They Alive, Dammit. It’s a Miracle!


The best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way its premise is set up with an uplifting viral video theme song that’s abruptly cut short. Or how one of the “mole women” calls Matt Lauer “Bryant” and it’s never commented on. Or how Matt Lauer remarks that in 15 years, Donna Maria never learned English, and her caption says “These bitches never bothered to learn Spanish.” Or how the Today show producers shove the women out into New York City with gift bags, cheerily saying “Thank you, victims!” before slamming the big metal doors shut behind them. Or how Kimmy says “nukular” during her Today show interview, and then during her big Act 3 inspirational speech says she got “tooken” by a cult leader. Or how that inspirational speech is prompted by a rat in a New York trash can. Or how Jane Krakowski’s character has a refrigerator specifically for bottled water, and she casually tosses an unused bottle in the garbage after it’s been offered. Or how Kimmy dresses in the bright clothes of a middle-school-aged girl and it’s contrasted against every single other resident of New York, or how she runs wide-eyed into Saks Fifth Avenue and the only thing she’s chosen to buy is a pair of light-up sneakers.

What I’m saying here is that it’s got the best first episode of anything that I’ve seen in years. It’s like Lost pilot strong in terms of setting the tone of the series and getting me hooked. In fact, its ultimately uplifting message of indomitable spirit in the face of adversity was kind of lost on me, since I just went away thinking that I’ll probably never write a script that good.

I threatened to write a Slate-style think piece about how the opening theme of the show works on multiple levels to perfectly encapsulate the combination of satire and celebration that runs throughout the series. Then the show stole my thunder by making it all explicit over the course of the next few episodes. (Netflix means going from hyped-up first episode excitement to post-season-finale depression in less than two days).

For starters, it’s catchy as hell. I’d thought that it was just a reference to the Gregory Brothers’ viral videos, but was glad to find out that they were essentially referencing themselves. It gives a Gilligan’s Island setup of the premise of the series — four women released into 2014 after being kidnapped and held underground by a post-apocalyptic cult leader — but does it in the way that we hear about horrible stuff in 2014, through viral YouTube remixes of news reports. (“Also, look at these sunglasses I found. Unbreakable.”)

It’s a satire of how we take people’s personal stories of horror and tragedy, and then repackage and commodify them as concern-tainment. Like Titus says later on in the series, it gives people the chance to see all the lurid details of a story, but also lets them feel good about themselves for being concerned and having an opinion. And it requires no effort apart from paying attention just long enough for the media to get fixated on the next story. It’s Ace in the Hole condensed to about 60 seconds.

But it’s not presented as cynical, inert satire; nor as a j’accuse! condemnation. It’s an auto-tuned pop gospel song, a celebration. Of freedom and children getting to enjoy their childhood and dancing dogs in suits and scenes from the musical Daddy’s Boy. And I like how the theme song just says “girls” and “females” and not “women,” not just as a shallow “take back the language of MRAs,” but as an affirmation that the idea of strength is much more powerful than any PC name-wrangling.

And all that stuff is in there because the series has the same sensibility as 30 Rock — smart and confident enough in its own intelligence to be unabashedly absurd without spinning off into irrelevance, and able to combine dark and silly without losing either. Plus, you need to watch with subtitles on to get all the jokes.

Apparently, the series was first pitched to NBC, and they liked it but didn’t know where or when to air it, so it went to Netflix. Even though I would’ve liked to enjoy a full season of hype, running on Netflix was likely the best choice as there’s no feeling of self-censoring going on here. 30 Rock was at its best when it kept the sitcom format as just the barest skeleton for a bizarre storyline or stunt-casting guest appearance, like Paul Reubens as a horribly inbred prince. The equivalents here are Martin Short as a mad plastic surgeon and Nick Kroll as a cultish exercise leader, and they’re still batshit insane but grounded in a theme: the ways women fall into the trap of feeling worthless or unsure of themselves.

Ellie Kemper is amazing as Kimmy Schmidt; she deserves an Emmy for her reaction shots alone. It would’ve been easy for the performance, like the show itself, to settle into a rut of “wide-eyed teenager” or “fish out of water” or “unsinkable Molly Brown,” but she encompasses all of it. Constantly. Her entire first-time-in-New-York sequence is limited to the first five minutes of the first episode, and then afterwards she’s a real character. (Whose entire frame of reference is 1999 teen girl culture and a post-apocalyptic death cult). The 30 Rock style of delivering side jokes is so established now that it can seem formulaic, but when Kimmy answers an unrelated question with “yes, there was weird sex stuff” it’s a jolt that reminds you of the darkness that’s behind every joke.

And speaking of 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski is essentially doing a variation of Jenna Mulroney, but there’s more depth to her character (Mrs. Voorhees, because this series is brilliant) than there was on a network sitcom. The series doesn’t have any interest in bringing Strong Female Characters, but includes women of various states of intelligence, self-destructiveness, and general competence. Carol Kane’s character may be the closest to a stock character that the series has, but her delivery sells it. Tina Fey’s guest appearance as a permed incompetent lawyer is the exact opposite of Liz Lemon. And really, Jane Krakowski never got nearly enough credit for mastering the 30 Rock delivery, which she effortlessly does here without the benefit of Jackie Jorp-Jomp or The Rural Juror.

(The only reason I don’t have more to say about Titus Burgess is that the role seems to have been made specifically for him. It’s impressive to be able to take a character that insufferably self-absorbed and make him sympathetic).

It may be corny to say so, but I think that airing on Netflix instead of broadcast TV was the best thing for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because it feels like it belongs in a new medium. It’s something that could only exist in 2015, a time that Kimmy insists on calling “the future.”

No wait, I got it: the absolute best thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the flashback to the bunker when Cyndee was overcome with Hulkamania and Kimmy had to talk her down by pretending to by Macho Man Randy Savage. Oh yeah, brother!

Firewatch

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There’s a phenomenon both charming and insufferable (depending on how inspired or intimidated you happen to be feeling at the time) in which people who are really good at what they do start to take it for granted. (I think a term more sophisticated than “the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect” has been floated out there, but I don’t need to do any research to find it because I am awesome at psychology). So they tend to downplay the results, assuming that everyone is starting from the same baseline level of competence and that anyone could achieve the same results by putting in the same amount of effort.

Which can result in Campo Santo, a small-ish start-up studio of absurdly talented people, fairly quietly making Firewatch, which may be the best-looking game I’ve ever seen from any studio of any size.

Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, since they managed to assemble the closest you’re probably ever going to see to a “supergroup” in something as ego-driven as video games. By the time they’d assembled the guys who’d brought the first real innovation to narrative-driven adventure games in years; a ridiculously talented graphic designer; and artists and programmers quietly talented enough to turn graphic design into a real place you could walk around in; the best sound designers, composers, and voice directors; then adding backing from Panic — a company with its own reputation for combining solid software with outstanding design and its own sensibility for making weird, innovative stuff — it all just seemed like overkill.

But even knowing that, the game looks better than I’d anticipated. I’ve been deliberately avoiding seeing too much of it apart from the screenshots and promotional material, but seeing it in motion is even better. It’s as if they took Olly Moss’s prints (which I really wish I’d bought when I had the chance, now) and turned them into 3D spaces. It’s graphic design sensibility and all the obsessive detail that goes into a static image, now spread across an entire section of wilderness.

When The Orange Box came out, I said that with Half-Life 2 and especially Team Fortress 2, Valve was working harder on visuals than they really needed to. They could get away with a lot less effort. There’s doubtless going to be plenty of comparisons of the look of Firewatch to Team Fortress 2 — which I believe is high praise — but I think it’s a good lesson to all of us non-artists about how much thought goes into art direction and world creation. TF2 had to emphasize playability, which means readability of the characters and environment and maneuverability around the space. Firewatch is no doubt concerned with much of that, but also focused on mood, narrative, and time. The brief bit I saw had the main character finding a group of unruly teens, then heading towards a cave as a storm was approaching. Even in that short segment, you could see all kinds of subtle storytelling going on. While TF2 is going for slapstick, bombastic action, and fast pace, Firewatch seems like a slow burn (sorry) towards an emotional climax: the tension between tedium and danger, a beautiful natural environment taken for granted, isolation vs. human connection.

Which leads to something I hope doesn’t get lost while everyone is talking about the confident art direction: the level of engagement you get from the premise of a first-person narrator having a running conversation with an unseen voice on the radio. It’s a brilliant case of an entire narrative being built on a single, easily-definable character relationship. (Like, for instance, that of a convicted murderer having to become surrogate parent to a little girl). At the risk of hyperbole: it reveals an innate understanding of how interactive entertainment works and how it’s unique, more than any number of hypothetical discussions about “ludonarrative dissonance” and the tension between “developer’s story” and “player’s story.”

The reason is that it understands that engagement is more necessary than any bullshit goal of “player empowerment.” The conversational options in Firewatch aren’t just joke dispenser voice menus, nor are they Critical Action Time Choice Junctures® in which you’re arbitrarily deciding what role you’re going to play for the next 1-5 minutes of developer-provided content. Instead, my friend Jared articulated it a lot better than I could: more often than not, you get to a moment in Firewatch, and you think, “I want to say this thing,” and then that thing pops up on the screen as a dialogue option. Get that balance right, and all the years spent thinking of how to fix the problem of “players wanting to break the game” just vanish. It’s not about empowering the player to do what she wants, because that keeps the player at a level of role-playing or gaming the system instead of genuine engagement and inhabiting the character.

It seems like a subtle, almost indefinable skill. But then, there are a lot of aspects of The Walking Dead that I’d thought would have a subtle impact, but instead ended up pushing forward the experience in ways that years of emulating traditional SCUMM games weren’t able to.

So yeah, I admit that I’m biased when I say I really want Campo Santo and Firewatch to get the success they deserve. But I also sincerely think they’re doing something capital-I Important (even if they’d never describe it as such). If there’s one thing that game developers are good at (including myself), it’s aping other games. If we get enough people pointing at a beautiful, engaging, and mature experience and saying, “This. We want to make more of this,” then the entire medium will be better off.

Red Room Resolutions

TwinPeaksDoppelganger
I spent a few thousand words figuring the whole Twin Peaks problem, and that’s without even mentioning the Red Room. I was more interested in the more plot-driven, primetime-soap-opera aspects of it. That was the stuff that I’ve spent years being dismissive of, because I first watched the series in 1990 and could never make sense of it.

Re-watching the series now, in order, including the essential (and long unavailable) pilot episode, has helped me make sense of the series. Or at least, re-evaluate my memory of the series and my assumptions of what it was trying to do. All the bizarre, awkward, and disturbing stuff isn’t just a bunch of stylistic flourishes or weirdness for its own sake, but is there for a reason.

As I’m watching the series with a newfound understanding and appreciation of it, I get to the end of the third episode (helpfully named “Episode 2″). It’s Agent Cooper’s first dream sequence in the Red Room. It’s the most iconic image of Twin Peaks, the first thing that people think of when they hear “Twin Peaks,” even more than the title card, “damn good coffee,” and solitary traffic lights. It’s been parodied and referenced and “re-interpreted” dozens of times over the past 24 years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted from it, while of course doing The Man From Another Place’s little dance. It’s revisited multiple times throughout the series, and all of its content is explained over the course of the following episodes as we learn more about Laura Palmer’s murder.

So I revisited this old, familiar scene, and it completely blew my mind. Enough to challenge some of the most basic assumptions I’ve let build up for years. And enough to inspire me to change how I think about creative works, both as an audience member and as an aspiring creator. Here are the two main ones, in Buzzfeed-style list format:

1. Stop being reductive.

Everything that dream sequence establishes for the narrative could’ve been accomplished a lot more quickly and easily without having to hire a designer or teaching a bunch of actors to speak backwards.

And doing it efficiently would’ve robbed pop culture in general — and television in particular — of some of its most indelible images.

In fact, the series did more efficiently deliver all the information from its dream sequence. It was serialized network television in the Dark Times before DVRs, so even something as bizarre as Twin Peaks was obligated to get the audience back up to speed each episode. It’s not as if the series was so enamored of its artistic vision that it ignored its own format.

And I’m not suggesting that there was ever actually the proposal: “Let’s ditch this whole thing and just have Cooper saying, ‘Diane I just had the weirdest dream.'” I think the problem of being reductive is more pervasive and more subtle than that. It happens gradually, often without our even realizing that that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve already got a tendency to treat narrative works as if they were puzzle boxes, or math problems. Break everything down to its basic components, then you’ve figured out what the artist was trying to say. Ax + By + Cz = Fargo. (Or, for that matter, “Twin Peaks is about nostalgia for something that never existed” or “Twin Peaks is Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place.”)

To make matters worse, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was coming off a brief (and mostly unsuccessful) stint as a film and TV major, which just enabled all the worst pick-it-apart tendencies. Sparse sets with ornate furnishings and the shadow of a piece of fabric blowing in the wind? I’ve seen Spellbound, thank you, and I know how movies and TV represent dream interpretation. Here’s what the scene is trying to accomplish artistically.

Plus, the scene seems to beg for interpretation. This is the climactic scene in the episode, and the breakthrough point of a murder investigation. Here’s what all the clues mean to the case. Here’s what the scene is doing narratively, which of course is the whole point of a murder mystery.

But the scene is stunning even to those of us who already know the solution to the mystery, and to those of us who’ve seen some of the works that inspired it. Not everything can or should be boiled down to a plot point or a visual reference. To suggest that there’s a “right answer” is, essentially, reducing artistic communication to telecommunications: the artist assembles a packet of “Important Meaning,” I process it and then acknowledge by blogging, “I get it!”

It’s not all or nothing, and it’s not a sudden insistence that everything be straightforward, non-challenging, and explainable. It’s a gradual process where our obsession with understanding art slowly takes dominance over our ability to just appreciate it. And in my case, at least, it was made worse by several years working to literally reduce stories down to a series of puzzles.

Screw the culture that turned “respect for the reader’s time” into “tl,dr.” Or “accessibility” into “complete lack of challenge.” Interpretation is fine, and even useful, but not if it’s presented as if it’s the single correct solution. And definitely not to the point where it reduces all media into Wikipedia summaries and, even worse, TV Tropes pages. It’s insidious, because it can feel productive, disguising itself as deeper engagement with and appreciation for media. But left unchallenged, it turns simply into the old problem of Cliffs Notes trying to substitute for the real thing.

2. Set a limit for compromises.

One of the best aspects of the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast is that it’s a reminder of how popular Twin Peaks was. I’ve always mis-remembered the show as some obscure cult classic, when in fact “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was as big a pop culture obsession in 1990 as “Who Shot J.R.?” was in 1980. [Ed Note: I’m 43 years old.]

To somebody who’s spent years insisting on a rigid division between “good” and “popular”, it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance. Not just this shit actually aired on primetime network television in the early 90s?! but here’s a weird dwarf in a red suit dancing and talking backwards, and not only was it not immediately canceled, but it became a hit?!

For Twin Peaks, it goes back to that notion of accessibility and awareness of its own format. Murder mysteries are inherently compelling. So are soap operas, and in fact all serialized narratives. It would’ve been easy for successful filmmakers to dismiss a TV soap opera as slumming, just because the standouts up to that point were Dynasty, Dallas, and a bunch of other competent series that never strived for much more than “entertainment.”

Instead, Lynch and Frost made something that didn’t just use its format to make a commentary on its format and its audience, but used the format to make all their bizarre fever dreams accessible to their audience. It’s a brilliant way to take what most people would consider a limitation, and instead turn it into a strength. (Two of my favorite examples in video games: Grim Fandango‘s use of low-poly skeletons against pre-rendered backgrounds, which was a concession to the technical limitations of 3D at the time but has aged better than most contemporary fully 3D games. And the low-poly characters in Gravity Bone and 30 Flights of Loving are an essential part of its artistic design; having “higher fidelity” just wouldn’t be nearly as cool or memorable).

So bizarre stuff can be hugely popular. And accessibility and artistic vision aren’t mutually exclusive. Got it.

On top of that, I’ve got a deep-seated revulsion to auteur theory that’s so strong, I have a knee-jerk reaction to even innocuous interviews with “creative leads” as being repulsively fetishistic. I’ve experienced what it’s like to work on a project where egos are allowed to run unchecked, a couple of them where my ego was allowed to run unchecked. Plenty of “masterworks” are actually the work of dozens if not hundreds of people, and the people who most vocally defend the notion of the auteur are either the ones who are getting the credit, or aspiring to get all the credit.

Or the ones who are so far removed from the process that it’s a complete mystery to them. I have next to no understanding of how major film production works, so I’m often giving the Coen Brothers credit for Roger Deakins’s or Barry Sonnenfeld’s work (and sometimes, even Roderick Jaynes’s work). It’s pervasive, and it’s dismissive of the value of creative collaboration.

As a result of all of that, I’ve turned accessibility, collaboration, and compromise into a mantra.

And then I get a reminder: no wait, David Lynch and Mark Frost really are geniuses.

It’s not the work of any one person, it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it didn’t spring fully-formed from one person’s mind, and it didn’t even happen without precedent. But still, it had to take a singular artistic vision to convince so many people that this was going to turn out to be a good idea.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing. No doubt they had to make a ton of compromises and concessions, both technical and artistic. And it’s still entirely possible to be so confident in your own vision that you’re completely insufferable. But the first part of knowing where to draw the line is acknowledging that there’s so much leeway that a line even needs to be drawn. That there’s no one right way to do it. That there’s plenty of middle ground between egomania and complete self-censorship.

Even if we’ve never had to deal with it directly, I think most of us are familiar with the idea of horrible feedback. The clueless network executive, the crass and venal marketing team, the vocal critic, the insipid client: it’s so common that it’s become a stereotype.

But I’ve started to believe that the stereotype has backfired, and it’s far more dangerous to set the bar as low as the worst possible example. To believe that anything other than useless feedback is constructive feedback, or that anything less than completely abandoning your “vision” is acceptable compromise. It’s dangerous because it’s a slow decline, a gradual chipping away at integrity — with the constant reassurance that it’s not “that bad” — enough so that what you once would’ve considered unacceptable is now taken as a matter of course, and the demands get more and more absurd.

Eventually, you get to take a step back, and it’s almost as if you’ve become a different person. A long series of gradual, “harmless” compromises have resulted in something that can no longer be called even a collaboration, because there’s no trace left of you. Everything you valued in the first place — the entire reason you decided to do what you do — has been de-emphasized if not outright lost. You’re just left with the question “why am I doing this at all?”

(Purely a hypothetical, of course).

Seeing the Red Room in 2014 was a reminder of the version of me that saw the Red Room in 1990. And inspiration to start un-learning all the stuff I’ve taught myself since then. To get away from the person who’d say what does this mean? or how could you possibly broadcast this on TV today? and get back to the one who just said this is awesome I want to make a living making stuff like this.

That Gum I Liked Has Gone Out of Style

Laura Palmer Black Lodge
Recently I started watching Twin Peaks again, both because of the announcement of the new Showtime series, and because a couple of my friends have started a Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast. I’ve been realizing that it’s the first time I’ve seen full episodes, in order, since the show originally aired. (And I was a college sophomore).

What hit me first during the rewatch is how wrong I’ve been about the series, for years. I remembered it as being wildly uneven: some of the hands-down best scenes in the history of television, mixed in with a lot of painfully clumsy attempts at comic relief, long stretches of weirdness simply for the sake of weirdness, and a central plot that completely derails once its instigating mystery procedural is solved.

I’ve always thought of it as one my favorite television series, but it wasn’t until now that I appreciated just how good it is. (It probably helps that this is likely the first time I’ve seen it in order, without missing any scenes or episodes, something that was impossible in my distracted-college-student, pre-DVR days). It’s deeper than I thought, with the most obvious themes of the series being echoed and reinforced at every level. And it’s more cohesive than I ever realized: individual scenes and even entire storylines that once seemed superfluous now seem to fit in perfectly with those themes.

It’s not just that I didn’t understand it when I first watched it; I don’t think I could possibly have understood it. Not without seeing everything that came after.

Blue Velvet Meets Peyton Place

Both David Lynch and Mark Frost are quoted (in the same newspaper!) as describing Twin Peaks as Blue Velvet meets Peyton Place. Instead of doing any deeper Google detective work to find out which one of them actually said it, I’m going to leave it a mystery to myself. It’s a good reminder that the series was driven by two people, and not just the “typical David Lynch weirdness” that I’d always remembered.

(Incidentally: if you haven’t read Frost’s novels The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, I highly recommend them. Not only are they two of my favorite books, they’re essentially Mark Frost doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen six years before Alan Moore).

The reference to Peyton Place was lost on me at the time, and it still is, since I’ve never seen the series. I’m assuming that it’s mainly just a reference to the format, since Peyton Place was (at least according to Wikipedia) the first primetime soap opera.

But the first thing that jumped out at me, watching the series in 2014, is just how much of Twin Peaks shows that self-awareness of the format. It’s most obvious with Invitation to Love, of course, the soap opera within a soap opera. But that just makes it explicit. It’s an acknowledgement to the audience that they’re perfectly aware that it’s over the top, and they’re doing it that way for a reason. It’s a television series that’s extremely aware that it’s a television series.

Even when it first aired, I got some of the callbacks to earlier television series. I may be too young to get references to Peyton Place, but I did have access to Nick at Nite. So I assumed that Laura Palmer’s identical cousin wasn’t just a reference to soap operas’ fondness for identical twins, but the specifically implausible only-on-TV premise of The Patty Duke Show. And I understood that the fixation on a one-armed man as key witness in a murder investigation was a reference to The Fugitive.

With the casting, I assumed that Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from West Side Story, and Piper Laurie from tons of stuff, were all meant to evoke the 60s. Basically, they were doing Quentin Tarantino’s schtick of establishing a time period via referential casting, before Tarantino did it.

Now that I’m a step removed from trying to follow the plot and just make sense of everything in general, I can see the “classic soap opera” influences in every scene. The score isn’t just the constant, ominous synthesizer drone I remembered (I spent basically an entire year of college with the tape of the Twin Peaks soundtrack playing on constant loop in my car) but segues into the flowery, melodramatic piano prevalent in soap operas. But in Twin Peaks, it’s not just “prevalent” but “omnipresent”; Donna Hayward and Sarah Palmer in particular are perpetually caught in the throes of melodrama. (Speaking of: I don’t know how much I buy Angelo Badalamenti’s account of composing Laura Palmer’s theme, but that clip is still delightful).

But as a survivor (mostly) of the 1990s, what surprises me the most is that this self-awareness no longer comes across as affected or distancing. Instead, it grounds the series and makes it seem all the more earnest.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

My formative TV-watching years coincided with the 1980s transitioning into the 1990s. This was the age when entire series were re-purposed at the last minute to be dreams taking place in an earlier TV series or the imagination of an autistic child. So I’m blaming that as the reason I started to value “postmodernism” more than anything else. Being aware of the conventions and limitations of your medium meant you were smarter than the medium; you were actually making a commentary about art instead of just delivering commercial entertainment.

I admit that at the time, I absolutely loved all the winking at the fourth wall in Moonlighting. Now, it’s just insufferable.

The X-Files is often listed as a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks, or at least a series that wouldn’t have been possible on network television without Twin Peaks. I was a huge fan of X-Files, and to be clear: I still think that the first three or four seasons are outstanding. But it is absolutely a product of the 1990s. And while it’s aged much better than Moonlighting, for instance, it’s still ultimately a victim of its own self-awareness.

Almost all of my favorite episodes of the series were by Darin Morgan, and they became my favorites mostly because they showed a willingness to break out of the limitations of the format and comment on the format itself. My absolute favorite — and still one of my favorite episodes of any television series — is Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.

The episode still works now, but it’s even clearer what the episode was doing when you consider the context in which it was broadcast. At the time, Fox was aggressively promoting — and even “aggressive” is understating it — a special television event showing actual footage of a genuine alien autopsy! Ads for the special ran constantly during X-Files because, hey, perfect audience for it!

What the executives at Fox didn’t realize (or worse, assumed everyone else was too stupid to realize) is that The X-Files was aimed — at least ideally — at an audience most likely to believe a “real” alien autopsy was bullshit. Jose Chung was largely a response to that. There’s live-TV style video footage of Scully performing an autopsy on the alien, before finding the obvious zipper. There’s an absurd appearance by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as Men In Black. At the end, excerpts from From Outer Space are read, recasting Scully and Mulder as essentially fan fiction characters of themselves.

The episode does such a good job of playing the comedy straight-faced that it’d be fine simply as satire or parody. But what makes Jose Chung a classic is that it takes the ludicrous deconstruction and spins it into a mission statement for the entire series. It’s an earnest re-assertion of the main themes of the series: skepticism and faith.

For all of its strengths, the series was by no means subtle about its themes: it wasn’t as interested in conspiracy theories, aliens, or monsters-of-the-week, as in the idea that belief in those things had become a new religion. It was stated explicitly, over and over again: Scully’s crisis of faith as a Catholic vs Mulder’s dogmatic “I Want to Believe.” “The Truth is Out There” as a double entendre for the series as both a showcase of the weird and an analysis of the human need for definitive answers to the unanswerable.

The X-Files would go on for several more years, and it would often make another attempt at striking that balance between earnestness and self-awareness. But the 90s won out, and sincerity lost. Later episodes would fail to stand up as anything more than self-parody.

The Importance of Being Earnest


Which isn’t just a long digression about an unrelated TV series; it’s support for my Grand Unified Theory about Pop Culture in the 1990s. Namely, that it was a blight on the entirety of western culture, one that we’re still only just recovering from. It made ironic detachment something that wasn’t just inevitable, but prized and sought after, a sign that we get it. And sincerity became either mawkish and maudlin or insufferably pompous.

It’s the product of a generation that grew up completely saturated with popular media, which meant loving it but also being acutely aware of its cliches and its limitations. We wanted to talk about universal truths and issues of significance like faith, or the trials of coming of age, but didn’t want to get so close to it that we’d come across as too high-minded and pretentious about it.

It seems clear now that Twin Peaks pre-dated that (or at least avoided it). It’s still very much aware that it’s a television series, and spends a lot of time acknowledging its own format. But it doesn’t use it as an ironic defense mechanism or descend into self-parody. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction. Twin Peaks required absolute commitment from everybody involved to go all-in, without fear of looking silly, weird, or incompetent.

There’s not much in the series that’s muted or understated: everything is turned up to full volume. It’s an environment where the bizarre and unsettling are so commonplace that anything becomes possible. Even its most blatant winks at the camera — with Invitation to Love — don’t seem like mockery, but genuine affection. “We found soap operas so fascinating that we decided to make one.” Twin Peaks isn’t numb to any of the things it’s depicting. It feels everything.

(Wild at Heart is basically a feature-length exercise in this. Painfully sincere melodrama stretched as far as it can possibly go without breaking, and then a step farther. It’s an entire movie that goes to 11 and stays there. It’s possibly my favorite David Lynch movie, and I haven’t seen it well over a decade. I’m afraid to watch it again, in case I don’t like it as much as I remember).

One great example from Twin Peaks is a scene in which Leland Palmer, still going through a breakdown after Laura’s murder, shows up at an event at the Great Northern. He hears big band music start playing, which as we’ve already seen, triggers his memories of dancing with Laura as a child. He starts dancing by himself. Catherine Martell joins him, not out of any genuine compassion but to try and keep him from making a scene. When Leland finally breaks down and begins wailing, holding his head in abject misery, Catherine starts imitating him, as if it were part of the dance. Soon all the guests are taking part and laughing. The only one who recognizes the scene as a tragedy is Audrey Horne, who’s watching from a corner. She starts crying and the show cuts to a commercial break.

The dancing would be a corny gag, even if Airplane! hadn’t already done it. But what Twin Peaks does so brilliantly in its best moments is smashing together and subverting tonal opposites.

Since everything is turned up to full volume, it ends up creating something like feedback loops in tone: drama pushed so far that it becomes comedic, or comedy stretched out so far that it becomes tragic or unsettling. It’s kind of funny, in retrospect, to see Roger Ebert get so angry about the similar technique in Blue Velvet. Especially when you consider that Blue Velvet was a feature film marketed as provocative and disturbing, and just a few years later, the same tonal dissonance in Twin Peaks became a surprisingly popular primetime network television series.

It was insightful for Gene Siskel, in that same review of Blue Velvet, to compare it to Hitchcock. It is indeed manipulation, taking advantage of the audience’s preconceived notions of how cinematic storytelling works, and then using those preconceptions “against” them. In The Birds and Psycho, scenes go on longer than they should, the shots cut more quickly than they should, the camera gets closer to the actress than it should. It subconsciously contributes to that feeling of being trapped along with the protagonist. This isn’t right. It’s not just watching something horrible happen to someone else, it’s actually affecting you.

For years, I thought that was the end of it. It’s a clever directorial trick, a stylistic flourish that’s as arch and distancing as anything in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Rewatching Twin Peaks, though, I’ve started to believe it’s still self-aware and manipulative, but anything but arch and distant. It’s so surreal that it becomes “hyper-real.” And when David Lynch shows you these bizarre scenes, it’s the opposite of distancing; he’s actually inviting you to take a peek into the most personal and private thing of all: his dreams.

Just You and I


The genius of it is that it’s a way to elicit extremes of emotion in media that no longer allow for extremes of emotion. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that media works that we seldom feel genuine emotion from it. I’m a sucker for any TV show or movie; when it wants me to cry, I’ll bawl, and when it wants to me be scared, I’ll jump. But there’s always a sense that I’m crying because I’m supposed to be sad here, or I’m scared because the movie is giving me cues that I should be scared now. By breaking down and denying our most basic expectations about how scary scenes or funny scenes are supposed to “work,” Twin Peaks starts to elicit genuine responses instead of conditioned ones.

There’s the genuine pathos of that scene with Leland Palmer, where it turns farce into actual tragedy. As opposed to, for example, Laura Palmer’s funeral: that’s such an indelibly memorable scene from the series, but it’s more iconic than emotional. It’s so weird that it becomes farce.

Or the scene showing Killer Bob’s second murder. I’ve seen the series before, so of course I knew it was going to happen. And by that point in the series, we’ve seen pretty much all of the characters having extreme reactions to the most horrific sights they can imagine. And still, the scene is intensely horrific. Largely because everything in it is wrong. Why is there suddenly a spotlight there? Why does it switch to slow motion seemingly at random? Why is this happening now, when it seems like such a waste of a character? Why haven’t they cut to a commercial yet? How can they show this on network television in 1990? It’s all brutal and reinforces the feeling this shouldn’t be happening.

Or a brilliant scene when Donna meets Maddy in the diner. They formulate a plan to get Laura’s diary. Donna has started experimenting with the idea of being a “bad girl,” so she’s smoking and wearing sunglasses. Maddy’s decided she hates her glasses and breaks them, vowing never to wear them again. What’s brilliant about it is that I remember being frustrated by it in 1990 — I want to hear the plan; why is this scene so slow and stilted and awkward? Watching it now, though, it’s clear that the scene doesn’t care about its murder mystery nearly as much as it cares about its characters. They’ve both been affected by Laura’s murder — Donna tempted by the fact that Laura was more “experienced” than her, Maddy feeling frustrated at living in Laura’s shadow. But they’re so vividly teenagers. (Even though Maddy is supposed to be older, she’s established as kind of a sheltered nerd, a teenager in transition). They’re mired in affectations and insecurities. Almost childishly curious and fascinated by the bizarre: in a non-sequitur, Maddy tells Donna that Leland’s hair turned shock white overnight, and Donna responds simply with a fascinated “Weird.” They’re eager to start having adventures and more interesting, more adult lives.

At least that’s my interpretation. And I think the thing that so frustrated Roger Ebert with Blue Velvet is that when the usual cues are deliberately removed, it can be hard to tell what the actual intent of a scene is.

A great example of that is the scene in which James, Donna, and Maddy are suddenly together in Donna’s house, with microphones, recording a song for some reason. It’s so bewildering that it’s hilarious. Why are they doing this? Why are we seeing it? Why is his voice so high-pitched and weird? And then it’s interrupted when Donna has a fit of jealousy. Is this going to be yet another of Donna and James’s insufferably trite and maudlin romance scenes? Are we supposed to care? Or is it supposed to be funny?

Watching it now, I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” In retrospect, what they’re doing in that scene isn’t even all that weird; when I was a teenager, I occasionally got together with a friend and recorded stupid videos or songs, and we were every bit as sincere and awkward. And the song — once you get over the weirdness of James’s voice and start to appreciate it as “Roy Orbison-like,” — is actually kind of pretty. And the teen love triangle jealousy thing is “real” because when you’re a teenager, everything you feel is real and extreme and the most important thing in the world.

I think the scene is indeed intended to be funny. But it’s not mocking the characters; it’s showing genuine affection for them. It’s funny because it’s charming. They’re so earnest and so sincere about everything that being awkward is an unavoidable side effect.

And it suggests to me that getting hung up on what was the intent is missing the entire point. Your reaction shouldn’t be based on how this scene is supposed to make you feel, but how you genuinely feel. Which in my case, is nostalgic for the time when I was a corny, goofy, awkward teenager.

His Faithful Indian Companion

I mentioned the Twin Peaks Rewatch podcast earlier, and I recommend it. It’s a great way to catch some details you might have missed, find out some background details you might not’ve known otherwise, or just participate in that scene was so cool style fandom. But the one topic on which I find myself frequently disagreeing with Jake and Chris is in that whole question of intent.

There’ve been a few cases where they called out a misstep, or an accident, or a quirk of David Lynch’s corny sense of humor, or a product of its being a network television series in 1990. My take is usually that it’s a choice that fits in so well with everything else that it has to be deliberate.

I’m absolutely not saying that Lynch & Frost were flawless, to the degree that Stanley Kubrick obsessives believe every single detail has meaning. (One counter to that is the fact that the series kind of falls apart once the murder is resolved. I’ve seen frequent accounts that Lynch & Frost’s hands were forced by the network, but that ignores the obvious: of course people are going to be impatient at interminable subplots with Andy & Lucy or Ed & Nadine when the question that’s driving the entire series has yet to be answered. How could creators who get audiences to such an uncanny degree still underestimate how much people would be invested in a murder mystery?) But I believe that while they’re not flawless, there’s a ton of stuff in Twin Peaks that was intentional, but I never gave them credit for it.

One example is the character of Deputy Hawk. In 2014, the character seems like a cringe-worthy stereotype from a more ignorant time. But it’s important to remember that in 1990, the character already seemed like a cringe-worthy stereotype, but from a more innocent time.

I think it’s another case of the series being self-aware without self-mockery. The wise but taciturn Native American, second in command to a white hero, with a deep connection to nature that makes him an excellent tracker, is absolutely, unquestionably, a cliched stereotype. Even older than The Magical Black Man. But, I’d point out, so are the beautiful and popular blonde white homecoming queen. The detective with preternatural skills of observation and deduction. The sleazy, cigar-chomping businessman. The ruthless Iron Lady. The kindly and practical country doctor. The ditzy blonde secretary. The donut-loving cop. The buffoonish deputy. The spoiled rich girl and the teenage sexpot. The beautiful, duplicitous Asian temptress. The arrogant young quarterback. The biker bad boy with a sensitive side. The suburban housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The charming psychopath ex-con. The good girl from the perfect American suburban family, and plus she solves mysteries. The widow with a telepathic connection to the prophetic visions of her log.

Okay, not the last one. But the rest are all stock characters.

And when combined with the search for the one-armed man, the identical cousin, Invitation to Love, the various affairs and love triangles, the score’s tendency to veer into The Young and the Restlessness, and the cliffhanger filled season ending, it seems like I’ve got this whole thing completely figured out.

It’s a series of references. A Kill Bill-style pastiche of A Bunch of Stuff From Past Decades That We Love. Then stretched out, twisted, and subverted to be grotesque versions of the elements we recognize. Because it’s supernatural horror. It’s two seasons’ worth of the same theme as the opening scene of Blue Velvet: the horror that lurks beneath pristine, perfect suburban America.

Like I’ve said since 1990: Twin Peaks is a surreal murder mystery told in the format of a primetime soap opera.

Not What They Seem

Except it’s not.

Watching it now, I see that none of my assumptions about the series quite fit. There are too many earnest moments for it to be an ironic deconstruction. There’s too much affection for its characters for it to be a grotesque subversion. There are too many genuinely funny moments for the stilted hijinks of Andy and Lucy to be just comic relief. And the traffic light shows up too often for it to just be some pretentious art school thing.

Instead, I’ve started to believe Twin Peaks was a prime time soap opera that used a murder mystery as its instigating event. The callbacks to television cliches aren’t just self-aware references, but actual nostalgia. And all the stuff that I’d thought was superfluous — the “filler” material between the iconic scenes and the investigation into the murder — now seem to fit perfectly.

The theme of Blue Velvet, of darkness lurking under the facade of normality, definitely runs throughout Twin Peaks. It’s baked right into the premise of murder in a small town. It’s reinforced by all the soap opera subplots of affairs and scandals and love triangles. The show makes it explicit after Laura Palmer’s murder is solved, when a bunch of the investigators meet in the woods to discuss “the evil that men do.” The series then repeats it with its various symbols of duality and “doppelgangers.” Laura had a dark side that ran counter to her public persona. Killer Bob is the Mr. Hyde to the murderer’s Dr. Jekyll. The owls are not what they seem.

And it’s an idea that’s fine, but it feels a little too easy. It’s an idea that’s been repeated so many times that it feels like photocopies of photocopies getting less and less insightful or challenging with each version. Apart from Blue Velvet, I can think of The Stepford Wives, Pleasantville, and American Beauty just off the top of my head. (In order of descending quality). Each of those comes across as a challenge. And frankly, a fairly adolescent, just-got-out-of-film-school challenge. Everything you think you know about perfect, small-town, white America is a lie, and I, the artist, am here to expose it!

That sentiment doesn’t quite fit with Twin Peaks, though, since it’s got a sense of morality that is clear cut and — weird to say in reference to anything about Twin Peaks — even old-fashioned.

This is a universe where pure evil not only exists, it exists in a specific place, out there in the woods. And the Bookhouse Boys believe that they’re honor-bound to keep it at bay, as they have for generations. There’s an element of Tolkien-esque morality to that: good and evil aren’t abstract concepts, evil has an absolute embodiment, and there are men (only men, but still) honor-bound to defeat it.

But there’s as an element of Lovecraft that’s just as powerful, if not more so: the evil is out there, dark and unknowable. It’s right on the outskirts of what we can see, forever threatening to encroach on our feeble attempts at civilization.

I believe that that’s what the stop light represents. Before Twin Peaks, I’d never put any thought into the fact that stop lights cycle constantly, even when there are no cars around. Framing it by itself, in the darkness, on a (presumably) desolate road, makes it seem feeble and impotent. It’s a symbol of civilization, law, and order, but it doesn’t have any real power. We think of it as something that can keep us safe, but that’s just an illusion. It can’t stop anything that doesn’t agree to be stopped. So the light turns red out there in the dark, with no one there to see it, but evil still makes its way into the town.

Mystery-Solving Teens

Which finally leads to my interpretation of the entire series: it’s about our inevitable corruption and loss of innocence, and our nostalgia for a more innocent time that never actually existed.

The most iconic parts of Twin Peaks that I’d remembered over the past two decades turns out to have little to do with that theme. I’d remembered Audrey Horne as the impossibly sexy young woman who dressed like a femme fatale from a noir movie and could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue. I didn’t remember the scenes of her crying over Leland’s grief, or lying in bed praying for her Special Agent to come rescue her. I’d remembered Leland throwing himself onto Laura’s coffin; I didn’t remember his dancing with her to big band music. I’d remembered Donna’s attempts to be Nancy Drew; I didn’t remember her confession to Harold about skinny dipping with a bunch of older boys, or her attempts to be a bad girl. I’d remembered Catherine double-and-triple-crossing everyone; I didn’t remember her begging Pete to help her in memory of the way their relationship used to be. And I could never figure out how Nadine and Big Ed’s story fit in with the murder investigation at all.

It doesn’t. But it’s the most explicit version of that story of regret and nostalgia. It’s a bizarrely tragic story of popular teenagers who each settled and grew into adulthood regretting it. And then after the soap-opera double-whammy of an attempted suicide and a coma, Nadine regresses to her high school years. (And has super strength, because Twin Peaks).

That’s repeated over and over: with Catherine’s plea to Pete, Leland and his Big Band music, Ben and Jerry Horne remembering sitting on a bunk bed as kids and leering at a girl dancing with a flashlight. Dr. Jacoby’s obsessed with Hawaii, with his fake backdrop and fake sounds of surf on a PA system. It’s in Cooper’s fascination with Twin Peaks and its damn good coffee, to the point of telling Diane he plans to buy some property there. And Norma has Shelley as a constant, living reminder of what she used to be: a beautiful girl who got married too young (and to a total asshole).

Which leads to the teenagers. I’d always assumed that Donna and Audrey represented the good girl and bad girl aspects of Laura Palmer, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that Donna, Audrey, and Maddy were all fascinated by Laura’s dark side, not as tragic but as a sign of experience and maturity. Audrey acted out to get attention and simply because she could, but she wasn’t a bad girl. She was a romantic, who still believed she could handle anything that Laura could. Maddy was literally a wide-eyed innocent, but as she became a replacement Laura, she got to experience all the attention and devotion that Laura had. And Donna came from an aggressively perfect family (her sisters recite poetry at dinner parties and play piano like a prodigy), but always lived in Laura’s shadow.

Even Andy and Lucy’s story fits into this interpretation: they’re the most naive and “pure” of any of the show’s adults, to the point of being comical (and annoying). But Lucy gets bored with Andy’s pure-hearted goodness and invents reasons to get annoyed with him, going for an adventurous one-night stand instead.

And Bobby’s an almost entirely unredeemable asshole, but the show still portrays him as a stupid kid way in over his head as opposed to purely evil. He’s playing grown up, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he doesn’t appreciate how serious it is. His father categorizes it as normal teenage rebellion, and can still bring Bobby to tears by describing a dream in which they get along and respect each other.

It’s presented as a tragedy: while the adults are pining for something perfect that they feel like they used to have, all the teenagers are desperate to grow up. For most of the murder investigation (until we find out the horror of what actually happened), the story keeps reminding us that Laura Palmer wasn’t an “innocent.” To some degree, she went looking for trouble. The other kids knew that she was on drugs, but none of them seemed particularly scandalized by it. They treat it more like it was just a natural thing, the kind of experiences people have when they grow up.

It’s not just that there’s an evil presence in the woods, threatening to seep into the town and corrupt the children. The children are practically flinging themselves at it. And as illustrated by Shelley making the same bad choices that Norma did, it’s inevitable, and it’s cyclical.

The Man From Another Place

And, ultimately, it’s not real. That’s where the self-awareness of the television format comes back in, along with what I believe is David Lynch’s “earnest surreality.” The series is constantly reminding us that none of this is real. It’s bizarre, dreamlike, imaginary. Twin Peaks isn’t some magical village in the woods, untouched by time and uncorrupted by the outside world. It simply can’t exist.

Real cops don’t actually eat that many doughnuts or have dozens upon dozens of them perfectly spread out every morning. Real biker bars (I’m assuming) don’t have all the bikers sitting politely at tables or demurely dancing to slow, breathy Julee Cruise songs. Real towns don’t have so many secret passages and compartments. Real life doesn’t perfectly echo a televised soap opera. The podcast brought up a great example of how the show constantly blurs the line between diegetic music and background music. It often seems to use the standard conventions of television and then use them to draw attention to its own artificiality.

Very few of the performances — maybe Doctor Hayward? — are anything resembling “naturalistic.” Some of them are understated but still not “real.” Sheriff Truman is 100% the Old West Lawman, and Norma is the long-suffering soap opera heroine, a constant monotone of regret and perseverance.

And then, obviously, there’s the “everything else” of Twin Peaks, the relentless weirdness the series is known for. (It was popular enough at the time to generate several parodies, but it was clear at the time that people didn’t understand it enough to even parody it. I remember one in particular that ended with the town sign, and a gorilla standing in front of it holding a bouquet of balloons. As if that would even register on the Twin Peaks weirdness scale). Even when Lynch wasn’t aggressively Lynching it up, the show was developing its own language of oddly-paced scenes and non-sequitur insert shots. Why show the waterfall in slow motion? What does the traffic light mean? What are the owls supposed to be, anyway? Is this important? Are these clues? What does any of this mean?

I already said that I don’t believe that this artificiality is some exercise in postmodern deconstruction, or some distancing attempt to make it clear they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t believe that it’s mocking its own characters or the viewer. And I also don’t believe that it’s some kind of satire or indictment, an accusation that everything we value is built on a lie, or that humans are all invariably duplicitous, or that television is nothing more than vacuous entertainment, or any of the other Statements on the Human Condition that Angry Film Students make by subverting traditional entertainment. So what’s left?

I say that it’s ultimately optimistic. Or, if optimistic is too strong, then at least non-judgmental. It’s saying that Twin Peaks isn’t a real place, but not in the sense that it’s fake, but in the sense that it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s like the place that Major Briggs describes to Bobby when he’s talking about his vision: it’s not foolish to describe it, but it would be foolish to believe that you could actually go there.

So Twin Peaks as an idyllic small town (“where a yellow light still means slow down”) untouched by the outside world can’t exist. Invitation to Love as a world of intrigue and drama we can safely watch from behind the safety of a TV screen can’t exist. The perfect, beautiful, generous prom queen universally loved by everyone can’t exist. And teenagers as pure, innocent creatures with limitless potential can’t exist. At least, not for long.

That in itself isn’t a tragedy. But we still treat it as if it were a tragedy, even though it’s inevitable. We tend to assume that innocence and purity are the same thing as “good,” but they’re not. Becoming experienced doesn’t make us evil or corrupt. We still have limitless potential for good, even after we’re no longer innocent. And it’s not just that it’s foolish to strive for something we can never have; it can be harmful. Laura Palmer was held up by so many people as a symbol of perfection that nobody tried to intervene and help her.

To bring the “golden age of television” references back in: for at least as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a persistent conservative sentiment of “pernicious nostalgia.” It says that everything was better back in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best all the way up to The Brady Bunch. The problem with that is two-fold: it’s not just foolish to pine for things that were never actually real, but things demonstrably weren’t better back then. I think that there’s some element of commentary on that, however subtle, in Twin Peaks‘s format as a melodramatic soap opera with callbacks to classic TV.

Incidentally: it’s probably too much of a retroactive re-interpretation to claim that it was completely intentional, but this also explains and helps exonerate the show’s shaky handling of race. In Twin Peaks, as well as Twin Peaks, the only non-whites are Deputy Hawk, a sexy but naive Chinese femme fatale and her cohorts, and then the bizarre inclusion of Mr. Tojamura. As the Psych parody/homage pointed out: there are absolutely no black people. Even the “exotic” foreigners who are so significant to the Ghostwood subplot are all Scandavian, as white as can be. The show was definitely aware of it, since Lucy’s sister mentions to Hawk her guilt over white people’s treatment of Native Americans (to which Hawk responds “some of my best friends are white people.”) So maybe it was a constant unspoken reminder that the “good old days” of television were in reality only good to a select few, and that this perfect little small town was never really perfect; it was whitewashed.

The character of Albert Rosenfield is brought into Twin Peaks (and Twin Peaks) as The Outsider, and we in the audience hate him for it. He’s abrasive, insulting, and abusive. He’s dismissive of this podunk town that Agent Cooper has inexplicably fallen in love with. He insensitively complains that the yokels’ insistence on tradition is getting in the way of finding a murderer. He says they’re insular and backwards. He gets punched, and we cheer it, because we hate him.

Several episodes later, Truman calls him on it again, threatening to punch him again for insulting the town and the people in it. Albert gives a surprising response, saying “while I’ll admit to a certain cynicism,” that “my concerns are global.” He explains his commitment to non-violence and non-aggression, and he says that it comes from a place of love. “I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

When I saw this scene at first, I assumed that it was just another bizarre one-off gag. Now, I’m wondering if it was something of a mission statement for the entire series.

Use A Mail Chimp

MichelleMalkinStayClassy
Yesterday, the Twitter Offenderati came out in full force against a harmless joke from Best Buy about the Serial podcast.

This triggered my own irrational outrage over the outrage. (Although really, I’m a recently unemployed white dude in his early 40s. I think that sitting around at home writing angry letters about stuff is what I’m supposed to be doing). After all, I saw Best Buy’s tweet when it was retweeted by the Serial podcast twitter account itself. Somebody there thought it was humorous, and they’re the ones who are actually more invested in the case than some internet rando. They’ve actually talked to the people involved, read the testimony, heard from the victim’s parents, spoken at length to the accused, and become attached enough to devote over a year of their lives to it.

That made me realize what annoys me so much about the response: it’s just a show of ghoulish self-importance. And the lack of self-importance is my favorite aspect of the Serial podcast.

Almost all of my exposure to “true crime” stories is from the A&E (and A&E-styled) documentaries like City Confidential and so on. A guaranteed 30 minutes a week — even more, when you include repeats and marathons — of lurid details of horrific crimes. Long pans across grainy photographs of the victim, over the constant synthesizer dirge that lets you know this is very serious. Bill Curtis’s grave voice-over stretching about 10 minutes’ worth of evidence into 22 minutes plus commercials. And after the commercial break: the one detail that would blow this case wide open.

It’s personal tragedies, packaged up, commodified, and repeated. All the cases run together. All the details intermingle. Every few minutes the dirge stops long enough for an ad for Applebee’s or Volkswagens. It’s all a show of how gravely serious and respectful these documentarians are being, when it’s anything but respectful. It’s the equivalent of the slow fade to black at the end of the Oscars “In Memoriam” segment: a worse-than-empty gesture, since it tosses the lives of a bunch of people into a crock pot and serves it up as commercial television.

Serial, on the other hand, seems absolutely devoted to remaining bullshit-free. Sarah Koenig isn’t a voice-over artist, nor is she a grieving family member. She’s a reporter. Her tone can come across as flippant until you actually listen to the podcast and realize it’s anything but. She’s not looking for drama; she’s looking for the truth, or at least as close to the truth as a podcast can get. And the truth is that sometimes, she doesn’t know what to believe. Sometimes she calls interview subjects on something that makes no sense, or something she doesn’t agree with, even though letting them finish would’ve made for a better sound bite. Sometimes she thinks she has incontrovertible proof; she’s found the Key Takeaway Moment of the entire story, and then realizes she doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.

I’ve seen a few discussions about Koenig’s and the producers’ desire to remain objective. But I don’t think that’s their desire at all. “Objectivity” has been twisted to become a bizarre display of moral relativism, a way to say absolutely nothing by qualifying definitive statements with “allegedly” and “some say” and “according to.” On the podcast, Koenig isn’t objective but impartial. She calls a tragedy for what it is, and she acknowledges the grief of the families, but she doesn’t make empty, token gestures of false respect or deference. She’ll say exactly what she believes and doesn’t believe, and she’ll make it clear exactly to what degree she’s actually invested in the case. Which is as much as any reporter can be who’s spent that much time researching the violent death of a stranger. And which is definitely more than anybody lobbing sanctimonious recriminations on Twitter.

For a good illustration of the difference between objective, invested, and invested but impartial, check out Rabia Chaudry’s blog posts about the case and the podcast. She’s obviously not impartial (and makes no claims to be) and personally invested in the case. She’s still publishing facts, or at least her interpretation of them, mixed in with her impressions and memories. In fact, one of the recurring themes of the podcast, and likely the only definitive takeaway we’re going to get from the podcast, is exactly that lack of objectivity. The same facts, even if remembered correctly at all after 15 years, can be interpreted to mean opposite things.

And for a good example of why I don’t take at all seriously the outrage over Best Buy’s tweet (which didn’t at all make light of the murder, just the fact that the store doesn’t have a pay phone), check out the image above. One of America’s absolute worst people, Michelle Malkin, jumping on the outrage bandwagon like a cackling hyena. There’s nothing even remotely resembling respect or reverence for Hae Min Lee there. It’s all just a show.

I say let Best Buy crack harmless jokes, and let Mail Chimp take advantage of a meme while it still can. Both are at least genuine acknowledgements of the fact that we’re all wrapped up in accounts of the murder and life imprisonment of two strangers, using their tragedy for our own entertainment. And save the self-righteous indignation for a time when it’s at least a little bit less hypocritical.