I Disagree with David Lynch

everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-twin-peaks-revival

Twin Peaks fever has taken hold for the first time in 26 years. The original series is being celebrated, re-analyzed, dissected, and is sourcing all manner of “listicles” for “best episodes,”  “scariest moments,” “favorite characters,” etc. Suffice it to say, interest in the new season airing on Showtime this Sunday, May 21st at 9 PM EST is high.

But amidst the feverish interest in the new series are two perspectives I find troubling, which impact the show’s lasting legacy and 27 years of fandom. I must defend Twin Peaks season two and the story of the series as a whole.

The first wrongheaded perspective is codifying Twin Peaks as a cult show. It’s revisionist history and it demeans the show’s legacy. It’s certainly true that since it’s been off of the air only the hard core fans have remained invested in the series, but when the show was airing live everyone watched. Not just a rabid, cultish few. Everyone talked about Twin Peaks around the “water cooler” (whatever that was…).

I challenge this idea mostly because classifying Twin Peaks as a “cult show” isn’t accurate. It twists the truth and turns potential future viewers away. When Twin Peaks was hot, it was sizzling and everyone was watching it. Recent reflections on the series have revealed that even state leaders like President George H.W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth were enamored with the story of the murdered prom queen and the mystery of who killed her. Rocky Horror Picture Show, my dear The Big Lebowski, and heck even Firefly are cult works. By contrast, Twin Peaks was a national phenomenon.

The second and more pervasive perspective is “Season 2 of Twin Peaks went off the rails.” I’m distilling a lot of criticism into one sentence for simplicity, but bear with me.

Season 1 is universally beloved. It’s tightly plotted, engrossing television that, to this day, still manages to astound with its peculiar dream imagery, emotional soundtrack, gorgeous visuals both in locations and in set design, and outrageous characters. Despite taking place in 1990 (1989?), it feels timeless. There’s a reason for this, of course. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost crafted the genre-bending, transformational pilot movie and the subsequent 7 episodes together. It’s true that other writers and directors were involved, but the “bones” of the story were assembled by Lynch and Frost.

It’s inaccurate to say that Lynch and Frost were uninvolved in Season 2 and I wish that particular legend would die already. Even Brad Dukes’ great oral history of Twin Peaks dispels this notion. What really happened is more mundane — the first season was a limited season event and season two was picked up for a full 22 episodes and it needed to be run more “traditionally.” In short, the machinery of TV bureaucracy intruded. Lynch and Frost couldn’t just secret themselves away and design the whole season. TV didn’t work that way in 1990. Now, folks like Vince Gilligan (who walks firmly in Lynch and Frost’s footsteps), of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, can develop a season from start to finish albeit with more concise 13 episode counts.

But all of that is beside the point. Despite the added pressure of success and the winding maze of 1990 era TV bureaucracy, Twin Peaks season 2 should not be minimized as lesser work. Indeed, I argue that what season 2 ultimately did was build the world far beyond just the murder of the seemingly innocent homecoming queen.

There are some who say the whole season is rubbish, but much of the criticism is leveled at many of the episodes following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer. Some is certainly fair. Let’s start there.

David Lynch (and Mark Frost to a lesser extent) have long lamented pressure from the network to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch has argued that it killed “the golden goose.” I’ve never understood this, much less agreed with it. In other descriptions of Twin Peaks, Lynch has described Laura’s murder as the doorway into the strange, bucolic town full of secrets. If that’s true, then once we’re in the town, we’re in. Laura’s murder being solved should be immaterial. You could make the case that people would have abandoned the show anyway after awhile because they’d feel strung along with no answers in sight. In fact, some viewers were already leaving over the feeling of being strung along during early season two!

But from a story perspective Laura’s murder was merely the first layer of the onion. Once you peel it back, you could reveal greater truths and deeper mysteries (which is what happened!). The criticisms I will agree with about the second season have to do more with the poor transition from Laura’s story to the next big story and some of the subplot choices the show pursued. But simply solving Laura’s murder shouldn’t have ended the show when exposing her killer opened the door into the shows deeper mythology which was (and is) rich with even more story potential, hence the fact that we’re getting more show 27 years later!

Following Laura’s murder, the show should have transitioned directly into the Windom Earle story line. Or, perhaps, maybe just one episode of transition and denouement instead of three or four. I’m not proposing anything new or insightful here, I think this idea is almost universally shared. And, to me, that suggests that the late Season Two stories have merit and are good and the slow build to get there were the real problems. I certainly think the Cooper vs. Windom Earle and Hunt for Owl Cave stories were very strong and breathed some new life into the show, further bending the genre into which Twin Peaks falls.

I’m also not willing to let David Lynch and Mark Frost off of the hook for these Season Two matters. Many of the ideas sewn into those stories originated with David and Mark. Brad Dukes’ book, for example, noted that putting Josie into the drawer pull originated with David Lynch. He also appeared as Gordon Cole in audio and in person. If he didn’t like what he was seeing from the material and the approach, why didn’t he say something or do something? Mark Frost apparently did a writing pass over every script; one or both of the creators was involved in every story the show produced. Lynch, of course, famously reasserted himself in the amazing season two finale (if you don’t know, Lynch used very little of what was scripted for the Black Lodge sequence at the end). But why wait? Some Lynch sycophants won’t like this, since he “walks on water,” but these questions deserve answers especially when he piles on season two as well (as recently as today!). I say, “Own it.”

Putting the leadership questions aside, it’s also worth putting things into their historical context. Twin Peaks season two, particularly the post Laura Palmer episodes, aired and were preempted by the Gulf War. For a deeply serialized show like Twin Peaks, that was a fatal blow. Add to that the show was moved to Saturday nights–hardly a good night for cultivating a TV audience. Original fans, even diehards, likely had a tough time finding the show. But even if they did, with huge gaps in episodes, it was harder to pick up the threads from previous episodes. And it was 1991. There weren’t reruns like there are now and no way to find missed episodes unless you taped them.

I point this out because I’m a “second-generation” (third?) Twin Peaks fan. I was introduced to the show in a college course about transformational TV dramas and subsequently watched it on DVD. I was able to watch the show one after the other. A pre-Netflix binge, if you will. While the post-Laura Palmer episodes are certainly different, in that they lack the central plot thread (at least initially), I still enjoyed them. And if you watched them in close sequencing, without weeks or months long gaps, they hold together much better. I can certainly understand fans’ frustrations in 1991 about watching Ben Horne reenact the Civil War in his office or James mope around with a melodramatic married woman while not advancing the main story much about Windom Earle, the missing Major Briggs, or where BOB had gone. But revisiting these episodes in a more streamlined fashion is enjoyable and easier to pick up the thread.

By the way, I thought the “Ben-as-a-Civil-War-general” story was funny. Ludicrous in the way only Twin Peaks could do. Josie’s story ramped up and, as a result, Sheriff Truman became a more well-rounded character with more to do. I thought the story about Jean Renault conspiring to get Cooper drummed out of the FBI and ultimately killed was good. Renault has a particularly good quote in his final episode:

“Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place. My brothers sold drugs to truck-drivers and teenagers. One-Eyed Jack’s welcomed curious tourists and businessmen. Quiet people lived quiet lives. Then a pretty girl dies. And you arrive. Everything changes. My brother Bernard is shot and left to die in the woods. A grieving father smothers my surviving brother with a pillow. Arson, kidnapping. More death and destruction. Suddenly the quiet people here are no longer quiet. Their simple dreams have become a nightmare. Maybe you brought the nightmare with you. And maybe, it will die with you.”

It encapsulates quite nicely why I think the post-Laura Palmer episodes have merit. Before Laura died, all of the town’s secrets lay dormant with no one particularly interested in exposing them, if that was even possible. Laura’s death was a gateway into these secrets and the deeper mysteries waiting in the woods and solving her murder did not put the cap back on the bottle–it was broken open and could not be resealed. That’s the beauty of TV storytelling, iterative stories that build off of what’s come before and the resolution of Laura’s murder and what happened in the aftermath were worthwhile stories. Poorly executed, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the story should not have been told.

I’m defensive about season two because all we have had for years is the episodes that were made. No comic books. No further sequels. Just these episodes and a movie. Beyond that, I loved the story of how Dale Cooper became a town deputy and embedded himself deeper into the town and it’s people. His friendship with Sheriff Truman, Andy, and Hawk grew. And he wanted to buy property in Twin Peaks. To me, it was the natural evolution of Cooper’s character that he had completely and utterly fallen in love with Twin Peaks. The real love story of Twin Peaks isn’t Cooper and Audrey or Ed and Norma, it’s Cooper and the town itself.

Coming back to the main point, many of the things people remember about Twin Peaks originated in Season 2. Iconic moments, characters, and stories: the Giant, Laura Palmer’s secret diary, white-haired Leland, Denise Bryson, the white and black lodges, Josie in the drawer knob, “How’s Annie?,” and more. It’s just become fashionable to dump on Twin Peaks season two so people do it and I’d venture to say that many who do haven’t seen the episodes they’re trashing in a while (if at all).

After 27 years (12 for me), the only content fans have had from the world of Twin Peaks are 29 episodes and a movie. We’ve lived with those stories for years, theorized about them, debated them, dreamed about them, wondered what would happen next. We may like some stories more than we like others, yes; that’s true of anything. But those stories are all Twin Peaks.

We can lament that David Lynch didn’t direct more episodes, but the fact of the matter is: he didn’t. Episodes that are probably well loved were written and directed by people who are not David Lynch. Mark Frost directed the season one finale quite capably. Lesli Linka Glatter, Caleb Deschanel, Duwayne Dunham, Tim Hunter… all great directors who brought life to the stories and characters. The show was orchestrated by all of these people, not just David Lynch and Mark Frost.

When the new show continues, it will be guided firmly by David Lynch and Mark Frost. More power to them. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. But I do hope that 27 years of stories, because that’s what they really are, are not cast aside casually. It’s been 27 years in real life, perhaps just 25 years in the show, but life moves on. I get it and that’s license to forget about some things. I really don’t care much about the pine weasel or Little Nicky all grown up, but it would be nice to learn if Ghostwood was ever developed. Does Josie still haunt drawer pulls in the Great Northern Hotel? Is that what happened to the Log Lady’s husband? Is Ben Horne really Donna Hayward’s father? What, if anything, did Major Briggs do with the communication from Windom Earle via Sarah Palmer (“I’m in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper.”)?

Twin Peaks is the sum of its 30 parts, counting the movie, too. I’m a completionist. I’ve never been able to say, “Well, Star Trek seasons one and two are really great, but season three is terrible so I don’t count it.” No. The work is the work. Frankly, I think it’s a fun bit of fandom to analyze and criticize the best and worst parts of a series. To stick with my Star Trek analogy, The Next Generation season one is, to put it kindly, not it’s best. But it’s not like the events of that season are ignored because the episodes didn’t turn out as well as we would have liked.

Life is that way, too. There are things we are proud of in our lives. There are things we wish we had not done or that we had done them differently. But all of our experiences make up who we are now. We can choose to ignore some parts of our pasts, but those things happened and they affect us regardless.

I say accept Twin Peaks the same way. It is the sum of its parts, some good, some Evelyn and Little Nicky. But soon, there will be more parts and that cannot be anything but exciting.

Enjoy your coffee and pie this weekend, folks.

Why You Should Watch “Twin Peaks”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re living in a golden age of entertainment, particularly on TV.

Better (read: smarter) people than I have tried to explain what brought us here in historical and academic terms, so I won’t try to improve upon on what’s already been done very well. But if you’re interested in the subject (and really why wouldn’t you be??) TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall wrote a great book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever that covers the subject in an fun, non-academic way. It’s a good read is all I’m saying.

I argue, however, that one show, more than any other, put us on the road to TV greatness: Twin Peaks. Had it not been for Twin Peaks, we wouldn’t have gotten The Sopranos, Lost, 24, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and many other wonderful shows that pushed the boundaries of what TV “is.”

Twin Peaks was not the first show to push the boundaries of TV. That honor belongs to Hill Street Blues (and one of that show’s writers, Mark Frost, joined David Lynch in crafting Twin Peaks). Some might argue that All in the Family or M*A*S*H, were first, but I’m specifically talking about the hour-long TV drama. Besides, AITF and M*A*S*H still adhered to many well-worn sitcom and pre-golden era TV tropes that overrule their influence. But there were other shows that broke the mold during and after Hill Street Blues like St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting.

St. Elsewhere was a post-modern take on the “medical drama.” It starred, throughout its run, William Daniels (Mr. Feeney! And KITT from Knight Rider, of course), Ed Begley Jr. (he’s been in everything and most recently was Erin’s dad in The Office finale), and Howie Mandel (he hosted Deal or No Deal and was the voice of the eponymous “Bobby” from Bobby’s World an old FOX cartoon). It’s probably most infamous for its ending where…

**SPOILER ALERT — if you count shows that ended almost 30 years ago capable of being spoiled** …we learned that the whole show took place in the imagination of an autistic boy, Tommy Westphall, staring at a snow globe with the hospital St. Elsewhere inside of it. I’ve always been fascinated by this ending because St. Elsewhere crossed over with Homicide: Life on the Street, which in turn crossed over with other shows like Law & Order. Homicide’s Richard Beltzer’s* Detective Munch crossed over on like 10 different shows as Munch meaning that all of these shows originated in the mind of Tommy Westphall. Fascinating. **SPOILERS END**

Moonlighting was the original “will they or won’t they” drama. It had highly imaginative, spirited dialogue and “outside the box” stories (for example, they had a musical episode and a black and white episode before it was fashionable to do so). It starred pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis and was on when that movie premiered so his star had begun to rise. It also starred Cybill Shepherd, who did not become as famous, and became notoriously more and more difficult to work with on the show. As far as plot, Moonlighting was about a private detective agency run by two hot people (yes, Cybill Shepherd was hot once… and Bruce used to have hair, too) who worked with a lot of sexual tension. They eventually got together and became a cautionary tale for how not to get your leads together because all drama went out of the show. It ultimately only lasted 4 seasons. If I’m being fair, the show was run by Glenn Gordon Caron, who was also a difficult personality. He had never run a show before and scripts were usually late and changed often, right up until shooting started and even during. So, the show had a few issues. But it’s notable for sharp, clever, and well-written episodes that were meta before meta was a thing. Case in point…

**SPOILER ALERT** …the last episode of the show started like all of the others. The story was just as much about the end of the show, in the real world, as it was the plot of that particular episode. Over the course of the episode, you see crew members breaking down the set in the background of scenes. David and Maddie discuss their failed romance and the dialogue is “in-world” as much as it’s a meta-commentary on how the show has failed. You could probably say that without Moonlighting there would be no Community, which is certainly the most meta show that has ever existed. **SPOILERS END**

There are many reasons why you should watch Twin Peaks (or pick it back up if you never finished originally), but I boiled them down to five in no particular order:

5. Who Killed Laura Palmer?

She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.

That question is famous. You can type it into Google and it will tell you… so don’t do it and get spoiled. The mystery surrounding her murder is made more interesting by the details of her brief, disturbed, dark life — none of which would be self evident just by looking at the angelic beauty. This is the standard-bearer by which all TV mysteries are judged.

Also, Laura’s death and life are our windows into Twin Peaks where we learn that just like Laura, nothing is what it seems. Everyone is living at least one extra life or getting’ some on the side.

4. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)

Audrey Horne

‘Nuff said.

3. David Lynch

It’s less creepy when sped up.

You’ve never seen a show like Twin Peaks.

Did you like True Detective? How about Lost? Or even Game of Thrones? 

All of these shows (and more) drew something from Twin Peaks. Think about all of those long, lingering wide shots of the bizarrely beautiful Louisiana countryside that filled you with dread in True Detective. Watch Twin Peaks. Somehow David Lynch turned shots of wind blowing through trees and traffic lights at night into portents of evil. Some of the scariest imagery I’ve ever seen is from Twin Peaks — and I’m talking about skin-chilling, stomach dropping scary.

2. Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick)

See #5 “Audrey.”

1. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)

There’s never been a hero quite like Dale Cooper. The only things you need to know about him can be found in the below two scenes:

He’s a strange guy in a strange town investigating a strange murder.

If you’re looking for a new show to get into OR you watched Twin Peaks years ago and never finished, now is the time. The whole series is on Netflix. It’s also getting re-released on Blu-Ray along with the follow up movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It’s a great piece of TV history and addictive as hell.

Plus, Audrey, Shelly, and Donna:

Oh, to be an eligible young man in 1990…

Let me say “You’re Welcome” in advance.

Let the “Bad Guys” Win

Turtle Power

TV is really good now. Let me begin with that central point. Yes, there are still terrible things on TV like the “Kardashians” and “Survivor,” but we’ve also gotten really amazing TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, House of Cards, and the list goes on. The reasons for this ascendance into TV’s golden age are varied and detailed by people far more in the know than me, so I won’t go into all of that here.

But I will note one thing that was really cool when I was a kid, which has become almost commonplace today: the bad guys sometimes won.

If you know me at all, or have read any of my other pieces, you know that I am something of a TV aficionado. Self-proclaimed, if nothing else. Without giving you my whole life story I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid and spent a fair amount of time by myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t crouching in a basement, friendless, and writing a manifesto. I had a sick family member that took up a lot of my parents’ attention, so I learned to play by myself and immerse myself in other worlds. It actually helped me develop my fantastic imagination.

In any case, like many kids my age I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost daily. Back in the 80’s, the show (and kids cartoons, generally) followed a pretty basic formula: the Turtles and/or April O’Neil are living large, eating pizza, loving life, Shredder and Krang (or one of a handful of other sub-villains like Rat-King) come up with a scheme, the Turtles find out about the scheme, there is a fight, bad guys sort of hold them off or beat the turtles back, turtles rally and win the day. Exciting stuff (and no, that’s not sarcasm).

But there were a couple of episodes where things didn’t quite work out that way and my interest level piqued when the bad guys won. It’s not that I wanted the turtles to lose exactly, it was just really interesting when the villain succeeded in their plan. Think about how all of these stories rolled out: “We can’t let Shredder get the MacGuffin or he’ll destroy New York City!” Because the turtles always won, we hardly ever saw what happened when Shredder actually got the MacGuffin or him get ready to destroy New York City.” On the few occasions when that finally happened, it was exciting.

It was also annoying how Shredder’s minions, BeBop and Rocksteady, always shot at the turtles with laser weapons and couldn’t hit them. I can’t remember the name of the episode and I have looked (believe me), but one time Bebop and Rocksteady lured the turtles into a trap and shot them!

That’s right. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got shot! Of course, it was with lasers and the turtles were only slightly burnt and smoking, but they were hit and down for the count. They later came back and won, but it was still a cool moment.

There was also an episode where Shredder and Krang’s massive, super-tank fortress, the Technodrome, finally got enough power or something and made its way to the planet’s surface and started tearing up New York City. In fact, I believe that was a 2-parter wherein the turtles technically lost in the first part because they couldn’t stop Shredder from powering up the Technodrome in the first place.

The most famous example of this is probably when Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers cartoon movie (featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, BTW…). As a kid, we were used to our heroes always winning out in the end. If there was a fight and they were injured, they’d get better or something would heal them. Not this time. No, after Prime’s all-out attack on the Decepticons and Megatron, he was mortally wounded and he died for real.* He passed on his “Matrix of Leadership” or whatever to Hot Rod, but the being Optimus Prime was dead as in “he wasn’t in the movie anymore.” As kids, we weren’t used to seeing that.

Lil’ Power Rangers

Hell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers ended with them losing! The kid phenomena, Power Rangers, which sold a gazillion toys and sparked a live show, then a movie, actually ended with a big loss for the rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita (who had gotten married by this point (WTF)) figured out a way to reverse the rotation of the Earth, which (as we all know) reverses time. The rangers tried to stop it, but were held off (for probably the only time ever) by Goldar and whatever goons they were using. When time reversed, the rangers became kids again and, apparently, they could not morph when they were kids. Lord Zedd and Rita grow big and start trashing Angel Grove. THE END. It was all subterfuge for the next series, which would necessitate another ranger team coming to help them with different powers and zords (read: toys) but the rangers were beaten. Let’s call it what it is.

As a slight addendum to that, the Rangers also “lost” at the end of the series that followed MMPR, Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita found a way to smuggle a bomb into the rangers’ Command Center and blew it up. Power Rangers Zeo rather cheaply retconned its way out of it, but still rather shocking.

Of course, there is probably the greatest downbeat ending of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Our intrepid hero, Luke Skywalker, was handed his ass by the Dark Lord (of the Sith) Vader, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and the rebels were in flight across the galaxy having been driven from their base. Things were pretty dire and it wasn’t very uplifting. Audiences loved it and, to this day, it’s the gold standard in Star Wars storytelling.

Utter defeat

What this is all leading to, is the storytellers and creators of TV and movie content realized that having everything work out and be wrapped up neatly isn’t very dramatic. We like to see our heroes win, but it’s truly only satisfying if there are actual stakes–and actual threat that they might lose. But more and more shows have connected around the “anti-hero” or the just plain bad guy (see: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey). That’s why fans are so mad about Han Solo not shooting Greedo first — it’s not about Han being a cold-blooded killer as George Lucas vainly asserts — it’s a character trait that shows Han is a man of action who will not be walked into a corner

It used to be that the audience had to identify with the main character. He had to be moral and make good decisions. He may not always win, but he always did his best. Both Tony and Vic showed us that our main character doesn’t need to be good — in fact, he can be downright loathsome as long as he is interesting to watch. Walter White is a great example of this; he started in a place where people could identify with him and understand his choices (to an extent), but as Breaking Bad went on, Walt started to go off the rails. He really went from “Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan envisioned.

It’s not exactly a new or foreign concept. The Godfather depicted protagonists as bad guys doing bad things, but we generally rooted for them. Or at least we were fascinated to watch. The slasher film craze of the 80s works into this, too. The movies started out as being innocence against violence and evil, but gradually characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers became the stars. Audiences turned out to see Jason get those immoral kids doing drugs, having sex, or just generally being mean. They were taking authoritative action — not action we would take necessarily, but these are movies; we want our characters doing interesting things.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Really think about who he is and what he does. He kills people and he eats them. In some cases, he tortures them before he kills them. He made one guy cut off his face and feed it to dogs. But we like him. He’s a gentleman, he’s got a great accent, he’s smart, he’s witty, and, generally, he goes after people that we don’t really like. At the heart of it, though, are Hannibal Lecter’s contradictions. We’re mesmerized by this character who does such terrible things, but on the surface is really quite interesting. He’s affable (to some), he tells great stories, and he seems to know more about you than you do.

Contradiction is dramatic. It creates story where the script doesn’t explicitly depict it. “Clarice Starling is bright, young, and innocent. Hannibal Lecter is incisive, brilliant, and dangerous.” What happens when these two forces meet? As they talk and interface, that story plays out in the actors’ performances while the overt plot comes through in their dialogue and revelations. Plus, try to remember that when Silence of the Lambs came out, other than book readers and the 13 people that saw Manhunter, no one really knew what Hannibal Lecter was. Other characters told us he was dangerous and Clarice, herself, says it to his face when she notes that he “ate” his victims instead of keeping parts of them as trophies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the amazingly charismatic and charming Anthony Hopkins played Lecter. Until the 3rd act, when Lecter escapes in traumatic and explosively violent fashion we didn’t really know what he was capable of doing. There’s probably even a few people that silently cheered his escape because Lecter’s captor, Dr. Chilton, is so slimy and loathsome.

Anyway, to bring this long-winded piece back to something resembling a point, in Silence of the Lambs, the bad guy wins after a fashion. The primary antagonist, Jame Gumb, is killed by our fledgling hero, Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter escapes. AND as we now now, Lecter is certainly more dangerous than Gumb. Frankly, Lecter emboldens guys like Jame Gumb and makes them worse. The audience is really the winner in this scenario. It’s just watched a taut, well-executed story where the bad guy wins. It can’t wait to see more.

Similarly, rather than be angry or downcast because the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers lost, I was jazzed up. The story was excited. What would my heroes do now? As exciting as heroes are when they’re winning, they’re more interesting when they’re losing. How will they react? Can they turn things back in their favor?

Think about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most common criticism of Captain America is that he, like Superman, is too perfect. He’s bland. He’s a boy scout. Those things are true. But what does the bland, boy scout do when the ground fall out from underneath him? What does he do when everything he believes is called into question? He’s named “Captain America” for goodness sake. What does he do when the United States he’s fighting for tries to kill him and is responsible for some really heinous stuff? TWS was a great movie and while (spoiler alert) the good guys prevail in the end, it was a Pyrrhic Victory. Many are dead and one of the bedrock foundations (so we thought…) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shattered to pieces. The bad guys sort of won and that movie was the better for it (so is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I’m sorry for the somewhat meandering piece. I used to get these thoughts out with my friends at my old job and since I don’t have easy access to those fine minds anymore, this is the medium I must use. And, I ask you, if random thoughts about TV shows and movies don’t belong on the Internet, where do they belong, huh?

Oh yeah, and watch Hannibal (1st Season up on Amazon Prime and 2nd season on Amazon or iTunes or whatever digital medium you prefer). It’s really good.

Enjoy

Influences

Avengers' Height Chart

I’ve explored inspiration for particular stories, characters, and situations. Titan was inspired by a nugget of an idea born from the character/technology of “T-1000” from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It expanded from there. But that’s an idea.

There is a broader effect that acts on us as we create.

Influences.

Everything we have experienced throughout our lives is rattling around in our brains. It makes us cautious when we sense familiar danger. We perk up when we smell a favored food no matter who’s making it. And we enjoy new stories similar to tales we enjoyed long ago.

If it isn’t immediately evident, I am influenced by the superhero myth. I have my favorites (*ahem* Batman *ahem*). But I’m strongly influenced by the notion of the superhero, which is that one person receives great power and uses it to combat evil. I always use Spider-Man as the best example of this.

Meek, kind, and intelligent Peter Parker is bullied, maligned, and ignored — a boy without power. His good-hearted, responsible Uncle Ben raised Peter and treated him like his own son. Ben instilled in Peter the principle that power is a responsibility. When Peter is bitten by the spider, which gives him super abilities the power goes to his head. Uncle Ben is killed as a result of Peter’s inaction. From that day forward, Peter Parker uses his power to help people who have none and confront individuals that abuse theirs.

In the real world, I think we’re used to people actively seeking power for their own selfish purposes. They keep it despite the costs personally and at large. Furthermore, we’re accustomed to people of privilege having power or individuals with physical prowess be it attractiveness, athletic, ability, or both. It’s a rare thing when you find someone who has power and it’s used selflessly or, even rarer, freely gives it up.

I think often about the first American President George Washington with regards to power. He knew why we fought the War of Independence and knew the King’s arbitrary rule well. When Washington’s second term was over, he did not seek reelection. Washington could have been reelected until he died, but he was making a point—this new republic could only work if individuals elected to power freely gave it up when their time was over. Think about the politicians we have now. I can’t see very many of them giving up their power.

I am drawn to superheroes because they use power selflessly (for the most part). They’re also pretty cool. But it’s the use of power that influences me. I’m comparatively short and not especially physical, so the idea of the powerless gaining power is attractive.

Most superheroes are tall, broad chested, and heavily muscled or, in the case of women tall, long-legged, large breasted, and thin. In Titan, the hero is 5’5. I’m not looking to deconstruct the superhero myth, but I wanted to expand it to include people who don’t fit the type.

And, of course, my own physical dimensions bias me. I know how my height is a punch line. I know that I am overlooked (…pun) and underestimated purely because of it. Spider-Man is considered a short superhero, but he’s still 5’10. And yes, I know that Wolverine is short (he’s 5’3 – Titan is taller!), but Hugh Jackman, who portrays him in movies (see X-Men: Days of Future’s Past this summer!), is 6’2 so I’m going to go ahead and not count him.

On another track, I am also disillusioned by “regular” people getting superpowers and being expert with them five minutes later. I like big superhero fights and romance and all that, too, but I think it means more when it’s earned. I prefer what I call the Breaking Bad method of story telling. Walter White became a drug kingpin over the course of 5 seasons; it didn’t happen over night or through a fun, quick montage set to “You’re the Best Around.” We watched every painstaking detail and decision, which led him along the way. That’s called “story,” and if it’s done right it’s better than a superhero fight any day…

…well, most fights. The end battle in The Avengers was pretty amazing.

Although, Robert Downey Jr. calling out the guy playing Galaga was pretty good, too.

Inspire the Hero

It’s a pretty popular trope for heroes, human and super alike, to inspire the people they protect.

In my humble opinion, this was done best (and most visibly) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Literally, Batman’s mission statement was to strike fear into Gotham’s criminals and show the people that anyone could be a hero. He wanted to spur the people to action to save their city. In The Dark Knight Rises, it comes full circle and literally Gotham’s people have to fight alongside Batman against Bane’s army. While TDKR isn’t the film that The Dark Knight is, it’s a powerful closing sequence.

I always get a rush when Batman flies the bomb over the building and that kid shouts: “It’s Batman!”

Fuckin’ Batman. What a world, right?

But I started wondering about the reverse; what does Batman get from the people of Gotham? He tells Lt. Gordon not to thank him (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). And it’s clear that he takes on the mantle as a duty, a commitment. He does it for the people of Gotham. He needs them to thrive.

Set Batman aside for a moment and consider the question more broadly. What does a hero get from the people he protects?

I think we’re accustomed to the notion that our heroes are selfless and do what they do out of duty or innate goodness. In Peter Parker’s case, it’s both, right? Peter was a good kid and his Uncle Ben instilled in him the duty to use his power for just purpose (With great power comes great responsibility).

The X-Men are especially selfless. Not only do they sacrifice their lives in service of others, but they also suffer terrible prejudice over their mutant abilities. All they get from people is hate and mistrust.

Quick aside, though: Why are the X-Men persecuted and the Fantastic Four lauded? They exist in the same universe, but for some reason the F4 are like rock stars and well-respected while poor Professor Xavier and Co. are suffering through mutant registrations and military attacks… Anyway…

I’m driving at a point, I promise. I’m working on a follow-up to my first book, Titan, and I’m playing with the question of “What does the hero derive from the people he protects?” No spoilers, but for my character it’s two-fold: 1. He draws confidence and resolve from knowing the people are behind him, and 2. There may be practical benefits from the support of “the people.”

I feel like all fiction and story on heroes revolves around the idea of people gaining strength from the hero, but not vice versa. If I’m wrong, please tell me, I’d like to read some examples. But I wanted to explore this in the development of my character, Eric Steele/Titan, and his path to becoming a superhero. The first book is an origin story and explores the themes of responsibility, secrets, and choice in the development of good and evil.  I’ve always thought about Titan as the Breaking Bad of superhero stories because, much like the evolution of Walter White from Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface, I didn’t want Eric Steele to just be Titan after a convenient montage of superheroic hi jinks. I wanted to show how a person, with dreams and aspirations and fears and issues already, reacts to obtaining superhuman abilities and inheriting crushing responsibility. In my mind, that’s not just a finger snap. That would take a while.

But now that I’ve told the origin story and my character has his powers, I want to explore this theme of how the hero draws upon the people he saves as much as the people he saves draw upon him. Eric Steele is still not a veteran superhero–not even close–but I think his evolution needs to touch upon this concept. Frankly, I think the only way he can ever become a fully fledged superhero is to learn what his role is in the world and how he needs the people around him, friends, family, and the unwitting public alike.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of TitanCatch up with the first one if you haven’t read it yet.