Detective Drama Revisited: Twin Peaks and True Detective


Cult TV show Twin Peaks

Cult TV show Twin Peaks

In January of this year, the always spot-on network HBO (of Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and True Blood fame) released their new anthology program True Detective, starring  Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, and Tory Kittles. The show is the brain child of up and coming American author Nic Pizzolatto. The name is taken from the pulp true crime magazine True Detective, which featured such illustrious pulp-legends as Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. In television, crime always pays: The Sopranos was proof of that, as well as AMC’s Breaking Bad. However, while crime shows have always proved a lucrative genre in television, the detective element has until recently been fairly dormant. In True Detective, we follow the story of two Louisiana Detectives investigating a serial killer who has been operating for seventeen years. The premise of the show mirrors that of David Lynch’s short-lived program Twin Peaks, which aired in 1990 and was subsequently cancelled mid-1991. Its short run notwithstanding, the series became a cult classic, currently sitting at #35 of the Writer’s Guild’s list of best television shows of time, behind Modern Family and before NYPD Blue. The show’s premise surrounded the death of homecoming queen and student Laura Palmer, set in the close-knit though bizarre and secretive town of Twin Peaks. Enter Kyle MacLachlan’s shrewd, observant and eccentric FBI detective Dale Cooper, assigned the case of uncovering Laura’s murderer. What he uncovers in the meantime is a town full of strange and unnerving characters, countless infidelity and supernatural mythicism lying in the woods of Twin Peaks. Although Laura’s murder remains a central plot point, the show’s focus shifts to the entangled relationships and secrets of the townspeople. Series creator David Lynch himself admitted that the murder of Laura became something of a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the protagonist and the viewers, but is ultimately unimportant to the overall plot. The show successfully combined drama, mystery, psychological thrills as well as the supernatural. And, in true Lynch style, it is uncompromisingly bizarre and strange, featuring prophetic dreams, illicit sexual dalliances, a bizarre pseudo-hippie psychologist, and a one-eyed woman working of inventing the world’s first silent curtain-runners. Lynch, the creator behind such cult classics as Blue Velvet (1986) which also starred MacLaughlan, Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) unearths his trademark bizarre tragicomedy style in perfect form. All actors in the program are superb, but it is MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper that remains the running force of the show. The theme song, an instrumental version of Julee Cruise’s Falling, provides the eerie, though poignant backdrop to the story. Despite initial critical acclaim, the show’s ratings began to decline during the second season, and despite the addition of actress Heather Graham as Cooper’s love interest, the show was eventually cancelled, leaving the series on an enigmatic cliffhanger, which also failed to rouse audience interest. In 1992, however, a theatrical film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) was released, which cleared up most of the unresolved plot-points, including the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer, though Lynch later regretted this move, stating that he had originally intended to end the series on an ambiguous note, and had never intended on resolving the murder. But despite the end to the series, in retrospect Twin Peaks is an innovative, twisted take on the detective genre, utilising psychology, drama and the supernatural to explore the noirish nature of the show’s plots and characters. In May 2013, cast member Ray Wise, who played Laura Palmer’s father Leland Palmer, stated that Lynch was interested in rebooting the show. It is also stated that Netflix is interested in such a project. Such a move might reignite interest in the original series, giving it the attention it deserves, or perhaps it is best to leave well enough alone and embrace new shows, such as True Detective. Although the series has received a positive reception after its first season, The New Yorker‘s Rachel Syme is already writing of how the program’s season one finale illustrates that: “we are entering a confusing and precarious time in television’s evolution.” Syme argues that we ought to stop seeing television shows as an artform, and just enjoy them as entertainment: “we approach a show as an artistic achievement with all the privileges and responsibilities that this brings, when we may have done better to embrace it instead as pleasurable genre trash.” Arguably, with the ending of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, it seems as though we may already be leaving what was dubbed the brief but innovative Golden Age of television, as discussed in Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ (2013). With the ending of these shows, there seems to be a certain ambivalence regarding contemporary television.

The future of the Detective Genre?

The future of the Detective Genre?

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March 14, 2014 · 12:01 PM

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