overthinking the idiot box

May 16, 2005

That Show You Like is Going To Come Back Into Style

by Katherine Ross

Who killed Laura Palmer?

Fifteen years ago, that's what all the cool kids wanted to know. There she was, dead, wrapped in plastic, a floating mystery. Film director David Lynch was turning his hand to television, and the result was Twin Peaks.

Wrapped in plastic or abandoned on a pool deck: Laura Palmer and Lilly Kane.

The show delighted some viewers, and mystified others. It was a mystery, to be sure, but it was also a soap. And a parody of a soap. Without overt sarcasm, the show undermined itself at every turn, from Dale Cooper's "damn good coffee," to Donna's perfect doe-eyed innocence. We'd seen all of it before, and yet we'd also never seen anything quite like it. David Lynch's hallmark as a filmmaker is his ability to create little worlds that contradict themselves, little bubbles of reality in which the genuinely earnest subverts itself (see also Blue Velvet).

The other thing we had in 1990 was the fledgling baby Internet. And in bulletin boards and newsgroups nationwide, the fans found each other. Theories abounded, expectations grew, and season 1 of Twin Peaks ended on a spectacular cliffhanger leaving audiences wanting more. Season 2 dutifully came... and went. And the show was cancelled, after twenty-nine episodes and a two-hour pilot. A feature film came in 1992, Fire Walk With Me, and at last we knew how Laura Palmer died, and when, and why.

But who killed "Twin Peaks?"

David Lynch fans and conspiracy theorists — two groups with a rather large overlapping population — think he scuttled the show on purpose, when Mark Frost wanted to take it in a different direction. Be that as it may, some important questions remained: how can a serial mystery thrive in television? An audience can only hold on for so long before they just want it solved already. An hour, in fact, seems to be the perfect length of time in which to unsnarl a tangled murder. If the guys on CSI can do it in 44 minutes, maybe 88 for a two-parter, why would it take Dale Cooper two years? And when you have solved the mystery around which the entire show was built... what next?

Factor in that many of the characters in Twin Peaks were supposed to be high school students, despite being in their twenties and you have a premise that is only tenable for so long (see also Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills: 90210 and just about every other TV show from my junior high years). Then there's the huge ensemble cast, the never-ending series of plot lines, and the core personality crisis: a soap, or a self-parodying soap? Fan discussion could only carry so far.

Now it's 2005. The internet is colorful and heavily populated and we have a show about a high-school girl trying to solve the mystery of her best friend's murder, while meeting resistance from — and being surrounded by the troubles of — a wide cast of other high school students, various boys, the dead girl's parents, and so on. This time, the show is Veronica Mars, on UPN.

A modern-day Nancy Drew.
TV is a great cultural barometer, and clearly things have changed in the last fifteen years. Twin Peaks took place in the Pacific Northwest, in an all-white town where the biggest class conflict was between the lower-middle-class and the upper-middle-class. Veronica Mars takes place in, as the heroine narrates, "a town with no middle class," oscillating between lifestyles of the rich and famous, and lifestyles of the class that serves them. In a way, it's the modern California version of Gosford Park or a P.G. Wodehouse novel, only with the conflict more implied than shown directly.

At the hear of all of this is Veronica, plucky and snarky blonde girl detective. Her love scenes — real or imagined — are more explicit, her language coarser than anything we had in 1990. Teenage drinking, drug use, and the rest are commonplace as the whole school attends beach keggers, not the illicit underworld activities of Laura Palmer's secret life. But despite Veronica's modern trappings, she's a common archetype: the Nancy Drew.

Being an archetype is not a negative quality in a character; after all, there are only so many types in the world, but there are infinite ways to show them. Veronica Mars is not the only program to owe a great deal to the kind of surrealistic postmodern chaos that was Twin Peaks. The famous — and infamous — Red Room dream sequences that overarched the Twin Peaks story (masterfully parodied in the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episodes of The Simpsons) are more suited to indie film than to prime time TV. A little person, saying backwards, "I've got good news! That gum you like is going to come back in style!" is not exactly the kind of thing audiences had typically seen. And yet now in Veronica Mars the dead Lilly Kane talks to her brother, and it makes as much sense as anything else. On the ABC hit Lost, incomprehensible dreamscapes (such as Locke's positively surreal vision of the bloodied Boone saying, "Theresa fell up the stairs. Theresa fell down the stairs" repeatedly) are par for the course.

Some days it would have felt perfectly natural to be told that Dale Cooper and Fox Mulder knew each other in Quantico, and that they traded dream analyses over damn good coffee.
When we look back over the last 15 years of television, the influence of Twin Peaks and the way we got to Veronica Mars is evident. One of the biggest stepping-stones between the two was The X-Files. Mulder and Scully shared that special kind of snark, as episodes could either be funny and stand alone, or be serious and fit the story arc. Surrealism was never far away in that particular incarnation of the FBI, and on some days it would have felt perfectly natural to be told that Dale Cooper and Fox Mulder knew each other in Quantico, and that they traded dream analyses over damn good coffee.

What will decide if Veronica Mars has staying power into its second season — if it can beat the Twin Peaks curse — is the strength of its cast and the depth of the other dramas of Neptune, CA. Unlike Twin Peaks we now know, at the end of the first season, who killed Lilly Kane, and why. (And, at the risk of divulging spoilers, it's startlingly similar — though in no way identical — to the solution of Laura Palmer's murder.) That mystery is gone, but the day-to-day of Veronica's life endures. The show's writers made what may prove to be a wise choice, straying away from Lilly Kane often in the early parts of the series. They gave Veronica enough to do so that the show had more content than just the murder mystery. Nonetheless, Lilly was the core of a whole season, and Veronica Mars is plunging into new territory this coming fall. It wouldn't be the first show to have a clever and dramatic first season, only to lose it all in a sophomore slump.

Regardless of what the future holds, though, Veronica Mars has had a successful run so far, bolstered in no small part by Internet fandom. The ability of fans to discuss at will with others nowhere near them geographically (as seen in our own forum) is no small thing. Also, fans can spend the summer effortlessly trading episodes — without the hassle of mailing tapes — and hooking new viewers before the second season starts. And of course, summer reruns, if they air, can help generate a larger fan base. Arguably, if Twin Peaks had come along ten years later than it did — born into the age of TiVo, fanfiction.net, and the common blog interest, it, too would have had a longer-lived and more successful run. Of course, there's also the argument that if it hadn't come when it did, the landscape of television today would be altogether different, and we wouldn't have shows like Veronica Mars, Lost, or even Desperate Housewives sprinkled in among all the easy-come, easy-go sitcoms and dramas that populate the airwaves. It leaves one to wonder what would have happened if Lynch's second TV project, Mulholland Drive had actually succeeded, instead of being rejected by ABC and reworked into a feature film. Or indeed, if we had not had Fire Walk with Me, would we now have Serenity ready to pick up where Firefly unceremoniously left off?

The answers are elusive... a lot like trying to guess who killed Laura Palmer. Or Lilly Kane. In the meantime, that show I like is back in style, and come September, I'll be happy to start filling my TiVo with Veronica Mars.

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