even more astonishing is how even after the "debacle" that TP became as a TV show that needed, you know, good ratings, Lynch and ABC hooked up for 'Mulholland Drive', which became a movie that was cobbled together from the remains of a failed TV series.

It shows how far TV (and ABC) had come, that they would willingly get under the covers with Lynch again.

It also shows how far Lynch had come that he was still ahead of what TV could handle.

It also shows how frakkin' oblivious people are when buzz is in their ears.

Todd C. Murry said...

Great point about TP possibly surviving if it were to air today after the X-Files taught audiences you could wait the whole lifetime of a show to get certain answers… I’d never really thought of it that way before. I still think the show could have survived when it was on, but the crucial mistake was not having a competent show-runner overseeing the show while Lynch and Frost were off distracted with other things (Wild at Heart, mostly, but also other TV projects in development).

I hear that the writing staff had an extremely uncomfortable time in the later 2nd season as Lynch and Frost weren’t there, and only they knew the plan. The result was a lot of closed plotlines that didn’t affect anything (the David Duchovney transvestite plot, the Billy Zane love interest plot, the daddy Horne thinks it’s the Civil War plot, the Lucy’s baby plot, and, perhaps worst of all, the James goes to the manor house plot). There was some really killer stuff in season 2 after Laura’s murder was solved, but it was all in the Lynch directed efforts. I think the final episode is just about the best hour of TV ever produced, even though it ends the series on a cliffhanger.

If a decision maker were present, I think the show could have made it.

I’d love to read (or write) an analysis of the development of TV drama narrative paradigms, tracing through all the big game changers like Hill Street Blues, Babylon 5, Buffy, et al. I just have no conceptualization of the development before 1980, or so.

Josh Lawrence said...

I remember reading that Lynch actually would've liked to draw out the mystery indefinitely, and was forced by executives to reveal the killer. For him, the characters and the collision of rustic quirky/dark surreal was the show's core, instead of the murder mystery.

I agree that a pre-determined number of episodes could have allowed for a more coherent plan and a compromise that could have satisfied both him and the execs/audience. A large portion of the audience had seen the weirdness as spice for the whodunit instead of the main course, and stopped tuning in after the killer was revealed.

I love the final, super, bizarre episode, though, and the movie 'prequel' - Fire Walk with Me. That's the kind of stuff Lynch probably would have continued doing as long as possible, left to his own devices.

It's worth noting that Fire Walk with Me starts with a TV being smashed with an axe, which some have taken as unsubtle commentary. ;)

Todd C. Murry said...

Weird fact I always think about - Two of Twin Peaks directors are both fathers of currently famous acting siblings (and have hard to spell names) - Stephen Gyllenhaal and Caleb Deschanel. Diane Keaton Directed at least one episode.

I agree - the movie, while kind of cooly received at the time, is truly awesome. I hope they release the original (40 minute longer) cut someday (I've read transcriptions of the edited material, and it seems hilarious - we would get tons more Kiefer). The Bowie stuff alone...

Geoff Klock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Klock said...

I deleted my comment because it totally spoils the very end. But to be more vague: the show does not end on a cliffhanger. It ends like lost highway ends -- at the beginning.

Curt said...

If any one thing was responsible for Twin Peak's demise, it would have to be the aforementioned "James goes to the manor house" plot. The very thought of that story line still makes me cringe.

Incidentally, the original screenplay for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is certainly worth a read. As originally envisioned, that film worked as both a prequel and a sequel to the originally series in a chillingly effective way.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Josh- you're completely correct. The series was not, for Lynch, at all about the murder mystery. The show came at the tail end of the 80s night time soap boom and was intended both be Lynch's take on that, and a bit of a pastiche as well (that's clearer in season 1, I think, with the Invitation to Love show-within-the-show). Wanting to see Twin Peaks done in a post-Whedon, season storyline style is missing a lot of the point.

Geoff- it does and doesn't end like Lost Highway. The perception that Fire Walk With Me is a prequel is part of the problem, it's not, which is alot clearer if you've read the script that was floating around on some TP fan sites at one point.

FWWM is actually a bit of a capstone, locking things into a bit of a LH-esque loop. It's only really clear that this is what's going in the film when Annie, post the final episodes, bleeds into the past and appears in Laura's bed. Cooper's appearences in Laura's dreams though also probably are an instance of the future and past blending together, based on the scripted ending which at least partially resolved the cliffhanger from the finale (it's been awhile since I've read it).

Jason said...

" Chuck Barris, creator of the Gong Show and self-confessed CIA hitman, once said that he considered being ahead of his time to be a mistake equal to being behind the times. I originally attributed that claim to Chuck Barry and Scott pointed out that I meant Chuck Barris. For the record I do not know for a fact that Chuck Barry did not say that."

Chuck Barry said it, but he was just quoting something he heard second-hand from Marty McFly (who knew how difficult it is to be ahead of the times).

Stefan Delatovic said...

Oh Geoff I'd be really interested to hear your take on the end of Fire Walk With Me and its timebending properties.

Think you could send it to , or maybe a spoiler post?

Despite my TP love, I've never thought about the film that way.

Marc Caputo said...

I have all the eps on DVD with the pilot and FWWM, and watched them last year. Doesn't the film actually end with the whole narrative's end, Cooper older, having triumphed over whatever was going on in the last series episode, and redeeming Laura Palmer into heaven?

Also, when I did a rewatch, I realized that in the second season:

1. The Windham Earle plotline, which was aiming to be the next 'deep' mystery, starts pretty early, IIRC, even overlapping the LP murder.

2. The ratio of 'good' subplots to 'bad' was still 2:1. Yes, there was a lot of strange things going on, but that was the point. TP was supposed to be this strange and wonderful place, with all sorts of weird things going on.

Marc Caputo said...

Also, isn't the dream sequence from episode 2 one of THE most disturbing things ever on TV, if not film? And what KILLS it for me, even with 3,000 other freaky things going on?

That handkerchief thing that floats past the red curtain in the background.

And, is this the type of book that people are talking about wanting to read -

I've been meaning to get to this - maybe I will now.

scott91777 said...

Well Chuck Berry (with an E) was kind of ahead of his time... he was basically the R. Kelly of his day... or rather R. Kelly is the Chuck Berry of our day.

Geoff Klock said...

I am an idiot and I kind of confused things: the SERIES -- not FIRE WALK WITH ME -- ends like lost highway does, back at the beginning.

jen said...

"Someone needs to write a book about the development of television, especially the development of the narrative arc growing from the episode to the season to the series."

See Glen Creeber's Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen (BFI, 2004) which, of course, has quite a bit about TP.