Lauded new television shows like “Twin Peaks” and “American Gods” don’t bother with a narrative, leaving viewers dazed and confused.
Quick, what is Twin Peaks about?
Not the original from the early nineties. For that you just need memory or Wikipedia. But the new Twin Peaks, airing Sundays on Showtime. I saw the first two episodes at the premiere, with director David Lynch present. Baffled by the contrast between the towering expectations and my experience viewing it, I posed the question to some generally smart viewers at the afterparty in downtown Los Angeles.
No one — not one person — could tell me what we had just watched.
I am also viewing American Gods, a show on Starz, because friends I trust tell me I must. And I ask myself the same question. What is this? Granted, I have not read the Neil Gaiman book on which this show is based. But I assume Starz is interested in reaching new viewers. As someone new to the story, I am left feeling too daft, too old, or both.
American Gods has something to do with, guess what, gods in America. The symbolism is everywhere, but symbolic of what? There is a chilling lynching, set in the present. A powerful scene on a slave ship in the 16th century, set on fire based on a speech by a character from the present telling the slaves they will be miserable for hundreds of years. The flames of candles are shot in gorgeous detail. Sex scenes are graphic and mysterious. Cows are slaughtered with a huge hammer. Lucille Ball speaks from a row of widescreen televisions in a super store.
The acting is done well by masters of the art, like Ian McShane, the man with the most interesting face on TV, and the distractingly good-looking Ricky Whittle. But one detail: what – is – the – story? I can tell you what Gaiman says in the press material:
“[O]ver the years, all of the people who have come to America have brought their gods with them. You have gods out on the fringes of American society. They are grifting, they are hooking, and they are pumping gas. These are the Old Gods. Now you have lots of shiny, bright New Gods. Gods of internet, telephone, media, finance. Things that Americans are giving their time and love and attention to. They are getting more power and there is going to be a showdown. War is coming.”
Hypes build on themselves. These are now the shows to watch and, apparently, love. In the meantime, perfectly good action, drama, and comedy series are being ignored or canceled.
For original ideas, storytelling, and acting, look to Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. Queen Sugar from director Ava DuVernay is returning June 21, a gift for anyone who cares about quality TV, just as summer begins. Season 2 of Greenleaf, also quite good, is currently on. Both are about complicated black American families, both have an old-fashioned narrative power that keeps you hooked.
Big Little Lies with Reese Witherspoon on HBO. The Night Manager with Hugh Laurie, rumored to return for another miniseries on AMC. Or The Sinner, a new crime series with Jessica Biel. I have only seen the strong pilot: a serious, well-made, plot-driven show with characters to care about, which will premiere this fall on the USA network. Those are entertaining, modern stories, not postmodernist impressions without structure.
In Cannes Twin Peaks received the longest standing ovation of the entire film festival this week. I would have liked to ask the excited French viewers what the new Twin Peaks is about. That reception — like the positive reviews — signifies nostalgia and respect for Lynch, I think. But in the era of peak TV, when solid programming like the futuristic cop show APB on Fox sadly gets canceled, nostalgia is not enough.
David Lynch doesn’t watch television. I was not surprised to hear this. He seems to have completely missed the revolution of excellent productions on streaming services, cable, and network TV. Twin Peaks may have started the revolution back then, it cannot compete 25 years later.
At least the Los Angeles crowd was honest. During the screening the scattered laughter sounded contrived, coming from the sections where people working on the show were sitting. Afterward, a thin cloud of applause filled the theater for a moment as people took off, wondering what on earth they had just seen.
Showtime preview (screenshot)