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Wrapped in Plastic: Nostalgia, of Televised and Other Kinds

(Note: I was originally intending to write this piece for Jacob Clifton, while he was working for Screener. But a national reading competition, plus teaching three classes at two universities, plus tteaching in Dubai, plus putting my mother-in-law in one nursing home and then another, plus a depressive episode, destroyed me. If you’re an editor and you like this piece, hire Jacob! He helped talk me through the initial concept. In any case, I find it appropriate to return to my blog after a long absence with a piece about things returning after long absences. It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you.)

“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.”

These are the first words Rory Gilmore says on the revival of Gilmore Girls. She’s referring to her single column in the New Yorker, immortalized on the back page of a menu at Luke’s Diner. She’s also referring to Pete Martell’s words to Sherriff Harry Truman in the pilot of episode of Twin Peaks, after he discovers the body of Laura Palmer. “She’s dead! Wrapped in plastic.”

The Gilmore girls, and their co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, love Twin Peaks. There are multiple allusions to it throughout the series, and cast members like Sherilynn Fenn show up, sometimes in multiple (doubled, even) roles. Like Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls is obsessed with uncanny dualities: Rory and Lorelai, Lorelai and Emily, Rory and Paris, Laine and Mrs. Kim, the existence of each woman a fast-talking rebuke of the other’s, the lot of them trapped in their own Black Lodges of screwball sniping, each taking up all the air in every room until each relationship asphyxiates with the effort of explaining itself.

And like Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls is about a small town in America that people can’t help but come back to, and in some cases, seem unable to leave. The citizens of each place are in a codependent relationship, of sorts, with their location — a particular kind of psychogeographical nostalgia is keeping them there, even when they know that other opportunities abound elsewhere. Similarly, the audiences of each show want to return not just to their beloved characters, but to the places their stories unfolded: Twin Peaks, Stars Hollow, a dim office in the basement of the Hoover Building. Both places have signature musical cues, whether it’s a bass guitar or an interminable “la-la-la” trilling. Both sounds take you to their place as quickly as the taste of a madeleine dissolves, fragile and effervescent, on the tongue.

Nostalgia is having a moment. (Or the recollection of one.) Other critics have spoken about this at length. Faris says “Culture has been recycling itself faster and more obviously than usual in the last decade or so. In Hyper-Normalization’s terms, we can see this as a rejection of complexity.” In Vanity Fair, James Walcott reminds us “Mostly a white people’s pastime, nostalgia used to be a pining for an idealized yesteryear, for a prelapsarian world tinted in sepia.”

But television, the great manufacturer and reifier of nostalgia-as-cultural-product, has offered us three recent examples of how nostalgia operates: The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, and Twin Peaks: The Return. All three series are revivals of shows that were once extremely popular, shows that spawned their own fan cultures, complete with inside jokes, memes, crafts, fictions, costumes, rules, shibboleths, conventions (both literal and figurative) and other signifiers of a fully-developed world within a world. These shows lent themselves to the manufacture of meaning and community, the simultaneous but fundamentally anarchic co-creation of identity built on the (sometimes critical, alternative, queer, or otherwise dissenting) interpretation of commoditized art.

It was perhaps inevitable that in the era of “peak TV,” executives would look at a crowded field and bet on the draw of established brands. Everything old seemed new again, in 2015 and 2016: flannel, Doc Martens, Hillary Clinton. Why not bring the band back together? Why not come back for one final score?

But as Freud would remind us, it is the nature of a return to be uncanny, unsettling, unfamiliar. Speaking of the double in his essay on The Uncanny, Freud says “There are also all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.” The uncanny double is always an untrue replication of the original, whether it’s Frankestein’s Creature or Bad Cooper or Agent Einstein. And so it is with media franchises: the return of a character you love is never quite the return of love itself. It’s a late-discovered love letter still fragrant with a perfume that’s no longer made. (It smells like marshmallows and Promises, or like something with a ship on the bottle.)

How each series dealt with this problem is indicative of how we deal with nostalgia itself. Which is to say, it is indicative of how we choose to remember the past — a question that has inspired Lynch throughout his career. “I remember things the way I want to remember them,” says one character in Lost Highway, a man who, like Dale Cooper, has thoroughly forgotten himself. And whereas that mantra may have sustained Lynch earlier on as a storytelling device, what’s clear by the end of The Return is that Lynch has matured. This is a revival about the grace of death. It’s a revival about the temptation of resurrection. It’s a revival about the uselessness of that resurrection.

And that resurrection is useless. Of all the revivals, Gilmore Girls feels most like itself, but it’s almost too good, so perfect a reproduction of itself that it strays into Uncanny Valley territory. (Which, by the way, would also be a good name for Stars Hollow.) Little has changed in town, and more importantly, no one in it has changed. The most transformative moment comes when Lorelai is finally able to eulogize her father for her mother, recalling an otherwise banal moment over the phone when she finally has no one else to talk to, and finally understanding its importance. Carrie (or is she Laura?) has a similar moment, also in the desert for a journey, as she drowsily murmurs, “Most of the time, I was too young to understand.” Which is what a person like Laura might say about her sexual abuse at the hands of her father. At first, when she was too young, she didn’t know. Whether it was inspired by the supernatural or not doesn’t matter. It happened. No matter who Laura becomes, whether it’s Carrie or Maddie or a tulpa, those moments will remain. Part of her will always be in the Lodge. Part of her will always be screaming.

To take things in a different direction, the most transformative moment on The X-Files‘ revival is the one in which Mulder and Scully imagine the past they might have had with their son William. Each of them imagines the life that might have been, and the future that past might have made possible. Would they still be estranged, if their son was around to glue them together? After all, parenting is a full-time job, at least as consuming as were the career obligations that initially drew them into are-they/aren’t-they, will-they-won’t-they. Would they have been ambitious parents, searching for some universal truth? The series suggests the opposite — that a more mundane existence is what the two of them secretly craved all along, that home truths are even more important than hidden ones. But then the series wouldn’t be the series. It would be fanfiction. And, some might argue, its revivals are exactly that — nothing more, and nothing less.

Twin Peaks bears much of the responsibility for how “peak TV” works today. If you obsessed over “the numbers” on LOST, it’s because Abrams, et al loved Twin Peaks. If you kept up with the “mythology” of The X-Files (or followed David Duchovny’s career afterward), it’s because the template for those mythology arcs began in Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks, at once an extremely in-depth investigation of “the evil that men do,” and a tender soap opera, and a magic realist catalogue of a small town whose soul is up for grabs, has a clear lineage to series like The X-Files, LOST, Fringe, Veronica Mars, Haven, Gilmore Girls, Desperate Housewives, How to Get Away with Murder, The Vampire Diaries, Riverdale, Top of the Lake, Hannibal, The Killing (both of them), and more that I’m likely forgetting. The format: a multi-episode mystery must be solved while protagonists resolve A and B plots that serve to build the world and develop the characters while simultaneously revealing details about the larger tale. It’s no accident that Amanda Seyfried, who once played Laura Palmer figre Lilly Kane on Veronica Mars, makes an appearance on The Return. She even wears a star necklace, similar to the one Lilly wore, which became Veronica’s after Lilly’s murder.

It’s easy to forget, but television didn’t always work this way. Once upon a time, television was truly episodic: the resolution of each episode, even when it was an hour-long drama like The Rockford Files, re-set the world so that characters safely returned to their point of origin. It didn’t matter if you watched episodes in order; before the advent of home video, episodes simply appeared, complete unto themselves, a perfect product for eventual syndication and the attendant residuals and royalties. Only changes to cast and crew might last (such as the addition of new children to I Love Lucy), but even these were uncertain: ask your parents (or their parents) about which Darren they prefer. This way of doing television, as a sort of one-act play broken up by commercials and smoke breaks, might sound boring, but it was exactly the sort of anesthetic required for life in America during the Cold War.

After all, why get attached to a silly TV show, when nuclear annihilation was right around the corner?

The era of America’s past that Lynch so carefully evokes throughout his cinema (whether via Audrey’s saddle shoes or James’ guitar or doo-wop numbers in Mulholland Drive), is also the one that produced the atom bomb. And, uncharacteristically, Lynch took us to the heart of that creation in The Return’s Trumbull-esque episode 8. There is a limit to nostalgia, and that limit is the acknowledgement of history. The line between fantasy and reality — an obsession of Lynch’s for his entire career — is drawn with human blood. For a story so steeped in magic and so ambiguous about the outcome of events, The Return is as rigorous in its attention to detail as a History major unleashed on Usenet in 1990: names, dates, numbers, and coordinates are all integral to the plot. And crucially, Cooper’s attempt to re-write history by “saving” Laura from her televised fate creates nothing but increasingly unsettling futures. Time has never been linear for Lynch. And indeed, one of The Return’s signature photographic gestures is to start and stop the progress of the film, hopping and skipping about, the progress of time and narrative stopping and starting, now fast and now slow. But what the final episode suggests is that, like BOB, time can fracture away from us, creating as many alternative timelines as there are members of the audience, as many dreams as there are dreamers.

“What year is this?” may be Lynch at his most slyly political. “Is it future, or is it past?” is as much an ethical question as a question about the direction of the plot. Cooper, like his audience, can choose when and how to intervene. We may “beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” but that doesn’t mean we can change it — a recursion is merely an opportunity to examine past mistakes and make small adjustments. “I told them to change their hearts or die!” says Lynch-as-Cole, and the ending of the series (if these things ever end) implies that death may in fact be the option we as a species have chosen.

For nostalgia is itself a kind of death. As these stories remind us, only dead things — girls like Laura Palmer, or Rory Gimore’s career, or the many folios of the X-Files — are wrapped in plastic. Preservation, like embalming and taxidermy, are for what has already passed. And when we try to preserve what is living — a country, a people, a life — in plastic, we may end up suffocating it forever.