Twin Peaks is coming back!
Ahem. Sorry. As you might have heard, Showtime has announced that Twin Peaks, the spooky murder-mystery cult classic TV series that ran for two seasons in 1990-91 (plus one feature film in 1992), will be returning for a third season in 2016, an unprecedented (I’m assuming – anyone want to “well, actually” me? I didn’t really research this part too extensively) twenty-five years after its original cancellation. Eat your heart out, Futurama!
Anyway. Despite knowing about the show and many of its tropes through reputation alone, and understanding its influence on shows that have been important to me like X-Files and True Detective, I hadn’t actually ever sat down and watched Twin Peals. But this announcement gave me a perfect opportunity, and so I’ve been bingeing it lately – and really, really enjoying it too. (When I tried the same thing with Arrested Development a while ago after the Netflix Season 4, I just couldn’t get into it. Sorry, everybody.)
Twin Peaks is stylish and deeply bizarre – which I knew it would be; it is a David Lynch joint, after all – but what struck me the most was how uncomfortable it often made me feel. It’s more than just creepy, although it’s not quite full-blown horror, either. Instead, it seems to occupy an interstice at the convergence between a few different technical, dramatic, and genre boundaries, and employs a mandate of creating intense audience discomfort to make its point about the limitations on human understanding and the blurriness between areas we prefer to consider distinct.
In short, Twin Peaks to point toward a grander existence of which our known universe and our accepted truths are only a tiny, insignificant, and very poorly understood fragment. It does this primarily by evoking feelings of awkwardness or discomfort in its audience, using the techniques of melodrama/cringe comedy; ambiguously diegetic music; and the juxtaposition of the horrific with the banal.
(Spoilers from this point on.)
Between Melodrama and Cringe
At its best moments, Twin Peaks dances along that thin line between cringe comedy and melodrama – sometimes almost literally – through the actors’ performance style.
Melodrama is a dramatic form that emphasizes heightened emotional experiences, often heightened to a cartoonishly exaggerated degree. Melodrama was popular in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but with the advent of Stanislavski’s system of “method acting” in the 1910s, most contemporary film and television actors now aim for more realistic-seeming portrayals of characters (Nicolas Cage being one, and maybe the only, notable exception), and the melodramatic style has mostly been relegated to the not-too-well-respected hinterlands of the soap opera.
But Twin Peaks is concerned with heightened emotions and credulity-stretching occurrences. Not only does it want to portray the extremity of experience that goes along with discovering mysterious tragedies and unravelling tragic mysteries, it wants to make you feel really weird about it at the same time. It wants to make you question the nature of experience, the nature both of emotion and of realism. Twin Peaks runs right up against the border between realism and melodrama – and occasionally stumbles over it.
To show us, the audience, that it’s doing this deliberately (i.e. that they didn’t just hire a bunch of terrible actors on the cheap, but rather that the actors are behaving in this over-the-top fashion for a specific aesthetic purpose), Twin Peaks includes a show-within-the-show, a patently ridiculous though evidently popular fictional soap opera called “Invitation To Love,” which we see various citizens of the town of Twin Peaks watching, often during important plot points throughout the series. “Invitation To Love” is classically melodramatic, over-the-top and seemingly always on, and frequently mirrors the subject matter and emotional exaggeration of the events in Twin Peaks itself – although its viewers don’t appear to notice these parallels.
The other side of that border is cringe comedy. This is the genre into which shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the humour derives from the characters’ unknowingly violating social boundaries because of their own self-absorption or general obliviousness to the feelings of others. Cringe comedy is controversial because people with too much empathy can’t enjoy it, since it relies on a certain degree of dehumanization of the character whose actions cause us to cringe. It’s still supposed to be funny, though, and this is where Twin Peaks straddles that line so deftly.
Twin Peaks is rife with bizarre people behaving bizarrely, but while characters like Nadine, Andy, and the Log Lady are initially set up for the most part as objects of ridicule, as the show progresses our empathy for them grows, and so behaviour that would have been funny early in the series becomes tremendously sad when we feel close enough to the characters to mourn the loss of what must have been their connection to reality at some point in the past.
Similarly, the exaggerated emoting that drives melodrama makes us roll our eyes today because we’re accustomed to seeing actors behaving naturalistically. But in Twin Peaks, some horrible stuff goes on. In the first episode, we learn of the murder of high school student Laura Palmer – and so do her parents. So very early on in the series we’re forced to watch Laura’s mother’s complete breakdown and her father’s more staccato descent into the madness of despair. These performances are so over-the-top that they’re almost funny, but because we also empathize with the characters and recognize that their feelings come from a place of genuine and unfathomable pain, we can’t laugh – yet we also can’t take them completely seriously, either. That tension between the absurdity of their overwrought emotional displays, and our knowledge of and sympathy with those feelings’ causes, is a big part of what creates the intense discomfort we get from watching the show. But it’s also what makes it so compelling. We’re learning about the frailty of the human psyche even as we’re being deliberately distanced by the unrealistically histrionic performances.
Where’s that music coming from?
Another element the show uses to evoke discomfort by simultaneously inviting us to empathize with the characters while also distancing us from them is music. Composer Angelo Badalamenti’s very loud and sentimental score is often played during scenes of intense feeling to overemphasize what the audience is meant to be feeling. This calls attention to the exaggerated lyricism of the dialogue at moments when we might otherwise be in danger of empathizing too closely with these characters who are often very, very upset by something. At other times, a jazzy score accompanies many more casual scenes, sometimes underlining a comedic incongruence. These are typical tropes for a melodrama, but Twin Peaks also complicates the use of these leitmotifs by moving back and forth between diegetic and non-diegetic musical without warning – so that we’ll be watching a scene, listening to that familiar tune, and our brain categorizes it as incidental; until someone reaches over and turns off the record player or the radio and the music immediately stops. The show wants to make us aware of the music as one of those conventions that we just accept and then rupture that acceptance by forcing us to question whether the characters we’re watching in the scene can hear it too, or if it’s just us.
It’s something similar to the “estrangement effect” employed by the 20th Century German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht erased the fourth wall between the actors and audience, so that the characters onstage are aware that they are being observed by the audience, and the audience knows that they know. This destroys the sense of objectivity in audience members and thus makes it difficult or impossible to “lose yourself” in the performance or fully empathize with the characters.
Twin Peaks doesn’t break the fourth wall in this way, but its use of ambiguously-diegetic music and its signalling self-awareness of its melodramatic tone have a similar effect to what Brecht was going for – causing the audience discomfort by, in part, calling attention to the constructedness of the narrative; periodically reminding us that we are watching a performance and compelling us to recoil when there’s a danger of us coming to empathize too closely with the characters onscreen.
The banality of horror
In the theory of aesthetics, the Uncanny Valley refers to a point at which the appearance of a figure (typically a robot or computer-generated image) almost-but-not-quite resembles a realistic human. At this point, a person observing the figure doesn’t register it as an object, but also doesn’t register it as another person – it’s some other thing, something in between, that nearly triggers our empathy response but falls just short. So instead of feeling the way we would feel about another human, we feel a sense of unease or even revulsion.
Now, in Twin Peaks, mysterious figures such as the Dwarf and the Giant are supposed to creep us out with their appearance and their bizarre modes of speech. This is an “uncanny valley” effect similar to what you’d get from not-quite-convincing robotic or computer-generated humans. But the people of Twin Peaks – the actual human beings – inhabit a kind of behavioral uncanny valley, wherein the ways that they act and the things that they say (rather than the way that they look or the sound of their voice) are what signal that they must not be quite as they seem.
But the show also likes to highlight absurdity to discomfit the audience by frequently juxtaposing the horrific with the banal. That kind of thing is a literary trope called bathos, wherein a serious topic is emotionally defused or deflated by an immediate subsequent irreverence or mundanity. Most of the time bathos is used for comedic purposes or to prevent a scene from getting too intense or pretentious. But while Twin Peaks is definitely funny, a lot of the time it uses bathos not to lighten the mood of a scene but rather to make things even weirder and creepier. For instance, someone might be discussing the gruesome details of a murder and then all of a sudden pause to produce a stick of gum and shove it into their mouth. It’s an action that’s so incongruous, so out of step with the prevailing emotion of the scene, that we, the audience, get a sense that the character maybe just doesn’t quite fully understand how human beings actually behave, as if maybe it’s everyone in town who’s doing an unconvincing impersonation of a person.
There are a few different ideas about how and why the uncanny valley effect exists, but a couple of them seem especially apt for describing how Twin Peaks achieves it with the characters’ performances. Per Wikipedia:
- Sorites Paradox. Stimuli with human and nonhuman traits undermine our sense of human identity by linking qualitatively different categories, human and nonhuman, by a quantitative metric, degree of human likeness.
- Violation of human norms. The uncanny valley may “be symptomatic of entities that elicit a model of a human other but do not measure up to it”. If an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics will be noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it will elicit our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics will be noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person. This has been linked to perceptual uncertainty and the theory of predictive coding.
Besides the characters who are deliberately non-human, a lot of the ostensibly human citizens of Twin Peaks aren’t quite real people either, or at least aren’t always real people; but we, the audience, don’t consistently know who is what or when, and so when we see the characters behaving in such unusual ways we think, what the hell is wrong with this town?!
Which is the real mystery at the heart of the series. While it begins with a perfectly conventional premise – the murder of a young girl and the lawman deployed to investigate it – Lynch is interested in something much more enigmatic, something much more cosmic. It’s not so much the answers that disturb while at once reassuring us, as in an ordinary murder mystery. In the case of Twin Peaks the nature, and even the very existence, of these questions themselves, the clues and suggestions that compel us to ask what could possibly have happened here, the threat of unveiling truths that prove the world is not and never was what it seems – that’s what Twin Peaks does to make its audience unsure of our knowledge and our place in the world. That’s what unnerves us so. The uncertainty.