Tag Archives: television

‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Has Made Traditional TV Recaps Obsolete

It might be technically over, but it’s been hard to let go of Twin Peaks: The Return, whose final two episodes aired last Sunday. I’d worried about this 18-part work, and how the powerful waves of nostalgia its arrival sent across the web would alter my experience of it. In the end, it was breathtaking: horrific, funny, bold, and masterful — even at its most frustrating.

The middle stretch of the series coincided with the seventh — mostly mediocre — season of Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition was revelatory: I realized how limited my tolerance of narrative experimentation had become in this supposed golden age of prestige television. On the right side, flimsy, expensive, predictable storytelling. On the left, something beautiful and impossible to define, at once seductive and hermetic. The two shows also encouraged very different types of engagement. Sure, redditors have come up with outré theories about both Jon Snow’s parentage and Agent Dale Cooper’s tulpas. But where the former forced you to think in straight lines and pose questions about verisimilitude (“how did those ravens fly so fast?”), the latter invited lateral explorations, detours, and multilayered analyses.

Speaking of which, Sarah Nicole Prickett has written gorgeous, spiral-like reviews after each episode (or pair of episodes), which Artforum has since collected into one mammoth post (the final installment is still forthcoming). These essays take the (mostly dull) genre of the weekly recap and inject it with a sense of intrepid questioning. Here, for example, is Prickett responding to the show’s eighth episode, likely the best hour of television I’ve ever watched.

Imagine having been a child in the jaundiced dawn of the Atomic Age, anticipating the death of all you’d known, the reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki transposed on your Manhattan, or your Missoula, Montana. Imagine seeing one photograph in particular, depicting the instant shared death of a hundred thousand people and thinking, “I have an idea.” Seeing a perfect image in . . . a mushroom cloud, and making it your own. Who is so outrageous? Sylvia Plath? Bruce Conner? I would kill someone to have that kind of brain, which is why God didn’t give it to me. He gave it to Lynch, who reappears on The Return as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, now with a fancier office, and behind his wide desk, as we saw in the third hour, a wider black-and-white photograph of a nuclear blast. Five hours later, this completely inappropriate decorating choice is explained.

We go to the first detonation of an atomic bomb, in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:45 AM (MWT). The date and time, with its stressed specificity, is like an evangelical’s save-the-date for this year’s doomsday. The Trinity Test we are about to see did in fact take place, but a shimmer of unlikelihood, like this is unbelievable, remains. The cloud mushrooms and swallows the camera, so it feels like we’re shrinking, like Alice in . . . Hell. The colors are too much for words: imperial purple, incarnadine orange, gold. (Lynch, in his wonderfully inadequate explanation for dissecting a stranger’s recently deceased cat in his basement, said that “when I opened up the inside, it was unbelievable—the organs inside the cat were brilliant colors, and as soon as the air got to them, all the color started draining out, right before your eyes.”) The rest of the episode is in lambent black-and-white, as in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are quivering shots, almost stills, displaying staticky, patterned abstractions that look like Ross Bleckner’s paintings after AIDS. Bleckner has said that the disease, with its radioactive threat, was “a total paradigm shift in consciousness, a rupture.”

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Remembering ‘Ally McBeal’s’ Creepy Dancing Baby

Twenty years ago, a quirky, hour-long dramedy about a young woman working at a law firm in Boston debuted and became a cultural phenomenon. The cast of that show, “Ally McBeal,” recently spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about how the show was developed, behind-the-scenes antics, and one very memorable dancing baby:

Gil Bellows (Billy Thomas): And then there was the Dancing Baby. I’m glad it brought attention to the show, but out of all the things that we explored, that was one of my least favorites.

Sandy Grushow (then-president, 20th Century Fox Television): I remember seeing a rough cut with the Dancing Baby when I was at home one night and I nearly fell out of bed. It was somewhere between creepy and charming.

David E. Kelley (executive producer/creator): The Dancing Baby scared and inspired us all! My assistant had come into my office one day and showed it to me on the computer. As soon as I saw it, I asked, “How do we get it into [the] show?” It may have been terrifying and hypnotic but it was also perfect for Ally. It tapped in to her internal war. She knew that on paper, a woman her age was supposed to be married with a child, but that wasn’t how she felt she wanted to be. The Dancing Baby represented that feeling.

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Failed Promises: A ‘Bachelorette’ Reading List

The Bachelorette came to an end on Monday when Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette, broke up with Peter and chose Bryan. Seven million viewers collectively released the most exasperated sigh they could muster in an already-exhausting year. Lost love is as horrible to experience on a television screen as it is in real life. 

As a first-time viewer, Rachel Lindsay drew me in with her easy smile, fiery confidence, and honest vulnerability. It felt powerful; a woman of color commanding both the camera and a palette of men eager to woo her. Watching the show was like vicariously living what I thought my twenties would be like: fun, flirty, and carefree. Her dark skin was a desired luxury in Bachelorette paradise. Rachel played the rejecter, not the rejected, and she didn’t have to gloss over her race with her suitors or the viewers. 

Before I could slip fully into this idealized universe, the rosé-tinted veil parted. Instead of the other, better world I’d hoped for, the past nine weeks brought unnamed racial tensions masked as entertainment, a hazy divide between reality and reality television, and millions of regular viewers questioning the morality of the network. 

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Into the Woods: Three Personal Essays on ‘Twin Peaks’

The return of Twin Peaks fills me with dread. It’s an excited dread — I can’t imagine not watching the third season of a show that has shaped my teenage years, and which I never expected to see brought back to life. But the unease is real. If it stinks, can its failure leave the original wholly intact? (I doubt it.) If I think it’s great, can I trust my own reaction? To what extent can I decouple aesthetic judgment from the thick ropes of nostalgia that bind the mythology of the show to my carefully constructed narrative of coming of age?

I watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks as a ninth-grader in suburban Tel Aviv. The world it depicted was not simply foreign; beyond the sheer power of narrative and emotion this was a largely hermetic surface. It invited obsessed, but mostly context-less, fandom. U.S. viewers have always seen in Lynch’s work a dark distortion of ’50s Americana; I observed it like a creepy diorama in a natural-history museum.

For better or for worse, this won’t be the case with the third season. I’ve now lived in British Columbia for six years. Those douglas firs, those clouds, that delicate balance of extreme beauty and extreme dreariness are no longer exotic. Strip away the otherworldly elements of the show, and you’re left with development, poverty, sexual violence, immigration, drug and human trafficking: the very same issues facing the Pacific Northwest / Lower Mainland I call home. What will this proximity do to the way I absorb the new season? I don’t know. For now it’s just adding another layer to the dread.

To help me process this feeling of cultural malaise, I’ve been reading a lot about the show in recent months: from its problematic representation of Native Americans and Indigenous culture to the making of Angelo Badalamenti’s matchless score. I stumbled on some contemporary features from 1990, which capture the show’s initial reception in the U.S. — something I couldn’t have experienced firsthand. But the pieces that I’ve enjoyed the most (maybe it’s the relief of seeing my narcissism refracted through others’ experiences?) are personal essays about the show and its place in the writer’s life. I belatedly discovered the Twin Peaks Project, a curated selection of writing on the show by author Shya Scanlon, and scoured its archives at length. Below are three pieces that stayed with me.

1. “The Trees, The Trees.” (Nathan Huffstutter, The Los Angeles Review of Books, February 6, 2015)

Huffstutter spent his childhood as a Pacific Northwest transplant — his family had moved from Southern California to Bend, Oregon, in the late 1970s (he has since returned to San Diego). This essay weaves together memories of teenage angst — in 1990 he wasn’t watching Twin Peaks but rather listening to Sonic Youth and the Pixies — with an exploration of the unspoken acts of violence that lurk under the surface in small towns both fictional and real. It’s a rich mix (Martin Heidegger and Michel Houellebecq make important cameo appearances) and it’s deeply satisfying and troubling.

2. “Our Doubles, Ourselves: Twin Peaks and My Summer at the Black Lodge.” (Linnie Greene, Hobart, December 12, 2014)

“In the first summer of my adulthood, after graduation, I would insert a VHS tape, already vintage, and inhale Twin Peaks like life support, transfixed and terrified.” Greene recounts a tumultuous period in her life — it included depression, an abusive relationship, and sexual assault — and how watching the show gave her a new, more sobering perspective on her position (and her limitations) as a young adult.

3. “Falling and Always Falling: Twin Peaks and the Clear-Cut Landscape.” (Matt Briggs, Moss, Winter 2014)

The endless forests of the Pacific Northwest are a key character in Twin Peaks; decades later, some establishing shots are still seared into my memory. In this piece, Briggs — who grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley, where many of the show’s outdoor scenes were filmed — focuses on the abrupt transitions between old-growth forest and human-built areas. He lingers on the ever-present threat of development, and how it plays out not just in the show’s narrative, but also in the region it depicts: “The fictional town is a location that reflects the tension between the fecundity of the ancient forests and the constant change of the new. The landscape of Twin Peaks represents loss inside of loss of loss.”

The Unnecessary Beauty of Ice Hockey

the goalie in an ice hockey game dives for the puck

“Sports! They are absurd and superfluous—and hockey is the most absurdly superfluous of them all.” Kent Russell loves hockey, a lot. I don’t and I have no idea who Eddie Olczyk or Doc Emrick are, but Russell’s writing about the game and its players (“two to six men fighting for the puck in a corner like two to six pigs wrestling over a Milk Dud”) is utterly engrossing, including a section on how television and play-by-play commentary change our experience of sports.

Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that watching a game on television as opposed to IRL at the arena is roughly analogous to watching a drama on a screen as opposed to a stage. In the arena or theater, I am responding to a total scene unfolding. My eye can wander while I take in everything at once. But onscreen, the play gets filtered through a camera lens, gets dislocated temporally so that the network can edit out a fourth-liner screaming FUCK! Onscreen, the play has its point-of-view shifted regularly—wide shot, now a behind-the-net shot, now the overhead shot, here’s the crowd shot. So that I apprehend the game not as drama but as mediated narrative. And I suppose I need all manner of commentary to help me thread together the disparate strands of that narrative.

I don’t know. Am I alone here? Does no one else think that Eddie Olczyk’s enthusiasm relates to the play only insofar as the play relates to whom Eddie Olczyk bet on that day? Does no one else hate that Doc Emrick calls games like a hen that wears a bonnet?

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When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Isn’t Fiction

I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.

Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community  —  the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

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The Anatomy of a TV Show: How ‘The Americans’ Is Made

Vox writer Caroline Framke shadowed the crew of FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans during the production of season four episode “Clark’s Place” and, last year, explained how the TV show was made. With episode four of season five airing tonight, we revisit Framke’s time on the set, as well as co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ thoughts on carefully shaping the entire narrative of the series, which is arguably one of the best yet underrated shows on television:

“My brain right now is 90 percent focused on the episodes that we’re writing and shooting now,” Weisberg said. “I have about 10 percent of my brain that is thinking about next season and the whole story arc for the series.”

. . . Fields doesn’t argue the point; he loves looking at the big picture. “If you’re just doing the episode that’s in front of you,” he said, eyes lighting up, “you’re not telling a big story.”

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The Mike and Carol Brady Art Collection

Mike and Carol Brady in front of a gem from their art collection.

Taking obsession with The Brady Bunch to a whole new level, blogger Kirk Demarais dissects the art collection used on set in Mike and Carol Brady’s glorious modern home on We Are the Mutants.

To point out the generic nature of the Brady’s artistic taste isn’t to say they weren’t on trend. After World War II, art was industrialized like never before in order to meet the demand for something to cover the walls of tens of thousands of new American homes. Companies like Turner Wall Accessory produced and reproduced hundreds of prints with the home decor market in mind. During this era, original art was often replicated by an assembly line of contract artists working under shared pseudonyms. The subjects were intentionally innocuous in contrast to the art world at large, where bold personalities emerged to break every conceivable convention. Like most Americans, the Brady’s humble art collection largely consists of commercially produced prints. This makes the family seem real and relatable to the viewer—until you remember that they have a live-in housemaid.

The production designers didn’t construct the Brady aesthetic from scratch. According to the The Brady Bunch Blog, the sets are full of props and artwork that previously appeared in other Paramount-produced television shows. There’s little chance of finding intentional parallels between the characters and their surroundings, but that needn’t stop us from applying our own meaning. It’s also worth noting that much of the art is repeatedly repositioned throughout the course of the show. It is unclear whether this is the result of less-than-vigilant set dressers or a class five haunting.

Mom always says don’t play ball in the house, Bobby. She wanted to protect this precious collection.

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Twenty Years of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’: A Reading List

It was me friend Anna who encouraged me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After my initiation, Anna made sick playlists featuring the bands of The Bronze—the nightclub in Sunnydale, where Buffy took place—and shared the soundtrack to the infamous musical episode “Once More With Feeling” with me. But I don’t remember consciously watching Buffy—it feels like I absorbed it by osmosis, or drank a large, invisible Big Gulp of Whedonverse. Like all of the folks in the essays below, I find Buffy the Vampire Slayer engrossing and nuanced. It’s not perfect, but it is wonderful.

Anna also designed me a t-shirt with THE BRONZE emblazoned on the chest. It’s tight and black with white letters, and I get complimented every time I wear it. It fits perfectly underneath my jean jacket. I wear it when I want to feel prepared, strong, sexy. It’s what Buffy would want.

1. “‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ is the Greatest Show in the History of Television.” (Rachel Vorona Cote, The Week, March 2017)

Some time ago, I compiled a writing playlist comprised of my favorite instrumental pieces. Propelled by instinct rather than reason, I included “Sacrifice,” the music that concludes the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband watched with mild bemusement as I clicked and dragged the file to a place of prominence within the mix. “Are you sure you want to listen to ‘Sacrifice’ while you’re trying to work?” he asked. “You cry every single time.”

2. “Once More With Feeling: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Birthday Roundtable.” (Autostraddle, March 2017)

Autostraddle staffers share their come-to-Buffy moments, with especially insightful commentary about seeing queerness and depression represented on-screen.

3. “The Enduring Legacy of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ 20 Years Later.” (Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture, March 2017)

One of my favorite aspects of Bastién’s analysis is the reminder that Buffy ends up single. Though you’ll find Buffy aficionados have Many Opinions about her love interests (we can all agree Riley is trash, right?), “This series was daring enough to say that its lead heroine’s romantic journey wasn’t her most important. Adulthood for Buffy was marked…[by] her relationship with her own identity and destiny.” This is an important reminder for women everywhere, I think. We can forge our own way. We don’t have to be at the mercy of the tropes foisted upon us.

4. “If the Loneliness Comes, Beep Me.” (Brian T. Burns, March 2017)

My editor, Mike, tipped me off to this wonderful, touching essay in which writer Burns turns to Buffy to help him process sadness.

5. “How ‘Buffy’ Changed Television For A New Generation.” (Alanna Bennett, BuzzFeed, March 2017)

Scandal, The 100, The Hunger Games, Veronica Mars…so many seminal works of television and film owe their story arcs and character development to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

The David Letterman University of Excessive Self-Deprecation

Over at Vulture, David Marchese sits down to a nice long conversation with the great David Letterman to rap about Dave’s thirty-three years in television, the evolution of late-night, what obligations comedians have to put comedy in service of our nation, and the loneliness of retirement. Wait, why is this man retired? Dave, please pop your head up more often!

How? Is comedy useful for that?

Comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves. Alec Baldwin deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sadly, he’s not going to get it from this president.

Can you explain that a bit more? How does satire protect us from Donald Trump?

The man has such thin skin that if you keep pressure on him — I remember there was a baseball game in Cleveland, and a swarm of flies came on the field and the batters were doing this [mimes swatting at flies] while the pitcher was throwing 100 miles an hour. Well, that’s Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live. It’s distracting the batter. Eventually Trump’s going to take a fastball off the sternum and have to leave the game.

There’s this idea that reducing Trump to a punchline could make him seem harmless or helps to normalize him. Is there any validity to that argument?

I guess it’s a possibility. On the other hand, Donald Trump can be Donald Trump, but if he doesn’t help the people that need help, then he’s just a jerk. That press conference that he held berating the news media? I mean, how do you build a dictatorship? First, you undermine the press: “The only truth you’re going to hear is from me.” And he hires the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Steve Bannon, to be his little buddy. Bannon looks like a guy who goes to lunch, gets drunk, and comes back to the office: “Steve, could you have just one drink?” “Fuck you.” How is a white supremacist the chief adviser to our president? Did anybody look that up? I don’t know. How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here? Don’t I seem like I’m full of something?

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