Pretty Little Peaks: Policing the Gendered Boundary of Quality Television

Curator's Note

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.


One element I find interesting about this allusion is how unselfconscious it is, not calling attention to itself in any playful or overt manner. Given that the young PLL target audience in 2010 would be highly unlikely to know TWIN PEAKS, I'm curious how the intertextuality plays for fans. Is this a shoutout to the demographic beyond teen girls, a dog whistle for older viewers who might be savvy to TV history that PLL is acknowledging its own antecedents and offering appeals to the parents of the core audience? If so, it reminds me of the "kidult" appeals that are typical in children's media, where offering something distinct for parents is a crucial way to secure a family audience (think the parodies on SESAME STREET or sophisticated references in Warner Bros. cartoons). Does this strategy seem to have worked for PLL?

I agree with what Jason's saying here. I'm sure I've read some work discussing how the audiences for teen-orientated dramas assume that the primary viewers for these shows are older 'youth' segments (possibly mid-to-upper twenties) and this feeds in to the intertextual strategies used. Writing from experience of using PLL for teaching about TV genre, I screen the prom episode from series one to my students because of its inclusion of multiple horror intertexts towards the end and the majority of them don't pick up on these. Is there perhaps an industrial assumption that their primary target audience is too savvy in terms of their audience's assumed knowledge of texts, codes and conventions?

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