Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Killing, Twin Peaks, and how much we may or may not enjoy them

"The Killing," AMC's new limited-run series (too long to be a mini-, I guess) is getting rave reviews. This one from Matt Zoller Seitz delves into the new show's debt to "Twin Peaks," David Lynch's 1990-91 TV series, often referred to as "groundbreaking." It was also a "limited run," though in this case the limits were imposed by the network, which demanded that the central mystery be solved midway through the second season. Shortly thereafter, and rightly, viewers abandoned the show in droves.

By coincidence, I recently re-watched "Twin Peaks" on Hulu, up to the point where everyone stopped watching--when Laura Palmer's killer was revealed, and the series immediately disintegrated into full-on buffoonery. The show is actually a great study in characterization, presenting us with a collection of oddballs with exaggerated quirks; they don't seem quite like real people, but then again, maybe our definition of "real" in this case comes from other detective shows. What does make us think of characters on TV as real or not real? Aren't the heroic, daring detectives of TV and film mostly projections of our wishes? And don't we know some very strange people in our own lives, when we step back and think about them?

At any rate, the characters of "Twin Peaks" all fit quite naturally into the eerie Pacific Northwest setting; they are appropriate inhabitants of this place. Intriguingly, the main character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is from elsewhere--yet he is perfectly suited to the town of Twin Peaks. He fits in by not fitting. I would add that some of the minor characters, included apparently for comic relief, are cartoons, not convincing either as Twin Peaks inhabitants or as people. They exist to slip on banana peels, be hit in the face with rakes, get accidentally pregnant, and have other hilarious mishaps.

This gets at the heart of what I have to say about "Twin Peaks," which is that for all its inventiveness, it contains a cruel streak that seems to go beyond the needs of the story. This is especially true in its treatment of women, who are time and again victims of sadistic violence. Now, this is also true, in many cases, in the real world. I don't believe fiction has to go out of its way to show women as always powerful and free--as moral examples, in other words. Nor should it browbeat us with the plight of victims. Instead, tell us something new, unfamiliar, intriguing, disturbing about violence and its sources.

"Twin Peaks" doesn't do that. Instead, it revels in women's victimization, serving it up as aesthetic entertainment that makes no demands on the viewers' conscience. Again, the aestheticization of violence--and its conversion into entertainment--is part of real life. I'm not saying we should excise this issue from our stories. Instead, the story can ask interesting, uncomfortable questions that do implicate the viewer or reader: Why does this interest you? What are you seeking here? How does the search for justice bleed over into prurient curiosity? What purpose does this curiosity serve? These questions seem even more pertinent when real crimes (like JonBenet Ramsay's murder and many, many others) rather quickly turn into fun for the rest of us. Good fiction could help us understand how this happens, in a relatively safe practice zone. But on such points, "Twin Peaks" has nothing to say, other than check this out, man.

I'm hoping that "The Killing," with its unconventional female detective, will surpass "Twin Peaks" in asking, not exploiting, these hard questions.


Tara said...

I love both these shows. At least I loved Twin Peaks, for its weirdness and creepiness. And I am already taken with The Killing, though not sure just yet how it will play out. I love your analysis of things, and I hadn't thought before about how Twin Peaks was a bit exploitive. I guess I see that too.

Anyway, I can't wait for Sunday.

Tim said...

As a male viewer of "Twin Peaks" I too felt uncomfortable with the amount of violence towards women, and rightfully so. The violence isn't "revelry" it is a disturbing reminder of the treatment of women in modern media, and in households across the nation.

David Lynch was making a statement about the state of our Union, and what he ended up with was pretty f-ed up. I don't think he was too far off.

If you look past the surface, you will be surprised at the depth that the writing reaches while masquerading as a soap opera.