“Two Birds with One Stone”: Transmedia Serialisation in Twin Peaks

Dan Hassler-Forest

Abstract


Carel Struycken in Twin Peaks 2017

It happened 27 years ago, in the autumn of 1990, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. Having set apart some of the cash I’d been given for my seventeenth birthday, I caught a train into the city with only one thing in mind: buying a copy of the newly-released book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Having breathlessly devoured the eight-episode first season of Twin Peaks as it was broadcast on BBC2 from 23 October until 11 December 1990 (BBC), acquiring a copy of the “actual” diary that potentially held vital clues to the series’ central mystery—who killed Laura Palmer?—offered a temptation impossible for any fan to resist.

Somewhat predictably, the actual rewards proved rather limited: while the diary’s contents certainly fleshed out Laura Palmer’s background and inner life as a character, thereby laying some of the groundwork for the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), plot spoilers were carefully avoided by skipping over crucial entries with several blank pages marked as “page missing.” Thus, eager fans were simultaneously granted advance insight into future narrative developments while also being denied answers to key questions. Similarly, the publication of franchise novels The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (1991) and Welcome to Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town (1991), as well as the audio cassette tape “Diane…” The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper (1990), added further background and depth to the TV series’ ongoing storyworld by offering more details about characters, locations, and back story. Most crucially, these transmedia expansions in many ways foreshadowed the larger development of 21st-century transmedia serialisation practices.

When American premium cable channel Showtime finally returned fans to the world of Twin Peaks in an 18-episode weekly series airing from 21 May to 3 September 2017, the franchise promised to revive the characters, locations, and mythology so fondly remembered by the show’s original viewers, as well as the later generations who had discovered Twin Peaks via reruns, VHS recordings, DVD and Blu-ray discs, or video streaming services. Identified variously as Twin Peaks: The Return, Twin Peaks: Season Three, and Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, the new series (hereafter Twin Peaks 2017) appeared in a media-industrial context where the revival of nostalgic television favourites has become fashionable and lucrative.

In a hyper-competitive marketplace where many platforms are frantically vying for audience attention and engagement, reviving existing storyworlds with dedicated fan cultures offers an obvious advantage and competitive edge (Weinstock 14–16). At the same time, Twin Peaks seemed especially appropriate to revisit, having been singled out so often as an early paradigm for the 21st century’s alleged “Golden Age of Television” (Telotte 64). As a spectacularly short-lived pop-culture phenomenon, Twin Peaks quickly became a jealously guarded cult favourite watched over by a dedicated global fandom. Yet, its influence on 21st century television culture is often explained by the series’ combination of long-form storytelling and cinematic style with a complex and ever-expanding mythological deep structure, alongside its then-unusual emphasis on television authorship in the figure of auteurist film director David Lynch.

However, more specifically related to the theme of this special issue, Twin Peaks has repeatedly adopted transmedia forms for serialised storytelling and world-building in ways that build upon the franchise’s own cultural legacy while also embracing contemporary media-industrial practices. While relatively limited in terms of the number of media texts, these practices illustrate the rich potential for the transmedia expansion of franchises that exist primarily within a single medium. In order to map out the key transmedia connections within this rich and surprisingly diverse franchise, I will first offer a few terms that help distinguish basic forms of transmedia multitexts (Parody 210–218) from each other, before moving on to a more detailed analysis of the transmedia forms that have come to surround, enhance, and enrich Twin Peaks 2017.

Carel Struycken in Twin Peaks 2017

Transmedia Models 

In his essay “Transmediality and the Politics of Adaptation,” Jens Eder develops a basic typology of transmedia multitexts (or “constellations”) that provides a helpful entrance for this discussion. While Henry Jenkins’ oft-cited but rather broadly worded description of transmedia storytelling gave media scholars a provocative starting point (97–98), it also clearly exaggerated the degree of organised and consistent cross-platform development of fictional storyworlds. Eder’s model adds a much-needed emphasis on the hierarchical structures that we inevitably encounter both within the various transmedia multitexts, and in the industries and audiences that engage with them. Eder’s typology distinguishes between four basic models (75–77).

The form of transmedia storytelling that Jenkins foregrounded in Convergence Culture, with The Matrix (1999) as his primary example, constitutes what Eder’s essay describes as integration: the various media texts form a single and more or less coherent narrative whole, with each medium making the most of its medium-specific qualities and affordances. While this model is frequently cited as a kind of ideal or even default definition of transmedia storytelling, it is important to note that it is also fairly rare, as it requires a staggering amount of planning and coordination. Far more common is the expansion model, in which one primary media text (often referred to as the “mothership”) is expanded via a range of “satellite texts.” Most commonly, the mothership would be a costly, labour-intensive, and high-profile mass media production, like a feature film, television series, or AAA video game, while the expansions are much less expensive and clearly secondary texts that function simultaneously as world-building expansions and as entrance points to the franchise. A third model is the participation strategy, in which audience activity is integrated into the production cycle, as with game shows where audiences use apps, websites, or other satellite media to vote on or otherwise affect the ongoing narrative. Finally, multiple exploitation indicates a form of multitext in which a theoretically limitless number of transmedia texts exist alongside each other, without depending on any of the others to create meaning—for which a predominantly non-narrative transmedia brand like Hello Kitty may come to mind as an example.

Clearly, these four paradigms are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. But they do help to emphasise not only the diverse forms transmedia multitexts can take, but also that each of these is thoroughly embedded within media-industrial practices. Thus, Eder’s typology helpfully foregrounds the inherent connections between transmedia as a narrative form—transmedia storytelling—and the political economy in which it circulates—transmedia franchising (see Johnson). In the case of Twin Peaks 2017, the forms of transmedia expansion that were pioneered alongside the original series effectively combine transmedia storytelling forms with contemporary industrial practices and digital fandom (Booth 25).

The production practices of the television industry at the time Twin Peaks 2017 was broadcast are defined in the first place by their transitional character. Since the early 2010s, both television networks and cable channels like Showtime face growing pressure from industrial “disruptors” like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, which offer increasingly competitive video-on-demand (VOD) services (Lotz 132–133). Besides the obvious advantages of accessibility, mobility, and individual control, a key innovation that many of these VOD services have embraced is the “full-drop season” (Mittell 41), which does away with the traditional week-long wait between episodes. Taken alongside the long-term decline of traditional television audiences, the rise of cable-cutting and other digital entertainment alternatives, and the ongoing growth of what Chuck Tryon has dubbed “on-demand culture” (5), broadcasters embedded within television’s traditional industrial framework are forced to innovate in order to attract sufficient advertisers and/or subscribers.

Within this hyper-competitive media environment, traditional television networks have been using cross-platform strategies to lure viewers back to weekly programming. In her analysis of the transmedia campaign surrounding the niche-marketed breakout TV hit Glee, Valerie Wee showed how the clever combination of licensed Twitter accounts and carefully timed releases of musical tracks via Apple’s iTunes Store helped Fox transform the weekly episodes into minor media events (7–8). While social media and other new digital services are generally seen as obvious competitors with traditional media platforms like network television, Wee’s analysis of Glee’s innovative use of transmedia practices shows that they can also be used to increase viewers’ engagement with weekly broadcasts.

Twin Peaks 2017: The Novels

As a more recent high-profile television production designed to be a media phenomenon for the cultural elite, Twin Peaks 2017 used similar methods to facilitate what Matt Hills has described as “just-in-time fandom”: a carefully regulated form of fan culture in which the most invested viewers are constantly forced to keep up with shifting production and distribution practices in order to stay abreast of the cultural conversation (140–141). For Twin Peaks 2017, this involved not only the meticulous synchronisation of digital music releases, but also the publication of two separate novels that elegantly bookended the new season’s broadcast.

The first of these books, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, was published in October 2016, a good six months ahead of the new season’s premiere. Rather than introducing any of the third season’s new characters or filling in the blanks between the original series and the revival, the book instead expanded the storyworld in the opposite direction. Presented as an elaborate collection of annotated historical records, The Secret History of Twin Peaks begins with facsimiles of “historical documents” dating back to the early 19th century, before proceeding to map out a wide-ranging mythological superstructure for the franchise that spans two centuries of American history. Both foreshadowing the third season’s more expansive narrative framework and embellishing the franchise’s mythological superstructure, the book gave readers new information about the organisation of Twin Peaks’ storyworld without even hinting at the new season’s plot. Meanwhile, the simultaneous release of the audiobook featured the voices of several original cast members, thereby both authorising this transmedia expansion as consistent with the existing franchise and playing into the nostalgia that inevitably fuels most viewers’ interest in these television revivals.

Almost a year later, and a mere six weeks after the final two episodes had been broadcast, the book’s companion volume Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (2017) was published. Similar in form but also shorter and less ambitious in narrative scope and graphic design, this second novel consisted of a collection of written FBI files on all major characters. These files, diegetically written and compiled by third-season newcomer Special Agent Tammy Preston, give plentiful background information on events preceding the third season, as well as providing some obvious hints about its enigmatic finale. Taken together, the two books perfectly match Eder’s “expansion” model: they not only expand and enrich the existing storyworld through transmedia storytelling, but they do so in such a way that the contents are carefully synchronised with the release of a serialised television event. The first book broadened the mythological framework while providing a more elaborate history for the storyworld, but did so without “spoiling” narrative developments in the third season, or providing essential information that would disadvantage more casual viewers. In this sense, its obvious similarity to The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer also added further layers of nostalgia for forensic fans eager to re-immerse themselves in the Twin Peaks storyworld (Mittell 43).

At the same time, the books also provided a convenient way to resolve a longstanding tension within Twin Peaks authorship (Abbott 175–176). While director David Lynch has most commonly been singled out as the defining “visionary” behind the franchise and its appeal, his co-writer Mark Frost has somewhat uncomfortably shared the credit for the series. Therefore, as Twitter campaigns and online fan activism demonstrated all too clearly that Lynch was indeed the single most vital ingredient for a return to Twin Peaks, the two books gave Frost an avenue to express his own claim to authorship in ways that were emphatically his. The occasional public interviews and other paratexts clearly illustrated this practical division of authorial labour, with Lynch commenting at one point that he hadn’t even read The Secret History of Twin Peaks, noting en passant that the book represents his (i.e. Frost’s) history of Twin Peaks—while the episodes are, by implication, primarily Lynch’s (Hibberd).

While it is obviously quite possible to read both books after (or before, or during) one’s first viewing of Twin Peaks 2017, the books’ narrative contents and their publication dates were clearly synchronised with Showtime’s broadcast schedule in ways that enhance its serialised structure. As a franchise that has embellished the (more or less) linear narrative movement of its television “mothership” with transmedia expansions largely dedicated to the series’ pre-history, the novels bookending Twin Peaks 2017 underline the revival’s “event-ness” while also acknowledging and respecting the franchise’s spoiler-averse fan culture. For just as the almost comically oblique series promos reassured fans about the revival’s authenticity while refusing to give even the slightest indication of what would happen, the first novel offered a deep dive into the storyworld’s mythology without hinting at what lay ahead. By the same token, the second book offered forensic fans a post-broadcast coda with great narrative closure, while Frost’s ambiguous status as an author left them free to speculate about alternative meanings. Both novels thereby functioned as expansions that supported Showtime’s broadcast of weekly episodes through cross-platform transmedia serialisation.

Twin Peaks 2017: The Soundtracks

Similarly, the release schedule of two soundtrack albums playfully participated in the strategy of encouraging fan speculation in response to Showtime’s weekly broadcast schedule. The two soundtracks did this in different ways, and for slightly different reasons. One album contained the instrumental score, while the other was filled with tracks by a wide variety of popular artists. For both albums, the track list was kept secret until the release date, which closely followed the final episode’s broadcast. However, fans who pre-ordered either of these albums via Apple’s iTunes Music Store would see new tracks become available on a week-by-week basis just after a new episode had aired. For the instrumental soundtrack, keeping the track list secret served a clear purpose with regard to spoiler culture: for instance, while actor Carel Struycken is a familiar face from the original two seasons, his appearance in the opening scene of Twin Peaks 2017 is decidedly ambiguous, and his character’s name is pointedly referred to in the episode’s end credits as a series of seven question marks. The explicit suggestion that this iconic actor’s return represented a new mystery strongly encouraged fan speculation, while teasing a reveal that may or may not be forthcoming as the series progressed.

Twin Peaks 2017, "Part 1," end credits

The question in this case was answered by the incremental release of the soundtrack album long before it was confirmed within the text of the series proper: the character’s second appearance, in episode eight, was again followed by end credits that identified him only with question marks. But the day after, a new track “The Fireman” became available to those who had pre-ordered the digital soundtrack. Forensic fans within online communities like welcometotwinpeaks.com and the Twin Peaks wiki were quick to decode the seven question marks as representing the seven letters of the word “Fireman”—and from there on, to theorise that his function within the franchise’s mythology must be to help combat the evil associated with fire (as expressed throughout the franchise with the phrase “Fire Walk With Me”). And indeed, these fan theories were validated after the character’s third appearance, in episode 14, where the end credits identified him definitively as “The Fireman.”

Twin Peaks 2017, "Part 14," end credits

For the other soundtrack album, containing vocal performances of tracks featured in the series, a similar release strategy further encouraged online engagement and just-in-time fandom. One of the ways in which Twin Peaks 2017 departed from the original series was the novelty of ending most episodes with a live performance at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse by a contemporary musical act. While several of the names had been surmised from the cast list that was circulated widely amongst fans months before the series premiered, it remained unknown at what point in the series any given artist would appear, and in what capacity. Thus, the appearance of high-profile artists like Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder could be experienced as a legitimate surprise, while fans were also rewarded for their weekly engagement with access to the song the day after its appearance via its addition to the pre-ordered album tracks. Thus, in both cases, the soundtrack release strategy gave forensic fans another level of engagement with the series that benefited both Showtime’s industrial practice of weekly broadcasts and the digital sales of non-narrative franchise expansions as another form or transmedia serialisation.

Conclusion

While Twin Peaks has been understandably celebrated (and criticised) for its divergence from television conventions, the new series also serves as a helpful and vivid case study for industrial practices of transmedia serialisation. Following the innovative ways in which the original series expanded its storyworld between seasons through transmedia expansions, Twin Peaks 2017 adapted these practices for its own media-industrial context. The accompanying books and soundtracks strongly emphasised the new series’ “eventness,” while at the same time contributing to the season’s serialised structure. The first novel, preceding the third season, prepared forensic fans for the new series’ elaboration of the storyworld’s mythology, while the second, appearing right after the finale, tied up narrative loose ends and clarified the plot. Meanwhile, the soundtracks’ incremental digital releases encouraged fan speculation, while also rewarding viewers for watching the episodes as they were being broadcast. Thus, to quote the Fireman’s cryptic instruction from the first episode, Twin Peaks 2017 managed to kill two birds with one stone by using transmedia serialisation to combine digital fandom and on-demand culture with traditional broadcast schedules.

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———. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier. London: Flatiron Books, 2017. 

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Keywords


Twin Peaks, transmedia, serialisation, television



Copyright (c) 2018 Dan Hassler-Forest

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