The point of departure for this video essay was the critical discourse accompanying the 2017 release of Twin Peaks: The Return, which underscored the show’s exceptionalism. Notwithstanding the singular circumstances surrounding the series’ production and David Lynch’s unique status as an auteur, this project considers the possibility that the show was not just exceptional but exemplary: representative of a tendency within a certain strain of post-network programming to deemphasize plot, in favor of experimenting with the medium’s formal and expressive capacities.
My video essay, “The Television Will Not Be Summarized,” explores this recent (re)turn to “televisual excess”—a term borrowed from scholar John Caldwell and his landmark study, Televisuality (1995). In particular, the essay seeks to explore how the stylistic exhibitionism Caldwell discerned in television of the 1980s and ’90s has manifested in recent serial drama, in shows such as The Knick (Cinemax, 2014–2015), Hannibal (NBC, 2013–2015), The Leftovers (HBO, 2014–2017), and Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017). In addition to documenting the presence of stylistic excess in post-network television, I also sought to consider its practical and theoretical implications. What are the rhetorical consequences of style’s increased prominence in contemporary serial TV? How does this emphasis on aesthetic strategies—many native to art cinema, rather than commercial programming—affect the way we engage with television as viewers, critics, and scholars?
My video offers some provisional responses to those questions in audio-visual form. In the process, it questions the utility of the “recap”—which presumes the preeminence of plot—as a modality of critical response. My goal is not to criticize the genre, but rather to highlight its limitations: the way the focus on what “happened” in a given episode might constrain the kinds of questions we think to ask about serial television. If recaps are responsive to certain paradigmatic features of serial TV (its episodic nature, its season- or series-spanning arcs) they may be less attuned to stylistic aspects too frequently dismissed as “cinematic.” What would happen, my video asks, if we spend more time experiencing television—attending to the formal elements that resist being recapped, summarized, or spoiled?
In constructing this video, I confronted a particular methodological challenge. On the one hand, I wanted to dramatize the televisual phenomena in question rather than resort to “summarizing.” At the same time, I also hoped to avoid simply “showing” images from visually spectacular shows, and thus exploiting their considerable rhetorical force. In an attempt to strike a balance between presentation and explanation, I created more expository introductory and concluding segments that hopefully provide a framework for considering the selected clips, themselves accompanied by some minimal text.
One broader goal of the project was to add to the discourse around contemporary television aesthetics and their evolution during the post-network era, a period marked by significant changes in television production, distribution, and consumption. While the industrial and cultural effects of these developments have been mapped by scholars such as Amanda D. Lotz and Aymar Jean Christian, their impact on televisual style (as distinct from narrative structure, addressed by Jason Mittell’s Complex TV) remains comparatively under-researched. In this sense, I hope the video might serve as a provocation, spurring discussion of the formal elements that have resulted in what Mittell has dubbed “batshit TV,” and the need for a critical praxis responsive to the full range of visual experimentation in contemporary American television.
Butler, Jeremy. Television Style. Routledge, 2010.
Caldwell, John. Televisuality: Style and Crisis in American Television. Rutgers UP, 1995.
Christian, Aymar Jean. Open TV: Innovation beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television. NYU Press, 2018.
Lotz, Amanda D. The Television Will be Revolutionized, 2nd ed. NYU Press, 2014.
Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. NYU Press, 2015.
___. “What Comes After Complex TV?” International Society for the Study of Narrative Conference, 20 April, 2018, McGill University, Montreal, CA. Conference Presentation.
Murray, Noel. “Twin Peaks Season 3, Episode 8: White Light White Heat.” The New York Times, 26 June, 2017.
Nochimson, Martha. Television Rewired: The Rise of Auteur Series. U of Texas P, 2019.
Thompson, Kristin. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess.” Ciné-Tracts, vol. 1, no. 2, 1977, pp. 55-56.
Elizabeth Alsop is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media at the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies. Her essays on contemporary television, film and television aesthetics, and film authorship have appeared in Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of Film and Video, The Quarterly Review of Film and Video, The Velvet Light Trap, and Adaptation. She has also written about TV and popular culture for The Atlantic, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, and The LA Review of Books. In 2018, she attended the NEH Scholarship in Sound and Image Workshop at Middlebury College, where she began work on this project.