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.

Train in Vain

Snowpiercer cast
Snowpiercer is a modest-budget semi-indie post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie based on a French comic book from the 80s, and boy does it ever feel like it. I’d been seeing people raving about it on Twitter and Facebook, saying things like “drop everything you’re doing and go see it now.” While it’s not that good, it’s still interesting and kind of a marvel that it even exists.

It could be because I knew a little bit of its history going in, but I kept thinking throughout that it felt like a comic book movie. Not a super-hero movie — Chris Evans is here to show off his range and his commitment to interesting projects, not to show off his chest — but an “indie” comic book movie. It’s more concerned with imagery than with world-building, and more interested in legibility than in subtlety. The premise is about as direct an allegory of classism as you can make. The characters are broad — but still interesting — archetypes. The world is literally constrained, with each train of the car a “closed ecosystem” representing a single idea. Most scenes have just enough dialogue to fit into word bubbles. And the plotting and pacing are the kind you get when artists are rejecting Hollywood and trying to come up with their own conventions — with mixed success.

And maybe it’s only because I now know it’s based on a French comic book, but I kept thinking it felt like European independent movies from the 80s and 90s. It seems like Hollywood action movies filtered through a dream, where the tone’s all over the place, the pacing’s unsettlingly unpredictable, and Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere, for no good reason other than that they wanted to be in something interesting for a change.

Overall, I liked it but didn’t love it, but I’m still glad it exists. Especially as a counter to the standard action movie template, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s been getting so much positive buzz: people love it for not being Transformers, or even Captain America (which was actually good!)

The most intriguing thing about the movie, to me (and the only thing that made it worth a blog post), is the way the tone is deliberately all over the place. I think Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton both gave excellent performances, even though it didn’t seem like they’d belong in the same movie. Swinton was an over-the-top caricature, while Evans was playing it completely straight, particularly impressive considering that his most dramatic and emotional scene was a lurid monologue about cannibalism. Kang-ho Song*’s performance was entirely in Korean, but even without that, his seemed to be a performance from a more lighthearted, less high-concept action movie. With less competent — or even less confident — actors, it would’ve felt disjointed, as if they’d not bothered to talk to each other before filming. But it mostly works here, and it’s fascinating to see camp and deadpan work together without canceling each other out.

The screenwriter and director, Joon-Ho Bong*, also made The Host, which also seemed to veer wildly in tone between black comedy, camp, family comedy, and horror movie. It’d be easy to speculate that that’s just his style. And I’m still not 100% sure that it works; The Host was another movie that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.

But it’s interesting to see the attempt. Especially now that we’re seeing more and more long-form storytelling in television series. It’s meant that television is getting gradually better, but also that the rules are getting more ingrained. Even as the quality goes up, there’s less room to experiment.

Battlestar Galactica‘s final season was a complete disaster, but there was also something perversely thrilling about it — once everything had gone off the rails, you had the sense that for the first time, anything was possible. At any other point in the series, a scene threatening to blow Colonel Tigh out of an airlock would’ve been another example of “fake TV tension:” it still would’ve worked because these guys have had so much experience crafting television, they know how to make a tense moment fit in the overall arc of an episode, but you’d still know in the back of your mind what the real stakes were. But by the end of the series, after everything had gone horribly wrong, there was genuine tension. This would be bad, but they’re just crazy enough to do it.

Until the end of Snowpiercer, I got the same sense of exhilarated confusion: this isn’t playing by quite the same rules as a normal movie, so there’s really no predicting what they’re about to do. By the end, it settles into almost complete familiarity, but for a while, it’s just off-putting enough to be engaging.

*Apologies if I’ve got the surname/given name order mixed up for Korean names; IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are inconsistent about which comes first.

Hello M’Lady


That sketch “Hello M’Lady” aired on Inside Amy Schumer, and it’s the one that should’ve gone viral instead of a very funny but mostly predictable Aaron Sorkin parody.

I’ve already seen bunches of comments online that the point of the sketch is to make fun of socially awkward creepy guys who come on too strong. Anybody who’s spent any time in any geek-oriented field like comics or video games or physical games or existing as a human being is already familiar with the myth of the “Nice Guy,” the hopeless romantic whose shyness dooms him to a lifetime of unrequited love. What makes the sketch so on-point is that it shows how, even when we’re acknowledging it as a problem, we still concentrate on how it affects the guy. It’s just one more thing that women are expected to just deal with.

Even when we say we’re doing something for the benefit of the ladies, it’s still always ultimately about the dude.

Believe me, I’m well aware how insufferable it is when somebody on the internet tries to explain a joke. But I’ve spent the last couple of days watching clips from Inside Amy Schumer, and realizing that they’re not just funny, but actually kind of brilliant. But I’d never bothered to watch it, not because I wasn’t aware of it, but because I thought I already knew exactly what it was.

The creepiest realization is that the reason I’d always dismissed it is exactly the kind of thing the show frequently makes fun of.

Red Bull and Slim Jims

I’m about to get to my mea culpa for being a Bad Progressive, but I’m not letting Comedy Central completely off the hook. They’ve done a lousy job of promoting the show. Not in terms of exposure — there’s been no shortage of promos for the show, and Schumer herself has been inserted into what seems like every single one of their Comedy Central Roasts and stand-up specials.

But the promos have made the show look essentially like Ms. Tosh.0. She makes a raunchy joke and then does a look how naughty I am! grin. I’d heard a mention of “feminism” here and there, but it looked like nothing more than another example of the vapid “women can make jokes about sex too and that’s empowerment!” flavor.

From the bits of her comedy routine I’d seen, I assumed I had that all figured out as well. I thought it was all just the surprise of seeing raunchy jokes coming from someone you wouldn’t expect, kind of like a female Bob Saget. (She even has a gag about finally having sex with her high school sweetheart that’s a lot like Saget’s joke about finally marrying his girlfriend of nine years). She’s a party girl, but she’s all edgy! And then the twist was her character of a ridiculously clueless, self-absorbed, over-entitled white woman… so kind of like a blonde, gentile, Sarah Silverman. Nothing wrong with it, really, I just felt like I’d seen it before.

Inside Amy Schumer has a sketch specifically about the series’s own marketing. A group of guys in Comedy Central’s target demographic are being asked about the content of the show and the ratio of sketches to interview segments, and all their responses are about Schumer’s appearance and whether or not they’d bang her. At the end, they’re rewarded with Slim Jims and Red Bulls, and Schumer considers it a victory because a couple of the guys said they would bang her.

It’s not exactly subtle. So it’s a little creepy to realize I’d essentially done the same thing. I’m not in the “would bang her” camp for obvious reasons (obviously, she’d need to have at least a 10% better dumper), but I still was basically dismissing Schumer based on her appearance. I’d thought that she was too pretty to be saying anything all that complex.

Liam Neesons Though

I can’t even use the excuse that my time is valuable or anything; I’ve seen entire episodes of Workaholics and Tosh.0. And they’re every bit as much the shallow, predictable “outrageous” comedy you’d expect. I’m wondering if that’s part of their (assumed) popularity, even: they’re easy to watch because they don’t take any effort. There’s nothing challenging about them.

But a lady-oriented sketch comedy show with a transgressive feminist message has to be didactic, though. You’re laughing, but really you’re learning about yourself, and life, and cat massage.

When Key & Peele was first announced, I wasn’t interested in that, either, for much the same reason. I assumed that it wasn’t “for” me. Even if I didn’t end up feeling like that one awkward white guy on stage at Showtime at the Apollo, I’d still feel like I was watching Chappelle’s Show. I’d be on the outside looking in. Sure, there was nothing telling me I couldn’t watch, but the show wasn’t really going out of its way to include me.

Which turned out to be total bullshit, obviously. Smart comedians can make their material relevant and universal. Key & Peele start from being movie nerds more than anything else — something I can totally relate to — and pull in satire and comedy about race and gender politics and never make it feel inaccessible, preachy, or alienating. They’re almost always more absurd than message-oriented, and it helped that Jordan Peele’s impression of Obama, plus their goofy East-West College Bowl video going viral, gave everyone an “in.”

That’s a message in itself, really. Take that mild hesitation and unease over “am I going to be able to enjoy this show without worrying whether I’m in the target audience?”, multiply it by every other show on every other television network, and then keep trying to make an argument that asking for more diversity in the media is unnecessary and the equivalent of introducing quotas.

All of that makes that Newsroom parody sketch the safest way to introduce people to Inside Amy Schumer. Mostly it’s a pitch-perfect parody of an Aaron Sorkin series, with the one line that delivers the real “voice” of the series: “and I realized: A woman’s life is nothing unless she’s making a great man greater.” Then there are jokes about finger-banging and a short bus, to make sure there’s something for everyone.

Tell Me What All My Remotes Do?


It’s not the best one, though. This sketch about sexting (after the street interview section) is so good; just about every second and every detail is brilliant, from the emoji to the romantic music to having it start and end with her eating plain spaghetti out of a colander.

There are silly sketches about “Finger Blasters” and an inappropriately homoerotic workout and TV makeovers and unconventional therapy and dating a guy who only loves her for her terrible perm because the show’s first obligation is to be funny, and because Schumer’s never afraid to make herself the butt of the joke.

But then there’s the sketch about what it’s like to be the only woman at Hooters. Or how women and men have wildly different impressions of a one-night stand. (Most comedy shows can only aspire to one day having a scene as brilliant as the one where she’s tasting wedding cakes while he’s wanking to the picture on a jar of pasta sauce). Or how women are never allowed to graciously accept compliments. Or a very realistic military game in which nobody else’s character was sexually assaulted, so Amy must’ve done something wrong. Even in a three-way, she’s got to acquiesce to what the men want.

Even when the premise of a sketch is relatively straightforward, it’s still smarter than it needs to be. A sketch where Amy negotiates over herpes with God is an extended riff on her Clueless Party Girl character, but it’s filled with little bits of brilliance. In particular, Paul Giamatti’s “I have got to stop making so many white girls,” and the completely unexplained older man putting his hand on the shoulder of Amy’s sister.

And of course, Schumer’s already addressed my assumption “She’s too pretty to be saying anything that complex” and made a joke not just about how dumb that is, but about how women are supposed to believe that something like that is a compliment.

You Can’t Win

The “Hello, M’Lady” sketch is brilliant for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the way the friend answers “Is that your boyfriend?” with “Fuck you, no,” without skipping a beat. The most brilliant aspect of it is showing that even “look at the poor pathetic losers” is giving more sympathy to the guys than to the women who have to deal with them. Romantic comedies teach us how unrequited love is so romantic and how you should just keep at it guys, and you’ll eventually win her over. What the woman actually wants? Irrelevant.

Extra double-plus brilliant is presenting it as a combination of dating app, Angie’s List, and Turbo Tax. First the app lists all the aspects of the woman that only the guy can recognize, and then it lets ladies take advantage of these “human hobbits,” ungratefully using them for things like helping a boyfriend move, or getting a free iPhone. That’s exactly how a lot of these guys think: self-obsessed while telling themselves they’re being selfless, and absolutely convinced that women exist to take advantage of them. It shows that this “harmless” passive-aggression comes from exactly the same place as outright misogynist aggression: the belief that women have something I want, and they’re keeping it from me. Even when “nice guys” convince themselves that it’s noble because it’s about romance and chivalry instead of sex, that’s bullshit because it’s really about something just as crass and base: power.

Meanwhile, the actual, not-imaginary women are left in the same place as always: powerless. “You can’t win.” And “it’s inevitable.” Just another chore to deal with because some guy decided to make you feel guilty.

That’s already a lot packed into one sketch, and then there’s the punchline that carries throughout the whole series: “Fuck it.” She’s not a victim. As long as she’s stuck with it, why not have fun with it? Ultimately it’s a comedy show, not a message show, and the savvy part is realizing they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Not Really JK


When somebody’s entire public persona is a character, it can be hard to tell what’s sincere and what’s part of the “satire.” I think it’s a lot braver to trust the audience enough — or more accurately, not be so hung up on the audience — to feel that you don’t have to draw the line for them. Male comedians don’t have to stress out about telling too many jokes about drinking or about sex, and they don’t have to keep winking at the audience to let you know they’re not really that racist, or they’re just kidding about being so self-absorbed.

There’s something implicit in Schumer’s comedy that turns every criticism into a kind of commentary. Anything you might be thinking about or saying about her, what is it really saying about you?

The joke in “Love Tub” seems on the surface to be just another version of Amy Poehler’s one-legged Amber character from SNL: she’s on a dating show, she’s a mess, and she doesn’t care. But there’s a little more going on here.

For one thing, she’s not explicitly playing a character; she’s just “Amy.” She’s not making the best life decisions, but she’s also not the one getting hung up on a reality dating show where the “prize” is a dude choosing among a pack of women to join him in the love tub. She’s the only one who’s getting what she wants, and what she wants right now are vodka and some curly fries.

The clincher is when the bachelor takes off Tiffany’s dress while creepily whispering “Congratulations.” When you see Amy riding off in a limo finally getting her curly fries and then leaning out the door to throw up, you’ve got to wonder who really is the “winner.”

And then you look at the YouTube comments calling her fat, or calling her a bitch, or making some sexual comment, and something magical happens: they’re rendered even more irrelevant than YouTube comments already are. When somebody owns every aspect of his persona, he’s unassailable. And when a woman owns it — you don’t get to make comments about my drinking, or having sex, or what I wear, or what I eat, or what I look like, because I’ve already commented on it — it’s the most frustrating and threatening thing for an insecure man to see. And that’s awesome. She doesn’t have to say what’s “real” and what’s not; it’s all real, and it can be tragic and frustrating and unfair but most often really funny.

A young female comedian is already starting out in an environment where hecklers are going to try to shit on her live set. TV executives are going to try and concern troll her into losing weight. Entertainment journalists and bloggers are going to talk about her responsibilities as a feminist. Some people in the audience are going to call her fat or ugly. Other people in the audience — including at least one well-intentioned but dense gay man — are going to say she’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Other comedians are going to announce that they don’t think women can be funny, in their own feeble grabs for attention. There’s going to be pressure to be highbrow but not so highbrow as to be alienating, and pressure to keep the politics out of comedy and just be absurd. And then pressure to split the difference, making funny videos that’ll go viral while still having a very special episode tackling some social justice issue.

Inside Amy Schumer navigates through all that and ends up with a sketch about sending a sext photo. It starts with the pressure that’s put on women to look sexy, then puts Amy through all kinds of abuse for the sake of making her look good, and then ends with a simple moral: “Just get fucked.” Said not as an insult or an objectification, but a simple reminder to get what she wants and enjoy herself. That’s not just naughty; it’s genuinely subversive.

How I Spent My Decade

HIMYMAirport.jpg
When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.

This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.

How I Met My Sponsor

If there’s a single episode that sums up the entire series, it’s… well, of course it’d be the one where Marshall picks up Lily at the airport during a snowstorm. But for the point I’m trying to make, the definitive episode is the one that was a shameless ad for Microsoft.

The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.

But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.

As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.

But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.

And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.

Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.

How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.

How I Fixed Your TV Show

At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”

Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.

To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.

It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.

Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”

Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:

This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!

Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.

It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.

How I Met Your Mary-Ann


I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!

A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”

But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”

It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.

The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”

They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.

The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.

Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.

And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:

But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.

He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.

More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”

How I Met Your Step-Mother

A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.

All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.

And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.

Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.

But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.

(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).

Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.

Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.

The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.

And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.

Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.

Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.

It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.

There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.

There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.

After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.

And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.

How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind

I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.

When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.

And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.

I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.