Losing to Win: Twin Peaks and Serial "Failure"

Curator's Note

 What do we mean by "TV failures"? There are many ways to categorize television failure, but the most common measure is economic: if a show has too few viewers to get renewed, it’s considered a failure. Longevity is often linked to this division: the longer a show stays on the air, the more successful it is. 

The more we think about this division between success and failure, however, the less it makes sense. As an example of the paradoxical qualities of "TV failure," I want to consider a show judged by most critics to end in unmitigated disaster: David Lynch's and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. After the initial mystery of who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer was (sort of ) solved, the show struggled to establish another compelling central question and hemorrhaged viewers. Audiences were dissatisfied with the hazy final resolution—was the killer Laura’s father or the psychopathic evil spirit BOB? The answer, it seemed, was both.

Part of why Twin Peaks was so popular initially and why it finally lost viewers was that it balanced the demands of episodic and serialized storytelling in a new way: a long-term question with a determined ending was balanced with the ongoing narrative demands of a soap opera. Its "failure" laid the groundwork for wildly popular serialized storytelling down the line, from The X-Files to LOST. While Lynch and Frost were ultimately unable to stretch out the question of Laura’s murder for as long as they wanted, their experimentation prepared readers to wait six years to discover the secrets of LOST island.

At the same time, Twin Peaks's commercial failure allowed Lynch and Frost to take creative risks that resulted in scenes such as the one included here: without a doubt the scariest eight minutes I've ever seen on prime-time television. Since they no longer needed to worry about alienating viewers, they could include images like dead-eyed screaming Laura that might prove off-putting for mainstream prime-time audiences. Eventually, all serials end, but "refusal" finales such as that of Twin Peaks or the famously divisive end to The Sopranos stave off disappointment by refusing answers altogether.


I'm glad you have spotlighted "Twin Peaks" as a program that has inspired a series of shows to take creative chances.  The idea of defining success beyond the numbers and beyond the years of duration appeals to me on a number of level.  

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the point upon which you end.  As you note, "Lost" and "The Sopranos" may be seen as heirs to Lynch's program--all shows that have embraced serialized narrative but (according to some) faltered in the finale.  The notion of a "refusal" ending as a narrative tactic--one meant to undermine the sense that the end was the point of the journey--seems to have far reaching impact.  Do you view this a conscious tactic on the part of writers?  Does the "refusal" ending transform the process or appeal of serial narrative?  Is it, perhaps, in part a contemporary response to new types of audience engagement with media texts?  

Thanks for provoking such an interesting series of questions. 


Thanks so much for your thoughtful, generous response!

I do think the "refusal" ending has to do with audience response; the breadth and immediacy of audience engagement through new media gives the audience a louder and faster voice, but I don't think that's the whole issue. Conscious or no, I think there's an underlying tension between reader and writer in a serial narrative as a result of the readers' collective power to "kill" a story by looking away. Part of why Twin Peaks is such an interesting example to me is that it's so early. There was a huge fan community, but the technology was such that the voices of fans remained pretty distant from the show's production (at least compared to contemporary examples like Battlestar Galactica or Lost). The impulse for the "refusal" ending thus seems more based on the serial episode's status as a commodity than on the specifics of reader response.

At the same time, (and I'm thinking here about Cory's post about serial vs. episodic "failure") I think the "refusal" ending encourages us to focus on the pleasures of the episode over the promised "payoff" of the ending. In this way, it definitely transforms the pleasure and power of the serial, particularly upon re-watching. The thing that's so interesting about Twin Peaks is that it leaves pretty much every question unanswered--and unanswerable. Knowing that the answer will be forever withheld encourages (or forces?) readers to look for different pleasures besides just figuring out what happens next.

Twin Peaks is a great case study for "failure," because it probably had a bigger bang than any 30-episode cancellation in American TV history - both in its initial sensation and later backlash, as well as its continued cultural memory. (I just screened the pilot to my students last night, so it still lives on!) 

One of the interesting elements of the show's history is that the creators had very different ideas about how to deal with the mystery. Frost wanted to wrap it up earlier, and Lynch wanted to never resolve it, but let it fade into the background of the town. The compromise clearly left almost nobody satisfied. So is this failure one that can be attributed to network pressure (which nixed Lynch's lingering idea) or the inherent limits of serial narrative? And how do we frame the show's lingering memory as an influential failed masterpiece?


What do we do with this? This may have been a question through the eyes of an audience that was half understanding and half in disbelief that this sort of programming was on air in the first place. Where do we draw the line at “failure”? The success of this show is constituted within the cult following of this series, along with the ways that it paved new ground for other shows as mentioned. It seems, that some of the images shown in the series created an uncomfortable platform on which the series could stand. Where did the show fail? Just because the audience was not ready for this presentation doesn’t particularly mean it failed. But then again, was it popular at the time of release? And why?

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