Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991) is often invoked by critics in relation to any series that has a murder mystery, especially that of a young woman, at the center (or, more vaguely, a sense of oddness that pervades). However, not all shows are positioned equally, because of the need to police the boundaries of “quality television” as a genre. In particular, shows associated with soap opera or melodrama often are overlooked in the rush to comparison, as epitomized by the critical treatment of Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family, 2010–). The absence of comparison is especially evident when considering the numerous ways that the show deliberately and overtly references Twin Peaks. Yet, while PLL courts comparisons to Twin Peaks because of its branding, plot, and numerous homages, reviews usually neither move to treating it seriously as a show nor acknowledge the Twin Peaks connection.
PLL’s industrial positioning as a summer soap aimed at a teen female audience are signs of its “feminine” form of storytelling, a form that marks it as dismissible at worst and a “guilty pleasure” at best. This “feminine” form is deliberately self-conscious, however, in a way that suggests it regards its form as one of its strengths. Rather than Agent Cooper being a white man, for example, this clip from “Keep Your Friends Close” (1.10) reimagines Agent Cooper as an African American woman. Given that the character is not particularly important to the series, this redeployment of Agent Cooper into a scene where the teenage protagonists serve as knowledge sources makes visible the ways in which masculine white authority remains a privileged site in Twin Peaks in particular and quality television in general. The teens correctly surmise that Alison, in her clear homage to the Laura Palmer video tape introduced in the Pilot episode, is talking to her secret boyfriend, as revealed in this episode’s final scene when Alison—active rather than passive—turns the camera on her beau Ian. Whereas in Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper shows the videotape to intimidate Bobby in an all-male milieu, in PLL Agent Cooper signals a value to their female teen knowledge. These teen girls, marked as untrustworthy and shallow even in the name of the show itself, are the detectives, and much more effectively so than the culturally sanctioned and masculine versions of knowledge and power.