Twin Peaks, The Fugitive, and Other Dominant Plots

So, in a comment on last week’s “Twin Peaks” post, Tom sent me to this article. I had noticed the initial scene with Lily, and it’s a good scene where an odd-seeming aspect pays off later, although in this case it was explicitly explained. Still, even at the time I knew that it was going to have some kind of meaning later, which made it interesting instead of just confusing. At any rate, though, I don’t really want to talk about that. I instead want to continue talking about solving Laura Palmer’s murder as per this quote from the article:

“Twin Peaks” was conceived as a series (like “The Fugitive” before it) in which the central “mystery” (Who killed Laura Palmer? Who killed Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife? And what of the one-armed man?) would spin off new complications, week after week, but would never really be solved — at least (in the case of “The Fugitive”) until the end of the series. (I like to think of it as sort of the TV series version of Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” where the characters keep on walking but never seem to get anywhere. Instead of preventing these people from eatinga meal, “Twin Peaks” would continually deny the audience and the characters a solution to the mystery. I still think that’s a great idea.)

But soon (or finally, depending on how you look at it), public and network pressure forced the hand of “Twin Peaks” co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, and they revealed Laura Palmer’s murderer a few weeks into the second season. Lynch said recently (2007) in Seattle that, for him, the series was basically over once identity of Laura’s killer was exposed. Ratings dived and creative ennui set in shortly thereafter.

This is an interesting example, because there are a number of shows that did have that sort of central premise driving their show. “The Fugitive” is one example that is explicitly driven by a murder mystery, but “The Incredible Hulk” is another example, as is “Star Trek: Voyager”. But the interesting thing about them is that for all of them it would be difficult to imagine the series continuing if the main plot was resolved, or at least that the story would have to change dramatically in that case. If you solve the murder in “The Fugitive”, we would expect the main character to settle down somewhere and for his story to end. If David Banner ever managed to free himself from the Hulk, then he would have no reason to wander the country and wouldn’t be a fugitive anymore. Arguably, you could bring Voyager home, but all that would do is turn the series back into a regular Star Trek series (which, in actuality, was one of the big complaints against it, that it introduced a unique premise and didn’t do anything with it). In all of these cases, the show would have to dramatically change if that plot point was resolved.

This was not the case for the murder of Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks”. Since most of the interactions were about things that happened in and around “Twin Peaks”, and from what I’ve heard was deliberately aiming to show a seamy side underneath the seeming quaint and tranquil small town, it was easy to imagine that solving the murder wouldn’t really impact the series as a whole. Given how important the murder was made to the story and how dramatically it was portrayed, this turn the murder into something more like “Who Shot J.R.?” from “Dallas”, which was so huge that it was something that needed to be resolved before changing focus to new, less dramatic storylines. So if Lynch wanted to make the murder into a driving force for the story akin to the murder in “The Fugitive”, he completely failed to do so, and thus the network was actually correct in recognizing that and pushing for a resolution. I’ve already commented on why I think the shift to the post-murder show failed, but why did Laura Palmer’s murder turn out more like “Dallas” than like “The Fugitive”?

One of the things that those plots did was drive the main character forward into the new situations they found themselves in. Much of the time, where they traveled do and what they did was tied directly into that main plot: they went there to investigate a lead or track something down or investigate something that might cure them or whatever. However, since the plots also encouraged wandering, there was room to slip in other stories as well, as they just by coincidence wander into an area where other things happened to them. In those cases, the premise works in the same manner as “The Foundation for Law and Government” worked in “Knight Rider” or the jobs in “A-Team”: an excuse to get the main character or characters to a place and into a plot that the writers want to explore. But in the last two cases it is clear that you could change those premises and the show could survive, although possibly changed. In fact, “A-Team” actually did change their premise in the last season, but the replacement premise lost some of the more interesting implications — that they were doing jobs to mostly help people despite being chased by the government — and so failed. Yet, it is clear that those sorts of premises aren’t enough to drive a “Fugitive”-style show.

And note that “Twin Peaks” didn’t even rise to that level with the murder of Laura Palmer, because the scope of the show was too small to pull that off. We didn’t have a main character or characters wandering the world and meeting new people and new situations every week, allowing for a wide range of plots to explore. “Twin Peaks” really was a soap opera in its scope: mostly focusing on the concerns and lives of people in the town itself. You aren’t going to get the sort of wandering plot in a show like that. Which is not to say that that sort of show is bad — remember, I do like the show — but just that it is missing the scope that was an important part of the shows I mentioned earlier.

But, again, that’s not enough, as seen with the examples of “Knight Rider” and “A-Team”. What is important with a plot that is going to carry a series and be one where we cannot imagine the series continuing if the plot is resolved is that it is in fact deeply personal to the main character or characters. It is a driving force in their lives, and in terms of the series is the driving force in their lives. The main character in “The Fugitive” has had his entire life overturned by the murder accusation, and clearing his name is the most important thing to him. David Banner’s life was overturned and is dominated by the monster dwelling within him, and curing himself is the most important thing in his life. In Voyager, all the characters want to get home, and that’s the driving force in their lives. The shows can drift from that main thrust at times, but if it drifts for too long into too deep a plot, we will start to wonder why the main characters are spending their time on the things that are less important to them instead of trying to solve their main issues. This is what makes those premises the sort of plot they are: they are both so important and so personal that the series itself cannot survive if they are ever resolved.

In my examination above, I’ve already talked about how the Laura Palmer murder-mystery was too important to be ignored. It was important enough that if the main characters and show ignored it for too long, we would wonder why they weren’t dealing with it. But that would have been true for “Who Shot J.R.?” in “Dallas” as well, or any major soap opera plot. However, the murder mystery wasn’t personal to any of the main characters. Agent Cooper was there to solve the mystery, but that was only the reason he came to the town in the first place. If the mystery was resolved, he would have to leave or they would have to find another reason for him to stay. The sheriff, arguably the other main character, wanted to solve the mystery, but again it wasn’t the driving force in his life at that point. The people who were most personally affected by the murder were minor characters. So the main things that the series focused on could have carried on even if the murder was solved. The hidden secrets and relationships would remain, and those could have evolved and new ones could have arisen even after the murder was solved. So it seems that Lynch et al made the mistake of thinking that a murder mystery in and of itself could be a premise that could last through an entire series, when that wasn’t what made it work in “The Fugitive”. They made a mystery, but forgot to make it sufficiently personal to carry the plot as they wanted it to.

There are two oddities here. The first is that they could, in fact, have made that work if they had made Cooper far more obsessed with it for reasons that they could have filled in later. However, they didn’t do that. They also could have, as I noted, written things so that the murder plot was the instigator of events and led to much more important things to investigate later, such as what as corrupting relatively good people and the underlying supernatural element (and even the aliens events outlined in the various books). But the show focused too much on the lives of small town Twin Peaks, and that didn’t need the murder plot to keep going … but was often overshadowed by it anyway.

The second is that “The Return” had the scope that would have had a better chance of pulling it off. Building it around the mystery of what really happened to Agent Cooper would have given them a plot that was important and personal enough to the players — especially the FBI agents — to carry the series and the different locations and travels had the scope to utilize that premise effectively. And yet it seems like he didn’t really try, as there is no great mystery in “The Return”.

At any rate, I have to reiterate my belief that the network was right here and Lynch was wrong. As written, the Laura Palmer murder wasn’t a plot that could carry a series like the premise of “The Fugitive”, but it was too important to simply leave unresolved. Lynch might have intended something like “The Fugitive”, but when it turned out to be insufficiently like it resolving the premise was the right call, and still could have carried the most interesting aspects of the show if they had just tried.

3 Responses to “Twin Peaks, The Fugitive, and Other Dominant Plots”

  1. verbosestoic Says:

    Actually, I just started rewatching Dark Shadows, and noted that it did what Lynch wanted to do with Twin Peaks, as it started with the huge mystery of Victoria Winters’ parentage but never resolved it (a later statement confirmed that Elizabeth was her mother). But it did it in the way I described above, by burying that mystery underneath the more interesting, compelling, and ultimately supernatural storylines. It acknowledged this later by dropping the introduction and focus on Victoria and focusing more on Barnabas.

    People still wanted it resolved, but felt that it could wait with the more compelling storylines making their presence known. Lynch would have needed to do that with Twin Peaks and I, at least, don’t think he had anything like that by the time he solved the murder.

  2. Tom Says:

    Lynch very much thinks in terms of symbol and subtext and his ‘soap opera’ storyline seemed to be a mechanism for introducing his real obsessions. It’s a good question whether that would really work for a network: combining his surrealist interests with film noir. (‘Laura Palmer’ is said to be inspired by Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ about a detective obsessed with the painting of a dead woman).

    Consider Gordon’s ‘blue rose’ cases. I’ve long thought it was a reference to the ‘blue flower’ of the Romanticism movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_flower. Reading the Wikipedia article clinched it for me when I remembered that it was also featured in Lynch’s short film ‘Lady Blue Shanghai’ which you can see on Youtube (and weirdly was a commercial for Christian Dior). It reminds me (coincidentally) of the worldwide success of Umberto Eco’s bestselling novel ‘The Name of the Rose’. That was also a muder mystery involving Benedictine monks where the mystery was almost beside the point and was the opportunity for Eco to delve into his allusions to semiotics, metanarrative and the like. The average reader of Eco’s book or viewer of Lynch’s show was probably just interested in the mystery…

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think it could, because I’m watching “Dark Shadows” now and it lasted mixing gothic horror with a soap opera format, and as noted in the first post “Days of Our Lives” had supernatural elements as well as normal soap opera ones, and so did “Passions”, I think. Mixing in the surreal — as long as it wasn’t just weird but always paid off later — should work if properly written. I think they just really struggled to make it work in that format.

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