Or: The good, the bad and the ugly of refusing the audience’s expectations
Twin Peaks is probably one of the best TV shows that totally deserved to be cancelled. Despite hysterical hype, the first series– and parts of the second– was beautiful, bonkers, perfectly plotted, brilliantly cast and played, a one-of-kind triumph of weirdness over rationality, both diegetically and in the harsh real world landscape of American television. It’s taken me nearly a year because I have a life as well, but I recently made it all the way through the DVD set from the pilot to the last episode. It took me nearly a year despite the fact that I skipped and fast forwarded a lot after the hasty, premature and garbled wrapping up of the Laura Palmer murder plotline, i.e. the whole bloody point and raison d’etre of the show, a mystery that creators/producers Mark Frost and David Lynch never wanted to solve but found themselves obliged to wrap up swiftly when they were overruled and edged out by the network.
From then onwards the show mostly wobbles erratically between being an embarrassing but still occasionally entertaining parody of itself and being totally unwatchable because the writing, storylining, acting, direction and random, gratuitous guest actors are all so horrendous. Lara Flynn Boyle goes from a passably plausible senior high school student to dressing like an old lady and behaving like some deranged cougar in a soft porn movie. Her erstwhile boyfriend pretty much does randomly end up with a deranged cougar in a soft porn movie scenario that isn’t even in Twin Peaks, and certainly has nothing to do with anything else that’s going on. Sherilyn Fenn follows an opposite but equally crap trajectory, going from strangely hilarious and disturbingly arousing idiot-savant jailbait…
… to… er, a rather sensible and therefore boring manager of a hotel, where she has absolutely no adventures whatsoever and certainly has no need for the kind of oral dexterity demonstrated above. Joan Chen goes AWOL, becomes a French maid, then turns into a wooden knob, all for no good reason. Meanwhile Piper Laurie seems to get drunker and more slurred every week, though I’d probably self-medicate too if I was forced to act some of the dialogue she’s lumbered with.
The writers go from confidently mocking the stupidity, melodrama, banality and bad logic of soap operas via the show-within-a-show Invitation to Love (and how often do characters on television convincingly interact with television shows in the way that real people do?) to participating in the writing of their own particularly stupid, melodramatic, banal and illogical soap opera. New characters we never saw before and don’t care about suck up most of the screen time that should be devoted to the near-perfect original cast, including the weird and stilted ones that unfortunately it seemed only Lynch could get good work out of. Reasonably straight members of the cast like Kyle Maclachlan, Michael Ontkean and Peggy Lipton look more embarrassed every week, their faces hardening into expressionless grin-and-bear-it masks.
Just about the only stupid series two innovations that sort of work are the stunt casting of David Lynch himself with a hearing aid, and a pre-X Files David Duchovny as a flirty transsexual FBI agent. Not only does Duchovny clearly think he’s better than the material, but it’s also a great example of an actor being completely right about being better than the material and gamely bringing much more to it than was ever there.
When a nonsensical Japlish commercial for canned coffee has more narrative unity and logic than the TV show it’s a spinoff from, you’ve got a serious problem:
Obviously Lynch and Frost belatedly realised that they’d taken their eyes off the ball; they freely admit as much in the supplementary interview material on the DVDs. With them somewhat in control again, the tail end of series two is rightly still regarded as some of the best few hours of American television in the 1990s, kicked in the arse as it leaves by one of American television’s most memorable, disturbing, uncathartic, unresolved fuck-you-audience, fuck-you-network endings in which almost every character is blown up, battered, possessed, bereft, or otherwise fucked up. HOW’S ANNIE?
The deep sense of dissatisfaction and frustration I’ve described here is widely held even by the cast of the show itself, as seen in the aforementioned interviews and supporting material on the DVDs. This disappointment extended at the time to the belated feature film spin-off Fire Walk With Me, which has subsequently been somewhat re-assessed as a valid chunk of Lynchiana in its own right. There’s still something frustrating in its dogged refusal to follow the compass of its own narrative; in other words, like the series, its makers promise to tell a story but quite quickly abandon it to tell another one, or several others, and none of them very well; certainly none of them are the story that the audience wants to see told.
Unanswered questions are fine. Not spelling everything out and not hitting the audience over the head with exposition are not only fine but actually preferable to the hand-holding idiocy of many films and TV shows. Enigma and ambiguity are fine– indeed they’re the very heart of Lynch’s approach to storytelling– provided they’re not just empty aesthetic decorations. Refusing the audience’s expectations can be a good thing that they’ll readily tolerate, but not if you blatantly break your own rules and move the goalposts in an imaginary world you’ve made and that the audience has invested themselves in.
Of course there are many other examples of narratives losing their focus and frustrating the audience’s expectations in a way that destroys any hope of connection with the story. The similarly hysterically hyped Prometheus is probably the most recent and most prominent example, one whose glaring and inexcusable flaws have already been much discussed. The time it takes for things to happen doesn’t add up convincingly either from shot to shot or across the whole film. Characters, props and macguffins go missing from the narrative then pop back up just because they’ve become necessary again. Characters who are lucky enough to even have personalities to begin with turn on a sixpence, change those personalities as the plot dictates, and do all manner of unmotivated things because they’re being forcibly written into these situations rather than engaging in actions that emerge organically from a harmonious, balanced narrative line:
- A cowardly but still presumably intelligent biologist puts his face up to an unknown but unpleasant-looking organism making what looks very like a threat display.
- A character with a finely-honed instinct for self-preservation who should have just run off perpendicular is crushed by a slowly rolling doughnut-shaped spacecraft that’s somehow moving in a straight line over uneven terrain
- An archaeologist is apparently devastated that he has discovered an important and career-defining archaeological site pertaining to a hitherto unknown culture, but only because the plot demands that he be depressed about something.
- The geologist responsible for mapping gets lost and apparently doesn’t know how to or doesn’t think to use his own map data, and so on ad absurdem:
The opposite can also be true; certain types of story world also break when too much reality is applied to them. Christopher Nolan’s utterly joyless Batman films– along with most of the other oppressively grim and gritty, naturalistic post-millennial superhero films– fall into this trap and suffer from it both in terms of credible storytelling and in terms of being enjoyable as entertainment. Putting a character like Batman or the Joker into a psychologically and socially realistic milieu utterly misses the point and the power of those characters, because they are not psychologically realistic to begin with. Their psychological realism is not the most salient factor of their appeal. I don’t think it’s even one of the top ten things that have earned those characters an enduring fascination and provided endless opportunities for reinterpretation and adaptation.
Doing a naturalistic Batman is like doing a naturalistic Orpheus or a naturalistic Adam and Eve. They’re not people, they’re mythic and archetypal expressions of emotional, inchoate, irrational parts of the human mind and experience. It’s stupid and pointless to psychoanalyse Adam, Eve, Orpheus, The Joker and Batman (or even Bruce Wayne) as if they were real individuals. Batman and The Joker are part of the West’s Twentieth century mythology, almost directly equivalent to the heroes and villains of any culture’s, including our own in the past. The existence of people like them in the real world would very quickly alter our culture profoundly. And likewise, although over many decades Gotham has obviously been somewhat modelled on cities like New York or Chicago, it’s not meant to be a generic north-east American city. It only really works when it’s specifically Gotham, a suitable (i.e. not necessarily realistic) backdrop and a mirror for the extremity of the mythic, irrational characters that exist there.
There are real and contemporary places where buildings are frequently destroyed by conflict, people are held hostage by madmen, bizarre claims and demands are made almost daily: places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq. These are failed states in which people are intensely traumatised and forced to extraordinary lengths just to try and go about their normal business of working, raising their families and providing for themselves while higher powers battle overhead, through the streets and markets and public places, in their schools and hospitals.
Now imagine all other things in our world being the same, except that almost every day it’s not at the black and brown fringes of the developed world but in New York City, London, Rome or Tokyo that a colourfully dressed lunatic blows something up, gasses hundreds of people, or sets up an elaborate scheme requiring another colourfully dressed lunatic like Batman to go running around saving hostages while timebombs tick away. Life sciences and physics are advanced almost every month if not every week, assuming the conventional corpus of scientific, rationalistic methods and assumptions aren’t completely refuted by the existence of ontologically anomalous and inexplicable superior beings like Superman, Thor and Wonder Woman alongside so-called detectives like Batman and bizarre fetishistic criminals like The Penguin and Catwoman, who defy conventional psychopathology.
In fact I doubt you can imagine it, because all other things in our world simply could not be the same. Imagine what the news media would be like, for example. If you think they’re hysterical and irresponsible now, think about them reporting on The Joker’s latest crazy death threats. How on earth would Batman ever keep his identity secret in an internet-enabled world like ours where Batman films (i.e. entertainment having little bearing on the real world) are forensically dismantled by thousands of people for details of their casts, costumes, plot points and so forth, all of which are correctly and fully laid out before the film has even been released? The concept of that character, everything he is, simply won’t bear the weight of a naturalistic environment. It’s not a coincidence that the concept of retcon– retroactive continuity, i.e. trying to make sense of previous narrative events by rewriting them or negating them post hoc in light of the current storyline– is much discussed in the comic book world. Characters like Batman, the Doctor or Mulder and Scully and the fictional worlds they live in absolutely need a reset or reboot button because the absurdities and incongruities with life as it’s actually lived and experienced build up to toxic levels so quickly. Dr Who and the various incarnations of Batman have benefited from these story world reboots occasionally; sometimes convincingly, sometimes clumsily. Occasionally they just handwave and try to pretend the inconsistencies don’t exist.
Although it ran for about ten years, The X Files on the other hand was already totally crushed by its own continuity and mythology by about the two thirds mark– if not much sooner– because there was evidently no way that the things that had happened could any longer support a fictional world that plausibly resembled our own reality. It just became too jarring and obtrusive to ignore those two just turning up for work, sitting at home watching porn, making references to pop culture and bickering about pencils or paperwork when numerous colleagues, friends and relatives had been murdered and they knew from uncomfortably personal experience that aliens live among us, the dead can rise from the grave, we’re under constant surveillance and that the whole world is probably doomed. And while there’s just plain old-fashioned bad writing to blame, some of the problems with Prometheus also arise from it being a disastrous attempt to retcon and reboot salvageable elements of the already pretty catastrophic, wildly proliferating and self-destructing Alien franchise while weirdly and disingenuously pretending not to.
The reality warping effect of heightened characters is an insight that Alan Moore– a true genius of storytelling– expressed decades ago with Watchmen, where the emergence of real costumed heroes post WWII causes the expected cultural and historical divergence from reality as we know it. He’s still working through this notion with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which again the real world existence of characters who are in our world fictional causes massive and ever-increasing social, political and historical ripples. And even more damningly, the makers of Batman’s much-derided lowbrow camp Pop Art 60s television incarnation totally and instinctively grasped something that the high-minded Nolan and his ilk apparently can’t or won’t: if your characters don’t really make any kind of realistic psychological sense, then they need an equally irrational (or plain silly) world to live in.
Characters in either a realistic or a fantasy narrative can credibly do stupid or extreme or out of character things, of course, just as intelligent people in reality sometimes do stupid or extreme or out of character things. Real world stupid people do stupid things without realising what a stupid thing they’ve done because they’re stupid, and it’s not unreasonable for this to happen sometimes in fiction too. Real people occasionally do the right things for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. But in fiction it jolts us out of the story when an intelligent person instantly becomes a completely different and stupid person (or vice versa) because this almost never happens in reality. Unless the world is well-established as a magical realist one, secretive Chinese widows never turn into wooden knobs and schoolgirls don’t go from being on heroin and nearly getting raped by their own oblivious father in a perverse brothel to contentedly running his nearby hotel about two weeks later… even in a world where the parameters have been established by somebody with as eccentric a viewpoint on narrative as David Lynch. And if a storyteller refuses to play by their own rules, then the audience is usually justified in refusing to play the game at all.