Tag Archives: Lisa Chatfield

Under the influence

As Twin Peaks returns to television after a 26-year absence, DQ explores the wide-reaching impact the series had on the shows and creatives that came after it.

This Sunday, US premium pay TV channel Showtime will launch the return of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch and Mark Frost drama that first saw the light of day on ABC in 1990. No one knows what to expect, but if the new series is half as ingenious as the original, it will be worth adding to your watch list.

At a time when there is so much great drama on TV, it’s easy to lose sight of the show’s creative significance. The crime drama gripped millions of viewers as Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper investigated the shocking murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee).

But most writers, producers and critics acknowledge that Twin Peaks paved the way for some of the industry’s most iconic scripted series.

Twin Peaks unravels a murder mystery in the titular small town

Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which launched on Fox in 1993, is often cited as an early beneficiary of the Twin Peaks revolution. While the show had more procedural rigour than its predecessor, David Duchovny’s portrayal of FBI agent Fox Mulder owes much to MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. In tone, pacing, geography, humour and supernatural suspense, the creative connection is clear.

Frank Spotnitz, founder of indie producer Big Light Productions, worked on The X-Files for a number of seasons as a writer and showrunner. He recalls that “a lot of us in the writers room were fans of Twin Peaks and the way it took television drama to a new place. It was one of those shows that just seemed impossible at the time. This was an era when the only things on network TV were shows about cops and doctors and lawyers. But then along came this clever, compelling, original series.

“It really was the show that changed what TV meant. It was so cinematic at a time when television drama was rigid. It was mysterious, sexy, chilling and atmospheric. The message it passed on to the rest of us was to have a sense of ambition. If you’re going to make TV, make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.”

Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in the original series

Less immediately obvious is the impact Twin Peaks had on HBO’s landmark gangster series The Sopranos. But the creator of the latter, David Chase, has never been slow to acknowledge his creative debt to the rule-bending nature of Twin Peaks.

The impact of Twin Peaks is also evident in shows such as Lost, Bates Motel, Veronica Mars, Northern Exposure and Wayward Pines. But its impact didn’t stop at the US border. Both the pace of the show and its visual grammar were forerunners of Nordic noir – 10 years before the Scandinavians made their mark. For many, Danish hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing), with its meticulous attention to a single case, is a direct DNA descendant of Twin Peaks. So too is atmospheric French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned).

Twin Peaks’ use of language has also had a defining impact on high-end drama. How many times do we now see shows digress from the central narrative arc or wrong-foot audience with non sequiturs – just as Lynch and Frost did repeatedly with Twin Peaks?

And while there is always a danger of ‘over-attributing’ a work of art’s impact, there are many who see Twin Peaks’ focus on the horrors that exist beneath the surface of small-town life as the prototype for subsequent scripted series.

Broadchurch, Haven, Fortitude, Les Revenants, The Valley, The Kettering Incident and Trapped are just a few examples of recent scripted shows located in similar locked-in communities.

Showrunner Carlton Cuse admits the drama had a huge influence on his career: “It shaped the way Damon Lindelof and I approached Lost, and also my approach to Bates Motel.”

In terms of specifics, he says: “It was intensely visual at a time when most drama relied on dialogue. There was this visually arresting use of negative space – you’d find yourself watching traffic signals as they turned red to green. It was moody and lyrical, like something you’d get from European cinema. And at the same time there was an intentional ambiguity that forced the audience to puzzle out what was going on – not just watch. You had to pay close attention to make sense of things.”

Kyle MacLachlan (left) as Special Agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S Truman

As a seasoned TV professional, Cuse also has the utmost admiration for the fact the show even got made: “There are so many gatekeepers in TV that it was a profound achievement to convince network executives to let it get through in the way it did. It broke so many rules, and in doing so, emboldened Damon and I to break the rules with Lost. It challenged conventions and made a future in TV an attractive option.”

While it’s possible to see overt evidence of Twin Peaks’ impact in a show like Bates Motel, part of the point made by Cuse is that Lynch and Frost encouraged showrunners to interrogate process. So even where a show doesn’t immediately look the same as Twin Peaks, there can be a connection.

Rob Thomas, showrunner on critically acclaimed Veronica Mars and The CW’s ratings hit iZombie, is another who recalls the show-stopping impact of Twin Peaks: “It was the first show I remember going out of my way for. I used to drive to my buddy’s house 40 miles away across Texas to watch with a group of eight friends. We were just obsessed with the show and would record it on VHS so we could spend the next week picking over the clues. For me it was a bit like The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. In a world of prog rock, someone let this crazy album happen. And it was like that with Twin Peaks.”

Interestingly Thomas says the show taught him lessons in both how to make TV and how not to make it. “I wouldn’t take anything away from the show. It had an amazing sense of style and inventiveness that I hadn’t seen in TV before. The offbeat dialogue contributed to a really singular voice. But I remember really thinking about it a lot when I was making Veronica Mars, because it seemed to me that parts of Twin Peaks weren’t mapped out in advance. There’s always a certain amount that you make up as you go along in a 22-episode show, but I was determined to have a clear idea of where I was going.”

Jane Campion’s mesmerising Top of the Lake is another critically acclaimed show that has been compared to Twin Peaks – in part because of its lyrical, atmospheric qualities but also because it is an example of a cinema auteur embracing TV.

Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Birggs and Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings

Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind Top of the Lake, recalls watching Twin Peaks avidly when it first aired: “I was about 20 and couldn’t believe what I was watching. I loved the amazing characterisation, slow-burn narrative, ethereal music [composed by Angelo Badalamenti] and the mystical, moody atmosphere. It played with every assumption about what a television drama series should be.”

For Kousetta, the importance of the show is not just the list of genetic traits that have been handed down to today’s generation of drama producers, but the central role it gave to auteurs: “With Top of the Lake, we were at the forefront of the recent wave of feature film talent coming over to TV,” he says. “But, of course, David Lynch and Twin Peaks were way ahead of anybody. I think its real importance is that it bridged the gap between film and television – because that is one of the factors that is making today’s TV drama so interesting.”

As UK-based Kousetta’s comments illustrate, Twin Peaks’ popularity spread worldwide. In New Zealand, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at prodco Pukeko Pictures, recalls seeing the show when she was a college student.

“I think all of us bought into its filmic qualities,” she explains. “It was a dark, visually arresting piece of television that was unlike anything we’d seen before. Looking back, the thing that probably stands out most for me is the extraordinary casting. The show wasn’t filled with beautiful or gorgeous people. It prioritised quirky, interesting and weird talent, and that is something I see in drama casting today.”

Chatfield, whose company is a coproducer on Australian fantasy series Cleverman, also makes the point that Twin Peaks was an early example of world-building in TV, something that now informs so many series from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.

That this emphasis on a coherent mythology was intentional is evident from a 2014 Variety interview in which Mark Frost said: “I felt in Twin Peaks we were more or less filming a novel – drilling down to a level of detail you weren’t used to seeing in network storytelling. Over the years, many people have credited us with inspiring them to think differently in how to tell stories.”

Hopefully, a new generation of talent will feel equally inspired after the return of Twin Peaks.


David Lynch (third from left) is joined by returning cast members Kyle MacLachlan (far left), Kimmy Robertson (third from right) and Mädchen Amick (second from right), plus newcomers Laura Dern (second from left) and Robert Forster (far right)

The return of Twin Peaks: What do we know?

So what do we know about the new Twin Peaks? Well, not much, since those involved are sworn to secrecy.

The new project is 18 hours long, the cast is broadly the same – Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper – and the action takes place 25 years after the occurrences of the original two seasons. This time lag is, reportedly, significant to the plot.

But just days ahead of the premiere, on Sunday May 21, little remains known about the story, although episode descriptions could provide some clues.

Meanwhile, the returning cast are continuing to remain steadfastly tightlipped about what is in store for viewers, with little being revealed ahead of its launch.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, David Lynch gave little away during a surprise appearance. But when quizzed on what viewers should expect, he said: “I see it as a film. And a film in parts is what people will experience. This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are hopefully met when they see the thing.”

As to whether the show might go beyond its initial 18-episode run, Lynch said: “Before I said I wasn’t going to revisit it, and I did. You never say no. But right now there’s no plan for more.”

There is a possible hint of a warning in comments made by Showtime president David Nevins, who told Deadline Hollywood the new season “rewards close watching” and is “the pure-heroin version of David Lynch.” That sounds like it will appeal to Lynch junkies, but it may prove a little too challenging for most viewers.

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There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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