Procedural promo

This month marks the 24th anniversary of what could be considered the first of the now-increasingly popular season-long “hyperserial” procedural crime dramas—the pilot episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This show swapped the sequins and mansions of traditional nighttime soap operas for a talking log and a Black Lodge, and it countered TV’s biggest previous question at the time—Dallas’ “Who shot J.R.?”—with another question: “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”

In a criminal courtroom, a prosecutor wouldn’t ask a question to which she didn’t know the answer, but the opposite is true during an investigation—anyone confronting a mystery must ask an ocean’s-worth of questions and learn from whatever might wash ashore: grief, silence, anger, misdirection, more questions. A crime show called “Occam’s Razor” would almost certainly be a flop (or last for only one episode). Television has evolved since the 1980s to accept that audiences can handle more than simple resolution, but why is it too much to ask that viewers push past the need for any resolution at all?

Though Twin Peaks (or perhaps ABC’s marketing department) began with a big question that set up an expectation that the show would be high in single-plot resolution, it was arguably most successful when it provided more questions than answer. Lynch himself said: "The murder of Laura Palmer was the center of the story, the thing around which all the show's other elements revolved—like a sun in a little solar system. It was not supposed to get solved. The idea was for it to recede a bit into the background, and the foreground would be that week's show."

Laura Palmer’s murder—not the revelation of her murderer—gave the show its heat, its gravity. Without that sun, once Laura’s killer was revealed (well into season 2), the show’s planetary makeup began to spin a bit out of its orbit.

Twin Peaks was dark, but sincere. It was ambitious, but also terrifically personal. It made television humor lyrical. And it was both hyper-local, and also situated a bit outside of time—leading us to wonder if the red curtain separating our world from the next was actually inside the Black Lodge, or rather hanging at the Twin Peaks town border itself. The show set a new standard of negative capability that television had never seen before—striking notes of the low-ball absurdity of shows like Fantasy Island (sans quicksand traps) and the macabre of The Twilight Zone, and impleading Lynch’s cinematic influences, like Hitchcock.

Enjoyment of Twin Peaks also required this negative capability from its viewers, but Lynch didn’t ask anything of his audience that he didn’t seduce out of his own characters, or even his collaborators on the show. Agent Dale Cooper was just as enchanted by his cherry pie as he was by the specter of a dancing dwarf. Sheriff Truman may have been a bit puzzled by Cooper’s strategies (e.g., looking for leads by saying a suspect’s name, then throwing a rock at a bottle to see if it breaks[1]), but gladly accepted his new friend’s help in whatever form it arrived. And when Lynch called up Twin Peaks co-creator and screenwriter Mark Frost during the show’s production and said, “Mark, I think there’s a giant in Agent Cooper’s room,” the only possible response from Frost was “OK.”

And it was, hypnotically, OK. The whole knot of Twin Peaks became greater than the sum of its loose ends.

Often the mark of a show’s fortitude is measured by how deftly it sets its fish hooks into shows that follow: X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and even—specifically admitted by David Chase—The Sopranos took permission first granted by Twin Peaks and used it towards freely weird ends. These shows all delighted in the unresolved. People still ask David Chase about what happened to the wounded Russian in “Pine Barrens” as much as they might have water-coolered about what they knew happened to Adriana, Vito or Big Pussy (RIP Adriana & Vito, who didn’t deserve it).

And this fearless evasion  of resolution also delighted its viewers. Each of these shows has, at its base, a cult adoration that lounges at the core of any larger popularity it might also enjoy. The truth is out there, but so are we.

Now a new post-Sopranos generation of shows has taken on the specific task of the season-long crime procedural model pioneered in Twin Peaks and re-introduced us to the hyperserial killer: AMC’s version of The Killing, Sundance’s Top of the Lake, and most recently and bro-splosively, HBO’s True Detective, just to name a few. Each sets itself in motion on the rational tracks of a whodunit and attempts to use both the intuitive and the atmospheric as a third, energizing rail. There are plenty of valid critiques of each of these shows, but in the end, the most pervasive seem to be aimed at the coherence with which they resolve their central crime-question.

But what if these types of shows refused to answer their own big question? What if they began with an answer (“Laura Palmer is dead.”) and let the show ask the questions? If what they do best is mystery, and what they do worst is solution, then why not simply not do the worst thing. Why not let the viewers metabolize their expectations and let the stories do their own work?

Who Didn’t Kill Rosie Larsen?

The Killing is arguably less ambitious than Twin Peaks and a bit less interested in its main characters than True Detective, but AMC has certainly proved itself to be a network interested in creating original, rule-busting shows. It was smart to adapt the original Danish series of The Killing, but the network set up its audience with too clear a directive from the jump, nodding to its predecessor by reprising its promising big question strategy—this time: “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?”

Again we have a murder, a (supposed) angel/devil girl-victim, and an angel/devil obsessed investigator. The big question wasn’t answered for audiences until the end of Season Two, which left many viewers feeling like the show broke up with them via text message (on a flip phone, no less) after two years of a wrenching but ultimately forgettable committed relationship. The nuance, mood and humanity of the show—though slickly meditative—concerned itself only with a linear path to Rosie’s killer, and when all you have is a murder, everything looks like a crime scene.[2]

Push past the conceit of the investigation, however, and exacting, nuanced character interaction become richly visible, like dusting for prints. Michelle Forbes as Rosie’s mother Mitch delivers one of her finest performances. She’s physically etched with her pain. Add that to the ways she and Brent Sexton as her husband Stan Larsen convey the way tragedy distorts the passage of time, the way tragedy distorts routine, and the show—though difficult and raw—finds a particular, necessary truth in storytelling. As such, The Killing might best be categorized as an intelligent TV show about grief asking its audience over on a date to watch a mediocre TV show about solving a murder.

“You Don’t Own It Like You Thought You Did”

True Detective spends imagery as currency to put a down payment on its audience’s loyalty. The South spreads out before us like a Sally Mann retrospective, tired and tempting, one long morning after. Just like Twin Peaks and The Killing, though not part of its marketing package, we get a big question in the first episode: “Who killed Dora Lange?” Just as in Twin Peaks and The Killing, a young girl’s corpse is arranged for us like sculpture, in all its macabre beauty.

True Detective attempts to specialize (and spectacle-ize), as might delight Agent Dale Cooper, in the local color. Sweet tea and obese women in day pajamas. Long stretches of two-lane highways and weary prostitutes in trailer communities. A certain way the landscape infiltrates the characters—the way Rust Cohle uses a drag on a cigarette as a semicolon. Everything an invitation for us to come over for supper. Everything lined up for us to drawl some conclusions.

Throughout each episode, though, an image narrative runs parallel to the action and dialogue—the visual version of a voice-over. We are excited because of where the layered images and dialogue and characters take us, not because of where the plot narrative leaves us. With the exception of being nearly entirely humorless, True Detective seemed to have all the tools it needed to overcome its own big question, to charm its audience into valuing storyline over plotline.

And yet much of the chatter leading up to the finale zeroed in on Who Killed Dora Lange, the detailed speculation sometimes reaching A Beautiful Mind-esque heights. When the show’s finale proved a bit more ordinary—or at least didn’t answer all the questions each episode’s clues seemed to collage—it was as if the Internet itself audibly pouted.

The Portrait of a Lady

From my view, the most successful of these crime-hyperserials since Twin Peaks is Sundance’s Top of the Lake, created, written and directed by Jane Campion. It’s billed as a “TV Mini-series,” though it turns in only one fewer episode than the first season of True Detective. The show leans on the lush New Zealand landscape just as heavily as True Detective leans on the languor of the South or The Killing leans on the drear of Seattle, and it offers us the familiar victim with talent/grit and protagonist-investigator with accompanying angels/demons and introversion/strength (Elisabeth Moss as lead detective Robyn Griffin—and if I can forgive Woody Harrelson’s marble-mouthed Southern accent, you can forgive her bent-nail of a New Zealand one).

But even from its opening act, the show distinguishes itself in an important way—we know something has happened to a young girl named Tui, but we also know she’s not dead. Even so, Campion still generates a haunting story, a rich tension, and shades in the classic detective-victim bond in a more nuanced, less fetishizing fashion than True Detective or The Killing (or Twin Peaks, even). Top of the Lake takes Lynch’s note of letting the crime recede into the background while the characters unfold their lives in its wake.

The varsity-level discomfort this produced in some critics was perhaps a sign of its success. Mike Hale of the New York Times began his review with what I thought was a compliment: “There are times during ‘Top of the Lake’ when you can convince yourself that you’re watching a mystery story about a girl who goes missing. But that sensation never lasts.” That was not a compliment. Hale later calls Tui’s disappearance “a MacGuffin,” and seems to demand that each of the show’s plotlines come attached to a life preserver he can cling to.

With a small show, Jane Campion made the landscape bigger. She does answer the crime-question (and it is the weakest moment of the show), but she does it quickly enough that viewers aren’t left in a comfortable, or resolved, place. She doesn’t ignore the notion that a criminal can be discovered and punished, but that discovery and punishment don’t solve the crime—the consequences continue to be lived by everyone involved.

“Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen.”

Campion has said “acting is about vulnerability.” I’d offer that viewing is likewise. What I wish for audiences is to give themselves a present: resist that feeling of betrayal fingered by David Foster Wallace in “David Lynch Keeps His Head”—resist the feeling that when directors and writers seem to fail in rewarding the suspense an audience endures with a morally self-satisfying conclusion, that “an unspoken but very important covenant has been violated.” 

Let there be shows that hold an audience in suspense, but not hold as in handcuffs—hold as in a spell. Let the crime be another part of the landscape. If there is a big question, let it be answered with other intimate questions. Let viewers sit in the discomfort of their not-knowing, of their wonder and fear, of the unresolved-ness of a show’s resolve. Let these hyperserial crime shows live in the world of poems and short stories, rather than airport novels—not puzzles to be solved, but lakes to be dredged by the imagination.

[1] Kimmy Robertson, who played receptionist Lucy Moran in Twin Peaks, illuminates this idea one bulb further with an anecdote from her days on the set: “There’s a scene where Kyle [MacLachlan] had to throw a rock and hit a glass bottle. [Lynch] sat us down and told Kyle he was going to hit the bottle—and that bottle was freaking far away. Kyle hit it, and everybody freaked out. It was like David used the power of the universe to make Twin Peaks.”

[2] Part of the let-down, too, of finally knowing Who Killed Rosie Larsen wasn’t just the short walk on a long pier—it was also what David Foster Wallace prescienced based on an insightful notion in one of his essays from 1995. Wallace:

The mystery’s final ‘resolution’, in particular, was felt by critics and audiences alike to be deeply unsatisfying. And it was…but the really deep dissatisfaction—the one that made audiences feel screwed and betrayed…was, I submit, a moral one. I submit that [the victim’s] exhaustively revealed ‘sins’ required, by the moral logic of American mass entertainment, that the circumstances of her death turn out to be causally related to those sins. We as an audience have certain core certainties about sowing and reaping, and these certainties need to be affirmed and massaged.”

The show to which Wallace was referring? Twin Peaks.

Amy Woolard is a writer and child welfare/juvenile justice policy attorney who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the
Virginia Quarterly Review, the Massachusetts Review, the Indiana Review, The Journal, Fence, and the Best New Poets 2013 anthology, among others. You can find her at, and on Twitter as @awoo_.