‘She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.’
It’s been nearly 25 years since David Lynch and Mark Frost’s labyrinthine television murder mystery Twin Peaks premiered on network television. The image of homecoming queen Laura Palmer’s body washed ashore a pebble beach was a once shocking image that, in retrospect, now looks quite quaint; a tame version of what prime time viewers see every night on any number of shows including police procedurals, fantasy dramas, and zombie apocalypses that pull in big weekly audiences.
The influence of Twin Peaks on television is undeniable – a point that has been labored extensively and will surely only continue to be with the imminent release of the series on Blu-ray format for the first time – and yet another show has come along that is barely able to hide its debt to the ‘90s game-changer despite its big city setting and glossy, modern look.
Murder in the First recently premiered on American cable’s TNT network and adopts the long-form mystery arch that became so prevalent since Lynch’s show had people asking ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ Just like Twin Peaks, this investigative murder mystery from executive producer Steven Bochko (NYPD Blue and LA Law most predominantly) follows the investigation by and subsequent private lives of San Francisco police detectives as they try to solve the mystery of who killed the pretty, young flight attendant (Brianne Davis) who’s been found naked at the bottom of the stairs of her apartment, pregnant and the likely victim of foul play. Even Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) of Murder, She Wrote could tell nothing here would be simple.
But whereas Lansbury’s small town mystery novelist and improbable crime-fighter oversaw murderous but more-or-less bloodless crimes from a seemingly bygone era, Murder in the First is another example of grisly television one-upmanship. Most gruesomely disturbingly is an autopsy sequence in the second episode featuring wide-angle shots of the deceased woman’s naked body splayed on a gurney and graphic sound effects upon the discovery that she was pregnant. It’s a far cry from Twin Peaks’ own autopsy sequence wherein the female victim’s body was more tastefully shown covered, only her straw-like blonde hair and a bare arm cascading out from under a sheet.
The marketing poster for Murder in the First even features an autopsy photo of a woman whose eyelids read ‘DEAD GIRLS DON’T TALK’, similar in concept to one piece of Twin Peaks promotional artwork, but far bolder in its glorification of violence. It sells the show as not being shy to show its nasty violence, a point further made by commercials showing the corpse (albeit tastefully blurred) and featuring beyond-the-grave narration. Where Laura Palmer was a complicated, enigmatic twist on the sexist girl next door ideal, and the series as a whole an angry, fiery rebuke to so-called American values, Murder in the First is generic pap.
Given what we see every night, it’s not hard to not presume that were Twin Peaks made today, TV executives would demand Laura Palmer’s body be stripped completely bare, and posed with something akin to a pair of deer antlers just like early victims in both Hannibal and True Detective. It wasn’t until the justifiably R18+ rated prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) that Lynch was able to elaborate on and visualise the terrible crimes that happened to his central character – crimes that are now being shown in many television series’ opening minutes.
The Law & Order franchise, with its flagship series and multiple spin-offs, built its popularity around its facsimile structure where nearly every episode opens with a vicious crime. In particular, Law & Order: SVU finds increasingly outlandish crimes for its detectives to solve featuring, over-the-top scenarios and violence. What’s more, the Law & Order shows screen on several American cable networks before noon and throughout the day. One such marathon was marketed with zest to binge-watchers as a ‘Detective Benson in Danger’-themed collection of episodes that had Mariska Hargitay’s cop go undercover as a prostitute, be beaten, and nearly raped and killed in separate incidents. Hargitay won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for her efforts.
Much has changed since the days of Twin Peaks, and it’s debatable as to whether Twin Peaks would even screen on traditional network television in today’s risk-averse television landscape (Lynch’s TV follow-up, a pilot for a series named Mulholland Drive starring Naomi Watts, was rejected and eventually edited and expanded into a feature film of the same name in 2001). Do audiences expect bloody violence on television now? In the case of something like The Following with Kevin Bacon, or Bates Motel with Vera Farmiga, it seems highly unlikely that viewers would keep tuning in if it weren’t for the frequent blood-letting.
Yet the likes of Elementary and The Closer have succeeded beyond expectations without excessive blood and gore, but rather good writing and impeccable casting. Maybe they’re the true kin of Twin Peaks, and shows like Murder in the First are just weak-tea copycats.
The situation is further clouded when we ask why TV violence has expanded so much and why audiences are so thoroughly lapping it up. For instance, why are audiences so easily captivated by, and even on side with, the likes meth-cooking murderers like those on Breaking Bad? Or how about Tony (James Gandolfini) in The Sopranos.
Television and cinema have long been perceived as escapes for viewers. One could then surely hypothesise that the ease with which viewers have accepted this new age of broadcast violence is in response to the way our increasingly-wired society has made us generally desensitised to the world at large. What’s the harm in it, if the horrors of the modern world are so frequently being brought out into the open by a news cycle that is no longer restricted to three or four network news programs and corporate-run newspapers? The advent of online news websites, including those like Overland, mean news is no longer filtered. The real world is being exposed to us and TV writers are merely catching up.
For audiences that were once shocked by Twin Peaks’ prime time expose of the unspoken undercurrent of violence that runs through society’s veins, shows like the ones discussed are mere more honest reflections of a world we live in, but with entertaining genre twists. Likewise, shows such as Girls and Looking are doing the same for sex, again reflecting the world we live in as one with a more open dialogue than 25 years prior. If we want to see why a show like Murder in the First can choose to be so graphic then we surely need look no further than the evening news that inspires it.