Days Like Lost Dogs: In Support of Loose Ends in Procedurals from TWIN PEAKS to TOP OF THE LAKE

Days Like Lost Dogs: In Support of Loose Ends in Procedurals from TWIN PEAKS to TOP OF THE LAKE

This month marks the 24th anniversary of what
could be considered the first of the now-increasingly popular season-long
“hyperserial” procedural crime dramas—the pilot episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This show swapped the sequins
and mansions of traditional nighttime soap operas for a talking log and a Black
Lodge, and it countered TV’s biggest previous question at the time—Dallas’ “Who shot J.R.?”—with another
question: “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”

In a criminal courtroom, a prosecutor wouldn’t ask a
question to which she didn’t know the answer, but the opposite is true during
an investigation—anyone confronting a mystery must ask an ocean’s-worth of
questions and learn from whatever might wash ashore: grief, silence, anger,
misdirection, more questions. A crime show called “Occam’s Razor” would almost
certainly be a flop (or last for only one episode). Television has evolved
since the 1980s to accept that audiences can handle more than simple resolution,
but why is it too much to ask that viewers push past the need for any resolution at
all?

Though Twin Peaks (or perhaps ABC’s marketing department)
began with a big question that set up
an expectation that the show would be high in single-plot resolution, it was arguably
most successful when it provided more questions than answer. Lynch himself said:
“The murder of Laura Palmer was the center of the story, the thing around
which all the show’s other elements revolved—like a sun in a little solar
system. It was not supposed to get solved. The idea was for it to recede a bit
into the background, and the foreground would be that week’s show.”

Laura Palmer’s murder—not the revelation of her
murderer—gave the show its heat, its gravity. Without that sun, once Laura’s
killer was revealed (well into season 2), the show’s planetary makeup began to
spin a bit out of its orbit.

Twin Peaks was
dark, but sincere. It was ambitious, but also terrifically personal. It made
television humor lyrical. And it was both hyper-local, and also situated a bit
outside of time—leading us to wonder if the red curtain separating our world
from the next was actually inside the Black Lodge, or rather hanging at the Twin
Peaks town border itself. The show set a new standard of negative capability that
television had never seen before—striking notes of the low-ball absurdity of shows
like Fantasy Island
(sans quicksand traps) and the macabre of The Twilight
Zone
, and impleading Lynch’s cinematic influences, like Hitchcock.

Enjoyment of Twin
Peaks
also required this negative capability from its viewers, but Lynch
didn’t ask anything of his audience that he didn’t seduce out of his own
characters, or even his collaborators on the show. Agent Dale Cooper was just
as enchanted by his cherry pie as he was by the specter of a dancing dwarf.
Sheriff Truman may have been a bit puzzled by Cooper’s strategies (e.g., looking
for leads by saying a suspect’s name, then throwing a rock at a bottle to see
if it breaks[1]), but
gladly accepted his new friend’s help in whatever form it arrived. And when
Lynch called up Twin Peaks co-creator
and screenwriter Mark Frost during the show’s production and said, “Mark,
I think there’s a giant in Agent Cooper’s room
,” the only possible response
from Frost was “OK.”

And it was, hypnotically, OK. The whole knot of Twin
Peaks
became greater than the sum of its loose ends.

Often the mark of a show’s fortitude is measured by how deftly
it sets its fish hooks into shows that follow: X-Files, Buffy the Vampire
Slayer
, Lost, and
even—specifically admitted by David Chase—The
Sopranos
took permission first granted by Twin Peaks and used it towards freely weird ends. These shows all
delighted in the unresolved. People still ask David Chase about what happened
to the
wounded Russian in “Pine Barrens”
as much as they might have water-coolered
about what they knew happened to Adriana, Vito or Big Pussy (RIP Adriana &
Vito, who didn’t deserve it).

And this fearless evasion  of resolution also delighted its viewers. Each
of these shows has, at its base, a cult adoration that lounges at the core of
any larger popularity it might also enjoy. The truth is out there, but so are we.

Now a new post-Sopranos generation of shows has taken on the
specific task of the season-long crime procedural model pioneered in Twin Peaks and re-introduced us to the
hyperserial killer: AMC’s version of The
Killing
, Sundance’s Top of the Lake,
and most recently and bro-splosively, HBO’s True
Detective
, just to name a few. Each sets itself in motion on the rational
tracks of a whodunit and attempts to use both the intuitive and the atmospheric
as a third, energizing rail. There are plenty of valid critiques of each of
these shows, but in the end, the most pervasive seem to be aimed at the coherence
with which they resolve their central crime-question.

But what if these types of shows refused to answer their own
big question? What if they began with
an answer (“Laura Palmer is dead.”)
and let the show ask the questions? If what they do best is mystery, and what
they do worst is solution, then why not simply not do the worst thing. Why not let the viewers metabolize their
expectations and let the stories do their own work?

Who Didn’t Kill Rosie Larsen?

The Killing is
arguably less ambitious than Twin Peaks
and a bit less interested in its main characters than True Detective, but AMC has certainly proved itself to be a network interested
in creating original, rule-busting shows. It was smart to adapt the original Danish
series of The Killing, but the network set
up its audience with too clear a directive from the jump, nodding to its
predecessor by reprising its promising big
question
strategy—this time: “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?”

Again we have a murder, a (supposed) angel/devil girl-victim,
and an angel/devil obsessed investigator. The big question wasn’t answered for
audiences until the end of Season Two, which left many viewers feeling like the
show broke up with them via text message (on a flip phone, no less) after two years
of a wrenching but ultimately forgettable committed relationship. The nuance,
mood and humanity of the show—though slickly meditative—concerned itself only
with a linear path to Rosie’s killer, and when all you have is a murder,
everything looks like a crime scene.[2]

Push past the conceit of the investigation, however, and
exacting, nuanced character interaction become richly visible, like dusting for
prints. Michelle Forbes as Rosie’s mother Mitch delivers one of her finest
performances. She’s physically etched with her pain. Add that to the ways she
and Brent Sexton as her husband Stan Larsen convey the way tragedy distorts the
passage of time, the way tragedy distorts routine, and the show—though
difficult and raw—finds a particular, necessary truth in storytelling. As such,
The Killing might best be categorized
as an intelligent TV show about grief asking its audience over on a date to
watch a mediocre TV show about solving a murder.

“You Don’t Own It
Like You Thought You Did”

True Detective
spends imagery as currency to put a down payment on its audience’s loyalty. The
South spreads out before us like a Sally Mann retrospective, tired and
tempting, one long morning after. Just like Twin
Peaks
and The Killing, though not
part of its marketing package, we get a big
question
in the first episode: “Who killed Dora Lange?” Just as in Twin Peaks and The Killing, a young girl’s corpse is arranged for us like
sculpture, in all its macabre beauty.

True Detective attempts
to specialize (and spectacle-ize), as might delight Agent Dale Cooper, in the
local color. Sweet tea and obese women in day pajamas. Long stretches of two-lane
highways and weary prostitutes in trailer communities. A certain way the
landscape infiltrates the characters—the way Rust Cohle uses a drag on a
cigarette as a semicolon. Everything an invitation for us to come over for
supper. Everything lined up for us to drawl some conclusions.

Throughout each episode, though, an image narrative runs
parallel to the action and dialogue—the visual version of a voice-over. We are
excited because of where the layered images and dialogue and characters take
us, not because of where the plot narrative leaves us. With the exception of
being nearly entirely humorless, True
Detective
seemed to have all the tools it needed to overcome its own big
question, to charm its audience into valuing storyline over plotline.

And yet much of the chatter leading up to the finale zeroed
in on Who Killed Dora Lange, the detailed speculation sometimes
reaching A Beautiful Mind-esque
heights
. When the show’s finale proved a bit more ordinary—or at least
didn’t answer all the questions each episode’s clues seemed to collage—it
was as if the Internet itself audibly pouted
.

The Portrait of a
Lady

From my view, the most successful of these crime-hyperserials
since Twin Peaks is Sundance’s Top of the Lake, created, written and
directed by Jane Campion. It’s billed as a “TV Mini-series,” though it turns in
only one fewer episode than the first season of True Detective. The show leans
on the lush New Zealand landscape just as heavily as True Detective leans on the languor of the South or The Killing leans on the drear of
Seattle, and it offers us the familiar victim with talent/grit and
protagonist-investigator with accompanying angels/demons and introversion/strength
(Elisabeth Moss as lead detective Robyn Griffin—and if I can forgive Woody
Harrelson’s marble-mouthed Southern accent, you can forgive her bent-nail of a
New Zealand one).

But even from its opening act, the show distinguishes itself
in an important way—we know something has happened to a young girl named Tui, but
we also know she’s not dead. Even so, Campion still generates a haunting story,
a rich tension, and shades in the classic detective-victim bond in a more
nuanced, less fetishizing fashion than True
Detective
or The Killing (or Twin Peaks, even). Top of the Lake takes Lynch’s note of letting the crime recede into
the background while the characters unfold their lives in its wake.

The varsity-level discomfort this produced in some critics
was perhaps a sign of its success. Mike Hale of the New York Times began
his review
with what I thought was a compliment: “There are times during
‘Top of the Lake’ when you can convince yourself that you’re watching a mystery
story about a girl who goes missing. But that sensation never lasts.” That was
not a compliment. Hale later calls Tui’s disappearance “a MacGuffin,” and seems
to demand that each of the show’s plotlines come attached to a life preserver
he can cling to.

With a small show, Jane Campion made the landscape bigger.
She does answer the crime-question (and it is
the weakest moment of the show), but she does it quickly enough that viewers
aren’t left in a comfortable, or resolved, place. She doesn’t ignore the notion
that a criminal can be discovered and punished, but that discovery and
punishment don’t solve the crime—the
consequences continue to be lived by everyone involved.

“Harry, I’m going to
let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present.
Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.”

Campion has said “acting is about vulnerability.” I’d offer
that viewing is likewise. What I wish for audiences is to give themselves a
present: resist that feeling of betrayal fingered by David Foster Wallace in “David
Lynch Keeps His Head
”—resist the feeling that when directors and writers
seem to fail in rewarding the suspense an audience endures with a morally
self-satisfying conclusion, that “an unspoken but very important covenant has
been violated.” 

Let there be shows that hold an audience in suspense, but
not hold as in handcuffs—hold as in a spell. Let the crime be another part of
the landscape. If there is a big question, let it be answered with other intimate
questions. Let viewers sit in the discomfort of their not-knowing, of their wonder
and fear, of the unresolved-ness of a show’s resolve. Let these hyperserial
crime shows live in the world of poems and short stories, rather than airport novels—not
puzzles to be solved
, but lakes to be dredged by the imagination.


[1] Kimmy Robertson, who played receptionist Lucy Moran
in Twin Peaks, illuminates this idea one bulb further with an anecdote from her days on the set: “There’s a scene where Kyle [MacLachlan] had to
throw a rock and hit a glass bottle. [Lynch] sat us down and told Kyle he was
going to hit the bottle—and that bottle was freaking far away. Kyle hit it, and
everybody freaked out. It was like David used the power of the universe to make
Twin Peaks.”

[2] Part of the let-down, too, of finally knowing Who
Killed Rosie Larsen wasn’t just the short walk on a long pier—it was also what
David Foster Wallace prescienced based on an insightful notion in one of his
essays from 1995. Wallace:

The
mystery’s final ‘resolution’, in particular, was felt by critics and audiences
alike to be deeply unsatisfying. And it was…but the really deep
dissatisfaction—the one that made audiences feel screwed and betrayed…was, I
submit, a moral one. I submit that [the victim’s] exhaustively revealed ‘sins’
required, by the moral logic of American mass entertainment, that the
circumstances of her death turn out to be causally related to those sins. We as
an audience have certain core certainties about sowing and reaping, and these
certainties need to be affirmed and massaged.”

The show to which Wallace was
referring? Twin Peaks.


Amy Woolard is a writer and child welfare/juvenile justice
policy attorney who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a graduate of
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her
work has appeared or is forthcoming in the
Virginia Quarterly Review,
the Massachusetts Review, the Indiana Review, The Journal, Fence, and the Best
New Poets 2013 anthology, among others. You can find her at shift7.me, and on Twitter as @awoo_.

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