Episodes: What and why


Sunday night, I tweeted that I was going to get to my Twin Peaks review late, because I was on a family outing that culminated in my parents combing through a large selection of women's belts at Target. (I never did confirm what they needed the belt for, but my dad kept saying, "That should hold her down," so I'm not even sure I want to know.) I was immediately sent several replies to the effect of, "Good luck with figuring that out!" or "What a weird hour of TV!" The general thrust was that nobody envied me the task of having to make sense of what was already a legendarily baffling hour of TV to many.

So when I got home and watched the episode -- which is indeed pretty wacky but also terrific (you can read my recap here) -- I was surprised to find that I didn't think it was that hard to explain. Yes, there was some deliberately abstract storytelling, in the form of a long sequence set in the aftermath of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, but for the most part, the stuff that was mission critical to understanding what was going on was carefully highlighted and pointed out, and both the opening and closing 20 minutes of the episode were more or less straightforward narratives.

They just weren't narratives where the viewer immediately understood why the things that were happening were happening. As I said in my review, the "what" was relatively easy to explain, even to someone who'd never seen the show before. It's just that when you start to say, "And then the frog-bug crawled in the girl's mouth," you realize what you're saying doesn't make a ton of coherent sense.

And I think this was the point expressed by a lot of people who said, "Oh, boy, David Lynch is really taking it to those poor TV recappers!" (Full disclosure: I wrote a story with a headline very similar to that sentiment, so I bear some of the responsibility.) But that sentiment presumes that a.) Lynch knows or cares what a TV recap is (somehow I don't know that he reads a lot of them) and b.) that the role of the TV recap is to explain what happened to the viewer, to make sense of it, to explain all the whys and wherefores.

But should a recap have to do all of that? I guess that's a philosophy a lot of sites take, but I've always felt the recap was a virtual clearinghouse for viewers to think about what they just watched, rather than simply be told about what they just watched. It's not a format for "what" but for "why."

And yet I can sort of see how even if you adopt that theory of the recap, Twin Peaks might seem to foil it. What I mean by the "why" is that on a show like Mad Men, Don Draper will do something, and then you'll try to parse why he did it. With enough time under your belt, you can recognize his destructive patterns and maybe even start to anticipate them. (One reason so many got mad at the way he never seemed to learn lessons is because it seemed to work against how we think television "should" work, where characters have revelations and change -- except the vast majority of TV dramas don't really do that. Characters don't change. They just become more themselves. What changes is how we understand them.)

On Twin Peaks, it's really hard to talk about the why in this manner. Why does the Giant ascend into the sky and have glittering lights pop out of his head? Who knows! You can theorize and the like, but you're never going to figure it out 100 percent, because the series isn't about this sort of in-depth character examination but, instead, about capturing a kind of sensation and feeling that is hard to shake once it's under your skin. Twin Peaks (in the miniseries, at least) isn't really built to be pondered; it's built to tattoo itself on you.

What's interesting is how a lot of us really react poorly to this idea. Yeah, there's some of this in the world of film, but there, the idea of a movie that's more of an experience than a coherent narrative is at least semi-accepted (and sometimes makes for brilliant movies and sometimes makes for Transformers movies). But on TV, we have all these ideas of what the medium is "supposed" to look like that are only slowly being broken apart.

Think, for instance, of the way that Lost wrapped up. Now, there is a 100 percent coherent mythology of Lost that you can find YouTube videos and the like explaining. The writers of the show gave you more than enough information to piece together just about everything in the series. There are only a handful of "questions" left unanswered, and they're mostly minor ones (like who was shooting from the outrigger). But the reaction to that show is almost always, "Boy, they didn't explain anything." We're so accustomed to TV -- even good TV! -- holding our hands through the why, reassuring us that something is meant to be ambiguous, that when we get something that doesn't play by those rules, even a little bit, we sort of freak out.

I don't know what this means beyond, "This is a thing I've been thinking about," but the long and short of it is that I seem to be the only person I know who is impressed with just how coherent the new Twin Peaks is. The "what" is very clear -- and I'm content to sit back and let everything else wash over me, even if the "why" drifts very far out to sea.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox