Twin Peaks as Brechtian Television
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As the return of cult classic show Twin Peaks approaches, the form it will take after its quarter-century hiatus is profoundly uncertain. When such an iconic and seminal series returns, it always risks antagonizing its faithful following if not properly realized. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that no matter its implementation, it will follow David Lynch’s classic formula of alienation.
In almost all of his works, the detached and unnatural comportment of the actors is obvious and immediate. In Twin Peaks, each inhabitant of the town seems almost like a caricature and yet simultaneously incredibly complex. The acting is often wooden and unnatural, and even the most likable characters such as Agent Dale Cooper and Harry Truman are difficult to relate to due to their eccentricities and surreal personal lives. Consequently, the audience is constantly reminded that they are, in fact, watching a performance, and not a faithful reproduction of some immutable reality.
This approach mirrors that of the great Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht argued that theatre must force the audience to confront the contradictions of their contemporary setting. It must create an alienating effect to stop the audience from relating too closely to the characters, to take it out of its comfort zone. Viewers must be denied their normal role as passive consumers. In the bourgeois theatre, the audience “scarcely communicate with each other; their relations are those of a lot of sleepers…they look at the stage as if in a trance.” They are wholly too comfortable in unquestioningly accepting the proceedings on stage.
This alternate reality, replete with magical realist occurrences and incomprehensible mysticism, forces the viewer to reckon with the way it forms a mirror image of human society.
This process of passivity mirrors the transformation under capitalism of the working class into mindless consumers. They lose their capacity as producers, and consequently “increases in production lead to increases in misery” while benefiting solely those who exploit them. To Brecht, it is integral that “in the age to come art creates entertainment from a new productivity,” in order to link entertainment, with the application of a critical eye, to the mode of production. To this end, the audience needs to feel alienated from the proceedings in order to be made aware of the contradictions contained in our current mode of production.
To create the alienation effect that can force a more critical engagement with theatre, Brecht insists that theatre must resist the temptation to evoke an empathetic response in the audience. To this end, “the actor has to discard whatever means he has learnt of getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays.” Since good acting deepens the audience’s alienated state, it is anathema to precipitating decisive action.
The most obvious example of this complex surrealism in Twin Peaks is Laura Palmer, the murdered “town’s favourite daughter” who, it turns out, was also addicted to cocaine and manipulated her peers into drug trafficking. However, each character comes with their own complications, and none seems fully and consistently articulated. For Brecht, “the coherence of the character is in fact shown by the way in which its individual qualities contradict one another.” This necessitates a careful introspection on the part of the actor as to what attributes constitute their character and how their inner contradictions should play out. In this conflict, the audience can find reason to maintain a distance that facilitates a more critical analysis of the character and setting.
The show’s use of character development is another illustration of Brecht’s idea of alienation. Characters change and discover new ways of being, but most of their transformations involve a haphazard descent deeper into the twisted world of the town of Twin Peaks. In the bourgeois theatre, “if there is any development it is always steady, never by jerks; the developments always take place within a definite framework which cannot be broken through.” Conversely, in Twin Peaks the developments of characters transpire in a chaotic and fragmented way, paradoxically providing a more realistic portrayal of how we ourselves change: erratically and without preparation.
Interestingly, the unbalanced character development creates an environment where no one character is privileged above the others, avoiding what Brecht saw as the “deplorable habit of letting the dominant actor, the star, ’come to the front’ by getting all the other actors to work for him.” In a sense, this more egalitarian method of treating characters furthers the sense of alienation that the audience experiences, as there is no unimpeachable or consistently developing character to serve as a vessel for them to project themselves onto.
In a way, the entire model of a television series lends itself to Brecht’s model, because its segmented nature inherently disrupts the process of consumption. In his theatre, he hoped that “the episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment.” The discombobulated form of serial television accomplishes this goal admirably. In a show like Twin Peaks, where each episode can seem completely incongruent with the next, the audience is forced into critical reflection at every interval.
This is why he views the contemporary method of theatre as an obfuscating tool of the bourgeoisie. They transformed nature itself through implementing a critical scientific approach, yet they refuse to apply the same lens to examining the unequal social relations that they reinforce.
The dreamlike setting provokes in the viewer an even deeper examination of his or her alienation. In Twin Peaks, the most otherworldly and momentous occurrences hardly register any attention from the inhabitants. This parallels Brecht’s ideal model, where “a visit, the treatment of an enemy, a lovers’ meeting, agreements about politics or business, can be portrayed as if they were simply illustrations of general principles valid for the place in question. Shown thus, the particular and unrepeatable incident acquires a disconcerting look.” This alternate reality, replete with magical realist occurrences and incomprehensible mysticism, forces the viewer to reckon with the way it forms a mirror image of human society.
The setting is especially crucial because, in its differentiation from our contemporary world, it reinforces the sense that the actions of the characters are impossible to map onto our own. We cannot watch Twin Peaks and relate entirely to a character’s actions, because they take place in such an incomprehensible plane of existence. Instead, all we can do is analyze whether we would have behaved in the same way, under similar circumstances. In the process, the viewer is forced to reckon with the fact that his or her own actions are similarly contingent on the existing societal conditions. This is a necessary precursor to questioning the construction and contradictions of these conditions themselves.
Brecht’s approach to some extent moderates Adorno’s views on the role of art – namely, that through acting as a negation of reality, art can reveal the contradictions hidden within that reality. Brecht seeks a form of realism but one that defamiliarizes the subject matter, exposing the hidden contradictions within that reality. This is why he views the contemporary method of theatre as an obfuscating tool of the bourgeoisie. They transformed nature itself through implementing a critical scientific approach, yet they refuse to apply the same lens to examining the unequal social relations that they reinforce. The bourgeois theatre’s “performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealization. Conditions are reported as if they could not be otherwise.”
In the process, the viewer is forced to reckon with the fact that his or her own actions are similarly contingent on the existing societal conditions. This is a necessary precursor to questioning the construction and contradictions of these conditions themselves.
Instead of this comfortable portrayal of an unchanging society, Brecht wants the art form to show that society has the capacity to radically transform, showing the possibilities that our current system ignores. The completely foreign world into which Twin Peaks immerses the audience creates just such a sense. It forces the reader to take a more critical attitude towards capitalism in showing the alienation and atomization that the system can perpetuate. In its alien nature, it implicitly reaffirms the potential for a different, more equitable reality.