This was originally going to be a post about my finishing the first season of The Leftovers. I liked it more than a lot of critics, and production-wise it’s one of the best looking shows on TV. But once again I was struck by how similar, stylistically and thematically, “quality TV” dramas are. In an early draft I talked at length about Twin Peaks, and just this past week it was announced that, true to Laura Palmer’s word, that show was returning 25 years later. The focus of this post has since shifted from being about the limitations of contemporary quality TV to examining what Twin Peaks did that challenge contemporary attempts of “serious” television art. That the return of Twin Peaks is not an exercise in nostalgia, but rather David Lynch returning to a medium he helped shape, that he has artistic and a spiritual interest in, in order to pointedly ask “why haven’t you really done anything new in 25 years?”
First, by quality TV I am using the (somewhat contested) TV studies term used to describe TV shows (almost exclusively dramas, and mostly cable dramas) that want to be taken more seriously than other non-quality shows. In many ways Twin Peaks is the key series in the development of the modern quality television drama (no show has ever really carried the torch from the other landmark TV as art series, The Prisoner). But the problem has been that while shows have borrowed liberally from the structural and to a lesser extent the thematic content of Twin Peaks (basically every other drama in the past few years has been how a murder/disappearance/reappearance exposes the skeletons in the closet of a small town) none have been as stylistically or tonally adventurous.
Philosopher Stanley Cavell, in his book The World Viewed, explained why (to him) contemporary art films look the same. And quality television has largely emulated those very same art films for their visual style (or perhaps more correctly, the contemporary crop of art cinema that are derived from these earlier waves). Cavell wrote that:
When a film deliberately avoids cinematic traditions in an effort to modernize its looks, it is likely to run up against a problem quite unforeseen in what we had experienced of film’s possibilities…indistinctiveness…featurelessness. (70)
Cavell saw these films as a refusal of a cinematic tradition. While for him, the quality of a film was proportional to how much it interacted with cinema’s “lower,” traditions:
The better a film, the more it makes contact with this source of its inspiration; it never wholly loses touch with the magic lantern behind it (59)
I believe the refusal of its traditions is the problem with contemporary quality television: it refuses to acknowledge the primordial traditions of television. Reacting against tradition is one thing, and a defining feature of most modernist movements. The opening of Bergman’s Persona is a perfect example of a modernist art film exploring its medium’s history and traditions But ignoring it is something else entirely.
Much of Cavell’s thinking, in this respect, is founded on the writings on cinema by German art historian Erwin Panofsky in the 1930’s. Panofksy was similarly concerned with tradition at work in cinema. For him, cinema was a new art that revitalized older, vulgar, or common traditions:
The legitimate paths of evolution were opened, not by running away from the folk art character of the primitive film but by developing it within the limits of its own possibilities. Those primordial archetypes of film productions on the folk art level-success or retribution, sentiment, sensation, pornography, and crude humor–could blossom forth into genuine history, tragedy and romance, crime and adventure, and comedy, as soon as it was realized that they could be transfigured–not by an artificial injection of literary values but by the exploitation of the unique and specific possibilities of the new medium (in Braudy/Cohen 7th Edition, 249).
In early cinema going these traditions can be found in the reliance on short scenes of violence, sport, soft-core porn, slapstick, etc. Cinema was built on older forms, namely vaudeville, carnivals, Wild West shows and other forms of popular (lower class) entertainment. Initially film was the medium of the poor and the working class, the immigrants, and other characters that the upper classes viewed with suspicion. It is far too simplistic to attribute the changes in film types and presentation to the domestication of the medium by the middle and upper classes, but at the same time it was an incredibly important development in the young form.
What would the primordial traditions of television be? What traditions are contemporary television running away from to the detriment of television as a developing narrative art form? First and foremost is the crass commercialization of television. TV has commercial; it wants to sell you things. Second, seriality. In order to sell you things, TV needed to bring you back each week (“same Bat time, same Bat channel”). Yet, at the same time things needed to be neatly resolved in 20 or 44 minutes.
Third, TV had a more intimate mode of address. TV talked to you. You watched it in your home. It was part of your family.
Fourth, Flow. Networks wanted to keep you watching. The experience of TV was not watching discrete programs but in experiencing the flow or procession of many programs, commercials, specials, movies, etc.
Ironically, if you consider the most adventurous TV shows, stylistically and thematically, of the past 20 they all aired on network TV: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development, and yes, Twin Peaks. Even today, Hannibal, the most stylistically avant-garde and challenging show on TV, airs on beleaguered NBC. Unlike network TV, pay cable assumes an audience will pay for what they can’t see elsewhere. But does this mean that perhaps audiences are paying for only what they know they want to see or have seen elsewhere?
It should also be noted that all of these are genre shows (sure, the detective show is a genre but these shows worked in genres that were on the lower rungs of respectability: horror, sci-fi, sitcom). The French New Wavers in large part built their concept of film by extolling the virtues of auteurs who were largely genre directors who were able to transcend the expected limitations and formulas by their singular visions. Perhaps the problem with quality TV is that we haven’t properly considered or seen genre auteurs. Perhaps the idea that on pay TV you don’t have any limitations is counterintuitively allowing for a limited view of what TV can be; Instead of David Fincher remaking House of Cards we needed him to do a stint on NCIS (I think it’s important to point out that Tarantino’s TV work was a two-parter of CSI. Also, Steven Soderburgh’s The Knick is either an exception to the rule, it is very much his on approach to familiar material [and Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic electronic score is one of the best things about TV right now] or evidence for a counter-argument tho this paragraph). Because The X-Files could rely on it’s monster of the week episodes it was able to challenge its tropes, deconstruct itself, and do some incredibly adventurous episodes.
Seriality seems to be the attribute contemporary shows are the most afraid of continuing. Quality shows are now just movies cut into 7-13 parts (does 7 episodes really even count as a series?). Binge watching may be vogue but it changes drastically the experience of watching TV. Mark Frost, the co-creator/producer of Twin Peaks recently gave this as the very reason that the show is airing on Showtime and not Netflix:
I know there’s been this whole emphasis on binge watching — and a lot of people have done that to our show — but I think when you’re unveiling hours, there’s something to be said for spacing it out. Give people a chapter at a time, instead of the whole book. Contemporary quality dramas, and even comedy shows take a cold, distant approach, as far from the personal interaction of crass commercial television as possible.
Just as Cavell described the refusal of art cinema to recognize its traditions caused films to start feeling the same and impersonal, so too does Frost see television, deprived of its traditional, commercial relationship with its audience, as becoming cold, and distant.
Thinking of TV as only discrete units limits the carnivalesque and aleatory quality of live TV. A commercial can change, accidentally comment, or challenge something seen in the program proper. A series of programs might build upon each other in unexpected or interesting ways.
While contemporary quality TV tries to minimize or run from these traditions, Twin Peaks embraced television’s folk art elements. To quote Panofsky, Twin Peaks “transfigured” those traditions in order to explore “the unique and specific possibilities of the new medium.”
Throughout Twin Peaks its characters watch a cheesy soap opera called Invitation to Love. The show within a show isn’t solely a parody of melodramatic soap operas, or perhaps even a parody at all. It serves as something of a Greek chorus commenting on the characters and their actions and reminding us, the viewers (in an intimate way) that we are only watching an iteration of a soap opera. Lynch is making sure that we know his show is tied to the “embarrassing” traditions of television.
This isn’t exactly or only parody and not exactly kitsch. It is like the bird at the end of Blue Velvet, which is in some ways the Rosetta Stone for how one reads David Lynch’s filmography.
Is it an earnest, technicolor expression of the triumph of true love over evil (thematically the last scene of True Detective)? Or a cynical critique that the suburban status quo is still corrupt, and any potential attempt to fix its problems is just as empty as this fake bird? I prefer the first reading. I believe that Lynch’s transcendental signifiers are those larger-than-life stars of classic Hollywood. That, yes, we may get lost attempting to inhabit them (Mulholland Dr.) but ultimately it is in that inhabitation, in performance that transcendence occurs. Performance is central both to Lynch’s vision of hell, Ben’s lip-syncing to “In Dreams” at his place in Blue Velvet, and heaven, the lip-synced “Sinnerman” at the end of his magnum opus, INLAND EMPIRE.
David Lynch is invested in the folk art, in melodrama (using here the film rather than the theater definition) and soap operas on a spiritual level. INLAND EMPIRE is about the production of a film version of the longest running radio show. A melodrama which has made it’s way from medium to medium: phonograph, radio, movies, TV. Why are melodrama’s important? They are tied to something ancient, something universal. In the case of this film, the story is tied to a Polish folk tale and a curse. And it is only through engaging with this text, on the part of actor and viewer, that Laura Dern’s character is able to be born, be reborn, and ultimately gain transcendence. Lynch finds in melodrama a corollary for our spiritual existence; an embodiment of action, movement, and redemption.
For Lynch, these “lower forms” have value because they have survived so long. They are ancient and that suggests there is something essential about them. He also seems to be interested in extreme states, and these approaches lend themselves to these. Here is a scene from Twin Peaks that is a classic sitcom situation played in the same broad manner as any run-of-the-mill TV show comedy would play it:
Both this kind of comedy and melodrama rely on pathos. In both the case of the wronged or spurned lover or the pathetic clown we are presented with a heightened mode or presentation that illuminates certain aspects about humanity and the human condition. Just as both Lynch and Cavell see a kind of redemption at work in melodrama, they also see redemption at work in comedy. Cavell writes of Buster Keaton:
[the visible nature of film] permit not merely the locales of Keaton’s extrications, but the philosophical mood of his countenance and the Olympic resourcefulness of his body; permit him to be perhaps the only constantly beautiful and continuously hilarious man ever seen, as though the ugliness in laughter should be redeemed (37).
In other words, because we laugh at Keaton’s remarkable survival in the face of absurd and frightening facets of modern life, an aspect of life, or humanity, is redeemed in the ability to laugh in these instances.
While comedy has largely been, until all too recently, a male-dominated form, what is interesting is that melodrama and in particular television melodrama has been considered a women’s form. In part this sexist view has led to it being less valued. It may also explain why quality TV focuses so much on male anti-heroes who have a crisis of their masculine identities. But revisiting the moment of redemption, the heaven in INLAND EMPIRE, we find it inhabited not just by women, but by (failed) actresses.
Failed or washed up actors or past their prime actors leads me to one potential place where Twin Peaks aesthetic has lived on, an avant-garde program that has perhaps fully embraced the dregs of televisual tradition more than any other. I’m talking about the related works in Tim and Eric’s related shows within the Channel 5 network:
Tim and Eric base their shows upon two of the most derided attributes of TV: commercialism (to the point that Tim and Eric have no problem doing sports for Vodka, Old Spice, or Light Bulbs, and it should be noted that Lynch has also been a prolific commercial director) and flow. Each episode of one of their shows simulates flow, and in large part much of the comedy comes from flow exceeding any coherent bounds. Their sensibility is informed not by European cinema but cable access programs. And yet, their show seems to achieve a vision and spirit that is more in line with modernist avant-garde theorists and provocateurs than what we would call “art” cinema or its TV equivalent. Their most recent series, Bedtime Stories, is their first foray into what would be considered traditional narrative and it is modeled after two other “lesser” forms of TV: the anthology horror series and the movie of the week.
As seen from the clip above, Tim and Eric, like Lynch, enjoy viewing extreme emotional states right up against each other. In Tom Goes to the Mayor, the episode “Puddins” is a surprisingly affecting exploration of grief, and the “Life and Death” episode of Check it out (The AV Club devotes a large portion of its review talking about it’s Lynchian-ness) is full of startling juxtapositions of horror, sweetness, and sadness.
Tim and Eric are fond of using non-traditional television personalities. Of note, here is that they also use Twin Peaks star Ray Wise for pretty much the same reason David Lynch did: to showcase the child star after Hollywood is through with him:
While it may not have been the most successful or widely loved Adult Swim show, Tim and Eric’s approach appears to have modeled much of Cartoon Network’s new slate of programming (even the sweet and least surreal of these, Clarence, shouts out to the Pumpers sketch in its opening credits). Perhaps the most adventurous program on television right now is Cartoon Network’s flagship show, Adventure Time. It’s the network’s strangest show, and interestingly enough also it’s most profitable with an ever-increasing line of merchandize. It is also a show that mixes genres, tones, and plays with the medium while still referencing it’s neglected traditions. It isn’t quite as Lynchian as Tim and Eric, but a connection can be made (the surreal sensibilities connected by some fan art by Kate Wallert. You can see more related mash-us by other fans here).
The connection to televisual traditions isn’t as based on aesthetics or style as Twin Peaks or Tim and Eric. Visually, Adventure Time is indebted more to Anime, Graphic Novels, and 8-bit video games. But thematically, the show holds a special place for watching TV, and older forms of commercial mass entertainment and cultural consumption (there’s a whole other article about nostalgia in both Adventure Time and Regular Show, but what will suffice here is how it presents classic, network television). We can’t forget that a major character is essential an anthropomorphized Gameboy or that in Ooo, our commercial trash and pop-culture byproducts take on mystic or religious significance.
The development of the Ice King from shrill, chaotic force and pseudo0villain to the most tragic figure on television has been one of the major developments in the show’s maturation. In the episode “Simon and Marcy,” The Ice King, in a scene reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road, pretends to watch TV in order to comfort his sick and worried traveling companion:
Later, Simon must reluctantly use the powers of his Ice Crown to protect Marcy from a group of radiation zombies. The problem is that each time he uses the crown, he begins to lose himself. What does he do to help ensure he has a connection to reality?
Here, Simon uses a TV theme song, a referent to the what many consider to be the most crass form of unreality, in order to maintain a connection with reality; the “idiot box” that makes you lose yourself in a fantasy world is precisely how he maintains his sense of identity.
In the above examples, the traditions, approaches, forms, and characteristics of television that “quality TV” ignore is central to a profound exploration of the potentials, limits, and future of what television can be. While TV and movies move closer to becoming one in the same thing, these shows remind us that there are important truths and traditions that are to be found in these neglected and unfairly dismissed iterations of televisions that, if we only look at “quality TV” dramas could be lost.