Category Archives: Uncategorized

More Like Sad Men

3.2: Mar 2015, The Mad Men Issue. Shut the door and have a seat as we explore performance in Mad Men – and not just the performances from the cast. Whether they’re changing their identity, performing their gender, or pretending they’re not as messed up as their parents, everyone’s acting like something they’re not. But there’s no false advertising here – our Mad Men issue is the real deal.

Gutting the Insides

2.9: Dec. 2014, The Hannibal Issue. Peer beneath the maniacal person suit of Hannibal this month as we draft a psychological profile of the show’s intimate encounters and deep wounds. From the show’s display of power dynamics to its flux of erotics to its take on literary beauty, our diagnosis of Hannibal can only be that it is insane—insanely complex.

Witnessing Witnesses

2.8: Nov. 2014, The Sleepy Hollow Issue. Combine one apocalypse, two companions, some culture shock, and a brimming can of absurdity. Blend. Just as Sleepy Hollow is a chaotic collage of tone, gaze, and social dialogue, so is our issue on the show and the Sleepy Heads fandom.

Sum of Its Parts

2.7: Oct. 2014, The Orphan Black Issue. In a TV show about clones, who is in control? Identity becomes fluidity and community becomes context as this month’s “replications” of fan-conjured visual metaphors attempt to understand the specimen that is Orphan Black.

Papers + Think Pieces 2014

2.5: Jun. 2014, The Papers + Think Pieces Issue. Within these pages, you’ll find an academic year’s worth of TV analysis that we found striking, including a study of language use in The Wire (by Will Jones, Contributor of the Month) and a comparison of Lucille Ball and a contemporary reality TV celebrity (by Briaan Barron).


Our Corner of the Whedonverse

2.3: Apr. 2014, The Whedon Issue. In this explosion of an issue, there are connections everywhere–but most notably between a certain auteur and his followers.

Crystal Clear

2.1: Feb. 2014, The Breaking Bad Issue. Father, husband, teacher, drug lord, Marxist(?): Walter White. Focused by Jared McNett’s dive into Breaking Bad‘s moral value of the dollar and colored by a guest submission from renowned illustrator Jerrod Maruyama (in which he subverts the dark world inside a plastic baggie), this month is “99.1 percent pure” insight and one hundred percent hindsight gained from looking back at Breaking Bad.

Black Lodge, White Lodge: Exploring the Role of Binaries in David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS

by Kate Hagen

Dead homecoming queens wrapped in plastic, a lady and her omniscient log, Tibetan mysticism and of course, a damn fine cup of coffee – these are just some of the peculiarities that defined Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal cult television show, Twin Peaks. The show rose to prominence amongst viewers due in large part to Lynch’s unique style as an auteur involving elements of melodrama, horror, and surrealism.  Due to a declining audience in the show’s second season, its network, ABC, forced Lynch to solve the show’s central mystery in the middle of the show’s second season causing an unsatisfying conclusion for critics and viewers alike. Despite this, Twin Peaks proved to be a highly influential television show, paving the way for other serialized cult shows such as The X-Files and Lost (Jensen). With the use of binaries as a means to express his vision as an auteur, David Lynch explores the doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales to transcend his film work and create a television show that explored the bugs beneath the surface of suburban America.


When studying the impact of the television show Twin Peaks, it is impossible to ignore the auteur theory of production brought to the show by one of its creators, David Lynch. Beginning in 1976 with his debut film, Eraserhead, Lynch brought elements of surrealism into pedantic, everyday life. Most obviously seen in the introduction to 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch seeks to show the bugs burrowing beneath the surface of American life – “I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents. Which is why I like things like cuts and bruises – they’re like little flowers” (Lynch and Rodley 78).

This approach carried over into Lynch’s auteur theory when approaching Twin Peaks. But what is an auteur? The term came about from French filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer in the 1950s and 1960s via their own publication, Cahiers du Cinema, which explored the role of the director as the overwhelming creative force that drives the creation of a product (Vande Berg 233).  The French word for “author” is “auteur.” With this idea in mind, the auteur theory was formed: directors who “consistently express their own obsessions,” in order to develop a “thematic and/or stylistic consistency in all (or almost all) of the director’s films” (Kamina 56).

This idea of the auteur, a director whose thematic and stylistic traits become trademarks, is important to understanding television at large, not just Twin Peaks. Television and film are both highly collaborative mediums, and many pieces of the puzzle are needed in order to create an overall picture. While films are singular entities, and television shows produce many episodes within a single season, one might ask if one can truly be an auteur in television. The answer, to a certain extent, is yes. While a creator such as Lynch may leave the show within the second season (as he did to work on the film Wild at Heart in 1990), the thematic ideas and patterns existed long after he was gone (Anthony). In fact, Lynch only co-wrote four episodes of the series, and directed six, but his ideas as auteur are those that the viewer most remembers about the show.

The show’s third episode, “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which is both written and directed by Lynch, features some of the show’s most lasting imagery: FBI agent Dale Cooper dreams of a red room where he finds a dancing dwarf, Laura Palmer alive and well, and a lot of backwards talking about seemingly nonsensical things like gum. However, these images, created by Lynch as auteur, were some of the series most enduring, and proved to be a marriage of Lynch’s surrealist sensibilities and Twin Peaks as a network television show. Despite the fact that Lynch left the show, these ideas, which present themselves from the beginning, but most evidently in the third episode, remained throughout the series. One can always tell a Lynch written and directed episode of the show because of its thematic and stylistic content: he is the auteur, and this becomes very evident as we watch. Dwarves? Check. Surrealist imagery? Check. Major upsets to the plot and characters of the show? Check.

When thinking about the auteur theory and comparing multiple works by a writer or director, one should be able to create a similar check list of trademarks and markers laid out by the creator that span each of the works. All the trademarks may not be present, but there should at least be some indication that this work belongs to a particular creator.

Why do we care about auteur theory? If we like the content, why does it matter who created it? One might ask this when considering auteur theory, and they are just questions. By understanding auteur theory, the viewer is better able to understand genre, audience, and thematic ideas. For instance, if someone had a pitch to a show similar to Twin Peaks, one might want to study the particular style of Lynch and Frost as not to copy it, as well as understand details about ABC, the network who broadcast the show, so that they might attempt to pitch to a similar network. Analyzing auteur theory becomes important when looking critically at work, as we can learn to recognize patterns and devices used by the auteur, the “recurring stylistic features,” and better be able to understand the auteur’s body of work as a whole (Vande Berg 239).

When looking at Twin Peaks, the auteur theory created by David Lynch works mutually with the production theory of the television industry. Despite the fact that production theory may seem like an obvious thing to explain, the levels of it are more complex. Production theory helps to explain and analyze how the relationships between people affect the creation of a television show. It can be broken down into three areas: micro-level, macro-level, and midrange criticism.

Beginning at the top of the food chain, macro-level criticism deals with the social, political, and economical factors that affect television as a whole. These are the large factors, such as allocation of resources, FCC regulation, and social trends that affect the content created on television, and deals with large media conglomerates and media institutions. (Vande Berg 259). Mid-range criticism looks at how the network itself functions within the larger institution of television: programming, brand identity, policies, and further allocation of resources are all essential when considering mid-range criticism (Vande Berg 259). From here, micro-level criticism can be explored, as it deals with the roles and responsibilities of the individual television workers, and the day-to-day operations of the network as they pertain to individual shows (Vande Berg 259).

Another key element to understanding production theory is considering some of the theorists that help support this theory. One of these theorists, Joseph Turow, further explained production theory with his explanation of power roles, or roles in which the various levels of production theory can be broken further down. (O’Donnell). Within these thirteen power roles, including producer, investor, creator, and distributor, Turow creates a series of checks and balances that further explains how macro-, micro-, and mid-range level criticism function together to create production theory (Vande Berg 265). For instance, as a real-life example, ABC – the distributor and mid-range– became angry that David Lynch – the creator and micro-level – would not solve the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in the second season, which was frustrating their network conglomerate – the investor and macro-level (Divine). In this way, the Investor and Distributor worked together to power-play against the Creator, Hagen 5 and ultimately solved the mystery, which Lynch said “really kill[ed] the magnet. It’s terrible. We were put under so much pressure by ABC and people in general to solve that, that we killed the goose that laid the golden egg” (Divine).

Understanding production theory is key to understanding both the successes and failures of Twin Peaks, as well as the impact it had on cult television. With the above example, one can see that network pressures from the mid- and macro- levels affected the micro-level, and eventually led to a less than perfect ending for the show. Indeed, after Laura Palmer’s killer is found to be her own father in the Lynch directed episode “Lonely Souls,” the series definitely goes off track, not finding its footing again until the series finale. Here, production theory has a noticeable and essential impact on the content created. While Lynch’s style as an auteur carries throughout the episode – most noticeably in Leland Palmer/Killer BOB’s murder of his niece Maddy – this would be the last episode he would work on before the finale, and his disdain for revealing Laura Palmer’s killer hinders his impact as an auteur on the show.

Auteur theory and production theory are both key to understanding the impact left by Lynch’s vision as an auteur, and the overall impact Twin Peaks left on network and cult television. Both theories affect the other, and it is through their combination that one can better understand the show’s legacy. Perhaps if Lynch’s voice as a singular auteur would not have been so loud, then the show may have lasted longer, but Twin Peaks certainly would not have been as quirky, unique, and important of a series.

In addition to understanding production theory and auteur theory when assessing Twin Peaks, one must understand the idea of binaries. Developed by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as a means of exploring the idea of myth, a binary is the idea of constructing a story through opposites. Their opposition to each other is what creates narrative structure (O’Donnell 89). One opposite cannot exist without the other, and from this opposition a binary is created.

Levi-Strauss also explored the idea of syntagm  – a chain – and since narrative involves a chain of events, he explained narrative as syntagmatic in nature. Within each syntagmatic structure are opposites and from this, meaning is generated. “By analyzing binary oppositions, the relationship among the elements of the story,” explains O’Donnell, using Levi-Strauss’ theory, “[these] oppositions [turn] into resolutions of conflict and a plan of social action. This can reveal cultural laws and the moving force behind social systems. The end result is a myth” (90).

While we can now understand the purpose of binaries in the creation of story, we must apply this purpose to Lynch’s auteur construction of Twin Peaks. As an exploration of suburbia and its dark underbelly, the narrative of Twin Peaks primarily concerns the murder of seemingly perfect homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Palmer is eventually found out to be much more troubled than her public persona would suggest. Like Laura’s cocaine habit and promiscuous sex life, the town itself harbors an unseen dark side.

As more mysteries about the town unfold themselves through the course of the show, the opposites within the town of Twin Peaks become exemplified in the supernatural centers, the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. The Black Lodge is seen more prevalently throughout the show – as Agent Cooper’s dreams in the red room – and is a place of pure evil. Here, Dale Cooper is finally corrupted by the centuries old evil of Killer BOB that has possessed Leland Palmer, and even his morally righteous FBI agent turns into the personification of pure evil in the series finale. Entered through a portal in the Ghostwood Forest, Lynch plays with this idea of fairy tale as he presents the Black Lodge as a totally evil realm. More mysterious is the White Lodge, a place of pure good and lightness as explained by the only character to have experienced its power, Major Briggs, father to Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs. While the viewer only experiences the Black Lodge, one interpretation upon viewing the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is that Laura Palmer is transported to her ultimate fate in the White Lodge at the conclusion of the film (1992).

What is most important about the existence of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge is their role as the primary binary upon which all of Lynch’s other mythology in the show is based. As opposites, one as pure good and the other as pure evil, perhaps as a parallel for heaven and hell, Lynch bases his binaries throughout the rest of this show off of this idea. Capitalizing on Levi-Strauss’ idea that one extreme cannot exist without the other, Lynch uses binaries as a tool with which to explore the darkness within the suburban landscape of America.

Claims and Subclaims

Through the use of three distinct binaries: doubling of female characters and their subsequent domestic abuse, the corruption of criminal men in power, and the escapist reality of fairy tales, Lynch uses his style as a film auteur to translate this style to television.

The first, and most obvious, is the doubling of the female persona. Using the double identities and/or secret lives of women allows David Lynch to explore the objectification and abuse they often endure as the result of sinister male forces. The idea of a double comes from gothic literature, and explains how “a single character possesses the duality to be both good and evil” (Strengell).  Through the characters of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Renee/Alice in Lost Highway, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camillia in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Palmer/Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of “doubling” of explore the public and private personas of women (1986, 1997,  2001,1990). Through sexual objectification, domestic violence, and even multiple identities, Lynch is able to show the pressure faced by women as they are forced to reconcile private trauma with public persona.

Lynch uses a variety of female characters to explore this binary. The character of Dorothy Vallens, in Blue Velvet, is forced to become a sex slave to sadistic criminal Frank Booth and perform in a club as a means of protecting her son after her husband has been killed (1986). Similar is the case of Alice in Lost Highway – she has become property to crime boss Mr. Eddy, and forced to perform sexual favors for him, while her alter ego Renee is subjected to her husband’s impotence and eventual murder of her (1997). In Mulholland Drive, the dream of Diane Selwyn is a means of escaping her unrequited love for film star Camilla Rhodes, the personas of Betty Elms and Rita are created so that Diane might avoid her own misery and heartbreak after Camilla becomes engaged to a man (2001). In Twin Peaks, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch uses the same actress to portray both the murdered Laura Palmer and her eventually murdered cousin, Maddy Ferguson, at the hands of incestuous Leland Palmer/Killer BOB (1990). This use of the same actress as well as the exploring of double lives with Diane Selwyn and Laura Palmer allows for Lynch to explore the public and private nature of women’s objectification and sexual power as a pull to violent men.

However, some may view Lynch’s doubling of women not as an original idea, but a capitalization on the style of another distinct auteur: Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly apparent in the mysteries of the 1940s and 1950s, most significantly in the Alfred Hitchcock films Vertigo, Marnie, Rebecca, and Psycho which all deal with women hiding their secret personal lives or assuming multiple identities as a means of escaping the men in their lives. While the idea of using a “new” persona or the same actress to portray women is certainly not a new concept, Lynch takes the idea and pushes it in a decidedly more surreal direction. Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer work at hiding their private lives as a means of survival, but Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, and Renee/Alice use the personas as a means of truly escaping violence. The plots of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are easily understood, but multiple meanings could be assigned to both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and the more obtuse elements of the films reflect a post-modernist sensibility that was not present in the films of Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself borrows the idea of doubling from gothic literature. Just as Hitchcock has auteur trademarks, so does Lynch, and his existence in a post-modernist society allows for much more emphasis on overt sexuality, perversion, violence, and dream elements including non-linear narrative.

Lynch’s idea of doubling is best seen in the character of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – her character exemplifies the idea of public and private personas created by Lynch. Through Laura’s secret diary and the back-story told within the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the double life led by Laura is used as an example of the public and private lives women must conduct (1992). On the surface, Laura seems to be a perfect teenage girl: homecoming queen, tutor, Meals on Wheels liaison, kind and beautiful. But her secret life reveals a girl struggling with her sexuality and dealing with her incestuous relationship with her father, her cocaine habit, and her fatalist thoughts brought on by the misery of her life. By exploring both parts of Laura’s persona, Lynch is able to explore the ways in which women are forced to keep hidden parts of their femininity and sexuality.

A binary in and of themselves, the way in which Lynch characterizes men, specifically suburban men in power, serves  the purpose of showing the extreme nature of good and evil – they are either wholly moral or wholly immoral –  and these disparate characterizations allow for Lynch to explore the core forces that occur in American life. Like his doubling of female characters, Lynch also draws on the idea of doubling from gothic literature in order to show the good and evil within in all men (Strengell). With the use of Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the Renault brothers, Benjamin Horne, Dale Cooper, and Big Ed in Twin Peaks, Mr. Eddy and Fred in Lost Highway, Frank Booth and Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, and Adam Kesher and the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive, Lynch explores how male forces work upon his often female protagonists as antagonistic forces, or forces that ultimately fail them (1990, 1997, 1986, 2001). Most noticeably, the character differences between Agent Dale Cooper and Killer BOB in Twin Peaks explain the two moral opposites of good and evil Lynch explores throughout his work.

Dale Cooper and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB are stereotypical characters that explore the nature of good and evil in suburban America. Dale Cooper is a lawman, an FBI agent who believes in a good night’s sleep, a damn fine cup of coffee, Tibetan mysticism, and always doing the right thing, even when it requires great self-sacrifice. His polar opposite, the man he strives to catch, is Leland Palmer/Killer BOB, the dual persona who Cooper eventually determines killed Laura Palmer. Killer BOB is a murderer, an incestuous rapist who is committed only to hedonism and eventually murders several girls within the Washington state area. Killer BOB is an ancient evil, one that gets transferred from body to body and continues to perpetrate crimes. Dale Cooper is an everyman, a moral center, and a man who harkens back to gentlemanly gestures and a bygone era of honesty and chivalry. Therefore, when Killer BOB eventually inhabits Cooper’s body in the final episode of the series, “Beyond Life and Death,” his corruption is all the more devastating. This act exemplifies Lynch’s view as auteur that even the purest of men can be corrupted by the evil of other men.

We know the world does not exist in black and white, so Lynch’s idea of absolute good and absolute evil in terms of men is illogical and one-sided – the idea of absolutes in human nature is unrealistic, and most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes. While the idea of human nature and the acts man perpetrates is perhaps the most ancient of stories, the opposites of good and evil are explored in detail with each individual storyteller’s unique viewpoint on the world. Therefore, Lynch’s view of men as wholly good and wholly evil belongs to him as an auteur, and it is his personal vision that allows for this viewpoint.

As a means of allowing for his audience to have an “in” with which to observe the world of Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the idea of possession to explain how “good” men become evil. In both Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, the male protagonists of Fred Madison and Dale Cooper eventually become inhabited by evil men who force them to commit acts uncharacteristic to their nature (1997, 1990). The use of possession allows for the corruption of good men to seem less devastating since it is a force beyond their own control, and certainly harkens back to the idea of gothic possession (Strengell). It allows for the audience to feel more connected to the characters, but also creates a unique structure which does not allow for the typical happy ending. This structure is an auteur trademark of Lynch, and is apparent throughout his other work including Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

Another way Lynch allows for his audience to connect to his style as an auteur is the suburban setting. It allows the audience to view his ideas of good and evil in a setting that is familiar to them – their own backyard. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the setting of small towns in Northern Washington exposes how corruption and immorality permeate even the seemingly most idyllic of settings (1986, 1990). While Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have urban settings, the male characters in each are not as corrupt and vile as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Leland Palmer/Killer BOB in Twin Peaks – both characters who exist within suburbia. In this way, Lynch explains the terror and dark side that comes from living in suburbia, and argues that it is even more dangerous than city living.

While the concept of doubling of the female identity finds its roots in film, and the corruption of suburban men in the very banal settings of small-towns that many Americans grew up with, Lynch’s final binary used to explore the world in Twin Peaks finds its roots in a more classical place: the fairy tale. It serves as the bridge between Lynch’s other two binaries, and the use of fairy tale mythology is central to the work of Lynch as an auteur. Elements of it allow for him to explore his concepts of idealization of female characters as well as his ideas about the extreme evil and good within men. The use of fairy tale elements including; Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, white knights, and evil overlords are vital in much of David Lynch’s work and allows for some of his trademarks as an auteur (Jensen). As a means for exploring his sometimes horrific narrative content, Lynch brings in these fairy tale elements as a way to universalize some of his more surreal elements, and ground them in classical tales known to most individuals.

In terms of content, Lynch deals with very disturbing and mature themes: incest, drug use, rape, sexual violence, lesbianism, murder, the evils of big business, and the corruptible nature of men. As a means of decreasing the severity of these themes for viewers, he also includes elements of fairy tales including trapped women rescued by heroic, brave men, elements of the fantastic supernatural world, the magic of the wilderness, and to a lesser extent, ambiguously happy endings. Lynch grounds the mature themes in a way that makes them more tolerable to a general audience. These fairy tale elements are most apparent in Twin Peaks, which makes the most sense because it was a television show, which forced Lynch to tailor his own ideas as an auteur to fit a television audience instead of an art-house cinema crowd.

However, most stories draw on classical fairy tale elements, and the work of David Lynch is not unique in this viewpoint. Grimm’s Fairy Tales include many of the same dark and disturbing elements featured in the work of Lynch. While many other films and television shows do in fact incorporate fairy tale elements within their narrative structure, few do so in quite the same surreal way as Lynch. He combines elements of the real world with fairy tale elements without making concessions to either world – something other media often does. Lynch makes no mention of the surrealist incorporation of Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart, or Cooper’s dreams in The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks – they are simply parts of the universe that exist without explanation or a reversion into total fantasy (1990).

Taking the idea of fairy tale one step further is the character of Laura Palmer, a stand-in for the fairy tale character of Sleeping Beauty. By using a classical fairy tale character, Lynch is able to connect a wider audience to Twin Peaks, and use a universally recognizable character to compel the viewer to watch the show. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect, untouched specimen of beauty, but dead to the world. The first shot of Laura Palmer, dead, blue, and wrapped in plastic is very similar to Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, and Lynch incorporates elements of her rape and sexual objectification as a means of updating the more disturbing, original fairy tale, and making it work within his universe of Twin Peaks. In this way, Lynch incorporates the disturbing elements of Laura’s incestuous rape and murder with a childhood story to make them more viewable by a larger audience. This also plays into Lynch’s ideas about the duality of women: he portrays Laura as both a mythical creature almost like Sleeping Beauty, but also a real, imperfect teenage girl.

As Laura Palmer allows Lynch to explore fairy tale through character, the setting of Twin Peaks in the wilderness – a classic fairy tale trope – serves the show in that it shows the power of the wild, creating an audience appeal that stands in contrast to the evil of the suburban men in power, and brings in a fantastic element that blends with the realism of the series (Jensen). Although the wild in the town of Twin Peaks opens the portal to the evil Black Lodge within the show’s final episode, it also allows access to the White Lodge, a place of supreme good. Here, the wilderness serves as a means for Lynch to further explore the extremes of good and evil which he also does with character. The wilderness becomes a place of magic, which contrasts to the “typical” suburban setting of the town of Twin Peaks, further exploring Lynch’s auteur trademark of duality within good and evil, urban and wild, and the roles women play.


The impact that Twin Peaks left on the television landscape forever cannot be underestimated. As the show celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2010, major news outlets including The Guardian, NPR, and People Magazine offered retrospective features and interviews on the lasting legacy of the show, and online communities continue to canonize the show. In December 2010, the USA network series Psych dedicated an entire episode in homage to Twin Peaks, complete with many former cast members (Ausiello). The show has only grown in cult status, with the release of a “Gold Box” DVD set in 2007, including the previously unavailable European pilot episode, cast and crew interviews, and a variety of bonus features. Lynch’s continued popularity as a surrealist filmmaker has endured, most recently with the digitally shot Inland Empire in 2006, and forays into music with a Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration as well as his own pop singles.

Twin Peaks brought art-house surrealism to network television, due to David Lynch’s unique visions as an auteur. Through his use of binaries as a narrative technique, Lynch told a darkly compelling tale of the evil lurking within suburban America and the very people we call neighbors. Because of its particular appeal as a quirky cult television show, Twin Peaks will live on in the collective television unconscious, just as Laura Palmer has, forever wrapped in plastic.

Works Cited

Anthony, Andrew. “Twin Peaks: How Laura Palmer’s Death Marked the Rebirth of TV Drama.” The Guardian UK. Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <>.

Ausiello, Michael. “‘Psych’ Exclusive: ‘Twin Peaks’ Homage Nabs Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, and the Log Lady!” Entertainment Weekly 7 Sept. 2010. Entertainment Weekly Online. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. <>.

Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Kyle Maclaclan and Dennis Hopper. Paramount Pictures, 1986. DVD.

Divine, Christian. “Hollywood Gothic.” Creative Screenwriting 2001. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <>.

The Elephant Man. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Paramount Pictures, 1982. DVD.

Eraserhead. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Jack Nance. Libra Films, 1977.

Frost, Mark, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engles. “Beyond Life and Death.” Twin Peaks. ABC. WABC, Studio City, California, 10 June 1991. Television.

Frost, Mark. “Lonely Souls.” Twin Peaks. ABC. WABC, Studio City, California, 10 Nov. 1990. Television.

Jensen, Jeff. “David Lynch: Climbing the ‘Peaks'” Entertainment Weekly 27 Oct. 2007. Entertainment Weekly Online. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <,,20154190,00.html>.

Kamina, Pascal. Film Copyright in the European Union. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Lost Highway. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. October Films, 1997. DVD.

Mulholland Dr. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts and Justin Theroux. Universal Pictures, 2001. DVD.

Lynch, David, and Chris Rodley. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. Print.

Lynch, David, and Mark Frost. “Zen, or to the Skill to Catch a Killer” Twin Peaks. ABC. ABC, Studio City, California, 19 Apr. 1990. Television.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.

Strengell, H. “”The Monster Never Dies”: An Analysis of the Gothic Double in Stephen King’s Oeuvre.” American Popular Culture Spring (2003). Print.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise. New Line Cinema, 1992. DVD.

Vande Berg, Leah R., Lawrence A. Wenner, and Bruce E. Gronbeck. Critical Approaches to Television. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.

TRUE BLOOD and the Southern Gothic Legacy: A Good Vampire is Hard to Find

by Joseph Andert

While driving down the highway, a young woman reaches into her boyfriend’s pants, exclaiming, “I’m bored.”  The two pull over and enter a convenience store advertising the synthetic blood drink Trublood.  The boy, confused and excited, expresses that to his knowledge, Louisiana wasn’t home to any vampires.  The lovers ask about the Trublood, and the clerk, in an unplaceable Eastern European accent, replies, “You didn’t know that New Orleans is a mecca for vampires?”  The girl, fascinated, remarks dimly, “Oh… so the Anne Rice novels were right?”  The couple is terrified when the clerk reveals that he himself is a vampire and subsequently relieved when he admits that he was joking.  However, the camouflage-clad country bumpkin in back of the line does not find it funny, and warns the clerk, “If I ever catch you pretending to be one of us…I’ll kill ya,” and bares his fangs (Ball “Strange Love”).
And so begins Alan Ball’s macabre melodrama, True Blood.  With these first five minutes, True Blood immediately reveals its intent to completely subvert any expectations its audience may have in regards to traditional vampiric narrative.  By playing with the our preconceptions of the traditional Transylvanian vampire character through the clerk’s bombastic impression, the show coyly winks to its underwhelmed audience and proudly exclaims, “This will not be what you’ve come to expect.”  Fortunately, this limbo does not last long and relief comes in the form of the expressly Southern vampire who steps in as if to say, “Is this what you were looking for?” As in the case of the backwoods vampire and the clerk, True Blood has more in common with the grotesque writings of Southern Gothic literature than with the multitude of vampire books and movies to have come before it.  It now seems that, like the naïve girl at the convenience store, we no longer have any reason to be bored.
In such a conclusion, it becomes important to define the trends and tendencies in the narratives of both Southern Gothic literature and of vampire books and films in order to determine which parent attained custody of True Blood.  However, before this can be done with any precision, one must possess a basic understanding of narrative in both theory and structure.  Victoria O’Donnell puts this argument into perspective in her book, Television Criticism, when she reinforces that
“People tune in to television to be told stories, but they have a familiarity with the narrative forms in which they are told, thus they relate to these stories against a backdrop of stories they know…” (O’Donnell 72).
Vampire narratives are not only among the most popular in our culture today, but also the most easily recognizable.  This poses a challenge for writers, in that consumers are looking for a way to not only experience an incredibly specific type of narrative, but to have that form disturbed enough to differentiate their work from the multitude of stories while still remaining recognizable.  To Alan Ball, and just as importantly, Charlaine Harris, the author of True Blood’s source material The Sookie Stackhouse Series, this meant introducing the narrative traditions and forms of Southern Gothic literature.
The term “Southern Gothic” has been surprisingly easy for critics and fans to agree upon. This can largely be attributed to that fact that it’s history is relatively self-contained and short.  This type of literature materialized in the South after their defeat in the Civil War.  After the war, The Reconstruction, as it was known, gave birth to the first wave of Southern Gothic novels.  Elizabeth Kerr gives perspective to the Southern Gothic genre in defining the popular consensus that “The gothic novel presents readers with an opportunity to vicariously experience horrifying realities. By creating worlds where tragedy and repressed behaviors come to the forefront, gothic writers explore the psychology of human existence on several unique levels” (“Southern Gothic Literature”).  This statement would undoubtedly ring true to both fans and creators of True Blood. In fact, Bill Compton, the lead vampire in the series, was made a vampire at precisely the time of The Reformation.  It is as if Charlaine Harris wrote this into Bill’s back-story as a way to point to Southern Gothic literature and say, “Look, I even took a character from those stories!”
The Southern Gothic novel “builds on the traditions of the larger Gothic genre, typically including supernatural elements, mental disease, and the grotesque” (Foster, “What is Southern Gothic…?”).  The narrative structure of the South Gothic novel is also unique in that its narratives all take place in the south after the Reformation.  Flannery O’Connor summarizes her reasoning for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure succinctly in the introduction of her anthology, “The Complete Stories” when she claims: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear”  (5).  By defining the function of the Southern Gothic narrative, Flannery O’Connor has shed new light on True Blood.  Indeed, with the show, Alan Ball has brought many contemporary issues to light using the grotesque in the vampire form.  True Blood has been lauded as a brilliant metaphor for the plight of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
This metaphor is brought home at the beginning of every episode during the show’s legendary title sequence.  Squeezed between shots of Ku Klux Klan members and a decaying fox corpse is a church sign illuminated at night that reads “God Hates Fangs;” an obvious reference to the Fred Phelps’ famously hateful slogan. Charliane Harris herself makes her own reference to homosexuality in her Sookie Stackhouse novel, “Living Dead in Dallas,” when she writes, “When the Japanese had perfected the synthetic blood that actually enabled vampires to live without drinking human blood, it had been possible for vampires to come out of the coffin” (Harris 10).  This clear reference to “coming out of the closet,” or becoming an openly gay person in society, could not be more obvious.  One does need to look much further for even more obvious parallels between the treatment of homosexuals in our community and the treatment of vampires on Alan Ball’s True Blood.
Though Alan Ball has consistently claimed that True Blood is not a metaphor for the gay community, it becomes impossible not to come to that conclusion when watching the first three seasons of the show.  In an interview with the L.A. Times, Ball makes his intention clear when he admits; “I really don’t look at the vampire as a metaphor for gays”  (Martin, “True Blood is not a metaphor for gay people”).  However, Harris and Ball both use “Vampire Rights” in True Blood so openly that it becomes hard to see the show as anything but a social commentary at times.  Without a doubt, the two creators have tapped into the Southern Gothic tradition in order to tell their stories more effectually.
Now that a motive for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure has been established, it becomes imperative to look at the similarities in narrative technique between True Blood and Southern Gothic literature.  Many of our world’s greatest thinkers have found a way to greatly forward our shared understanding of narrative by formulating fascinating theories on the nature of narrative that the most learned scholars may well have trouble wrapping their minds around.  One of these thinkers is Roland Barthes.  Barthes developed a theory in his renowned work S/Z, which argues that “all narratives are comprised of a variety of different codes” and that “any text is, in fact, marked by the multiple meanings suggested by the five codes” (Barthes 30).  These codes are: The Hermeneutics Code or the enigma code, the Proairetic Code or the action code, and the Semic, Symbolic, and Cultural Codes.  Again, O’Donnell offers a valid simplification of these ideas when she reduces hermeneutics to “The science of interpretation,” and adding “the stages of the hermeneutic code enable an audience to interpret and follow a story” (75).  She then summarizes Barthes complex and long-winded essay in stating: “Narratives have an intricate series of enigmas, delays, and resolutions, with one resolution creating another enigma” (75).
S/Z has received its fair share of criticism, however.  The most valid may be Robert Scholes’ work, Semiotics and Interperetation.  In his argument, Scholes expresses his disdain for S/Z, when he asserts, “Provid(ing) only five codes for an infinitely meaningful text is a shade miserly”  (103).  Indeed, when reading S/Z, one must question Barthes’ decision to lump narrative interpretation into only five simple codes, but the validity of Barthes’ writing does not come from the accuracy of his numerical claims, but from his ability to offer a solid foundation for an educated discussion on a narrative’s interpretation.  After all, the respect for and value of S/Z comes from its capacity to aid in the act of interpreting (which it does, splendidly), not in the infallibility of Barthes’ analysis of the nature of narrative interpretation.
For the sake of comparing True Blood to Southern Gothic literature and its own vampire kin, the Enigma code becomes the most relevant.  Being a serialized television show, each episode is naturally filled with the proposing of enigmas, suspenseful delays, and resolutions.  Each episode, with few exceptions, ends in a particularly dramatic enigma, as many serialized television shows are wont to do.  However, ground is gained here in recognizing that the types of enigmas presented are unquestionably similar to those enigmas raised in the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers.
A common question that is raised in almost every episode of True Blood, and the vast majority of Southern Gothic literature is simply, “Is this person, or these people, good?” and by association, “What is good?”  The people of Bon Temps, Louisiana are all divided on the nature of vampires, and with such brilliant writing, how could they be blamed?  Indeed, viewers have been left to ponder Bill Compton’s goodness for every episode of True Blood’s first three seasons.  This series-arching enigma heightens our enjoyment of the show, and offers grounds for an involving discussion on the nature of ethics and morality.  Though these questions are not likely to ever be answered during the show’s duration, the show’s creators have offered one bit of food for ethical thought: If vampires are truly evil, what does that make humans?   Indeed, small-minded humans, incapable of seeing the world outside of their selves, have committed the worst acts of villainy and bigotry on the show.  Bill and Sookie’s first conversation expresses this ideology brilliantly, as Bill confides to her, “Vampires often turn on those who trust them, you know.  We don’t have human values like you,” to which Sookie replies, “Well, humans turn on those who trust them, too” (Ball, “Strange Love”).
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation, an old white woman named Mrs. Turpin is constantly suffering her own fear and hatred of African Americans.  She finds them to be the worst type of people, and the irony of her situation is that she is the living embodiment of all that black people supposedly are in her mind.  As the story progresses, it is revealed that while the African American field workers under Turpin’s employ are everything good  that Mrs. Turpin thinks she herself represents. By expressing these kinds of ideas through hermeneutic enigma, True Blood is continuing a conversation held between the pages of Southern Gothic narratives for years.
Aristotle, perhaps the most well known of narrative theorists, offers a slightly simpler take on narrative theory.  He believed that “While character, thought, dialogue, song and spectacle were important… plot is the most important part of a narrative (O’Donnell 74).  Aristotle also believed that scripts should be either “22 or 44 minutes long” (O’Donnell 74).  Television shows themselves clock in right around 22 minutes for half-hour shows and 44 minutes for one hour shows.  Concurrently, Southern Gothic literature, which most commonly manifests itself in the short story form, coming around 15 to 30 pages, would take the average reader about 45 minutes to read.  It would seem that True Blood and Southern Gothic short stories even have the same running time!
The most obvious connection to Southern Gothic literature, and departing from vampire mythology, is the location in which True Blood takes places.  Bon Temps, Louisiana, home to Antebellum society and all that is Southern, acts as a home to these characters and offers a stage on which the show can be set.  Though some may point to the New Orleans setting in parts of certain Anne Rice novels as grounds for invalidity, the location in her novel(s) never once has a significant impact on the characters or their lives.  True Blood, however, shapes each of its characters around Bon Temps, giving the town plausibility and life which directly finds its way to the viewer. When Bill first walks into Merlotte’s bar, Sookie exclaims, “A vampire!  Can you believe it?  Right here, in Bon Temps!” (Ball “Strange Love”). By setting True Blood in the South, the creators have made bigotry and hatred seem viable.  For Southern Gothic writers, that hatred and bigotry wasn’t a part of the South’s history, it was a part of its very present and very persistent reality.  Every character in the genre is defined by how Southern they are, and the same can be said for True Blood.
In regards to her characterizations, Flannery O’Connor states in one of her a letter in her collection “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”  Alan Ball seems to come from the same family, as he creates most of his characters around this idea.  Maxine Fortenberry, mother to Jason Stackhouse’s best friend, Hoyt, has indeed been cut from this cloth.  Hoyt argues with Maxine and says, “You hate everything!…  cats, dogs, African Americans” (Winant, Oliver “I Will Rise Up”).  Maxine Fortenberry could be replaced with Mrs. Turpin from O’Connor’s “Revelation” and one would be hard pressed to find differences between them.  Indeed, it seems as if everyone in Bon Temps has reason to be dissatisfied.  Apparently, one must be to be considered a character on True Blood.
In today’s entertainment industry, vampire entertainment has been easily the most popular genre market in the past 3 years.  Many people will reject any television show or movie simply based on grounds that that show or movie must just be a cheap attempt to get on the vampire bandwagon.  However, True Blood has found its way into the hearts of even the most persistent vampire-trend haters.  This can surely be attributed to the fact that True Blood borrows more from Southern Gothic Literature than traditional vampire narratives.  In fact, if one manages to catch just a few episode of Alan Ball’s masterpiece, it will become all too clear that True Blood isn’t a vampire television show.  It’s a Southern Gothic television show.
Works Cited


Barkman, Adam.  “Does God Hate Fangs?”  Trueblood and Philosophy:  We Wanna Think Bad Things With You.  Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel.  Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wile and Sons, Inc., 2010.

Barthes, Roland.  S/Z.  Paris:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1974.

De Vore, David.  “The Gothic Novel.”  U.C. Davis.  Web.

Foster, Niki.  “What is the Sourthern Gothic Movement in Literature?”  Northwestern University, 6 October 2010.  Web.

Harris, Charlaine.  Living Dead in Dallas.  New York:   Penguin Putnam Inc.  2002.

“I Will Rise Up” True Blood.  Writ. Nancy Oliver.  Dir. Scott Winant.  HBO.  16 August 2009.  Time Warner.   2009.  DVD.

Martin, Denise.  “True Blood is Not a Metaphor for Gay People.”  L.A. Times Blog.  10 July 2008.  Web.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Complete Stories.” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1971.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor.”  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1988.

O’Donnell, Victoria.  Television Criticism.  Thousand Oaks:   Sage Publications, Inc.   2007.

Scholes, Robert.  “Semiotics and Interpretation”.  New Haven:  Yale University Press. 1982.

Joss Whedon: Character Genius

by  Laura E. Crook

Character and plot are the backbone of any narrative story.  Aristotle was the first theorist to apply the three act structure of narrative to storytelling – a structure that has been faithfully applied to nearly every story in every medium since.  Aristotle was a big advocate for the importance of plot, but narrative stories have changed and shifted since 335 BCE.  Consequently, other elements of narration have eclipsed plot, such as character.  There are still many forms of media that are plot-driven, but television in general has become interested in character’s complex relationships.  The works of auteur Joss Whedon are not driven by plot, as many other narrative stories are.  Instead, the driving force in his body of work are his characters, which can be seen in their relatable character traits, their complexity and their endurance as icons in popular culture.

Auteur theory began with French New Wave cinema.  It is a French term meaning “authorship.”  That is, the author’s “vision and personality are ‘written’ into the text” (Auteur Criticism).  The phrase “auteur” is usually used to describe works of art that are collaborative, such as film and television.  Auteur theory explains “that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be the expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) the director’s films” (Caughie 9).  In a way, an auteur is the person who holds the vision that has been stamped on a film or television show.  While the auteur in film is usually the director, the auteur in television is anyone who has primary creative control over the show–often someone called the show-runner, who doubles as executive producer and generally writes and directs several episodes per season.

Auteur theory in TV primarily asks the question who is the auteur?  In a medium that is largely collaborative, an auteur can be a writer, a director or a producer (often, they are all three).  Auteur theory also determines the patterns that appear in the television series.  What is the auteur trying to “work through” in his or her text?  One example of a television auteur is Joss Whedon, a producer, writer and director.  Whedon created four television shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.  Whedon’s works are largely character-based. Though plot is important, it is the incredibly complex characters that he has created that move his stories forward.  Some of Whedon’s patterns include ensemble casts, often lead by a female character, who must face supernatural or futuristic conflicts.  In short, Whedon creates extra-ordinary characters (that is, characters that rise above the ordinary) in an ordinary, everyday world.

The characters in many of Joss Whedon’s TV shows are gritty and unglamorous.  It is this realism that allows the audience to become attached to them.  They make mistakes, they have fights and they can be cruel to each other.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), a series that featured over fifteen main characters in its run of seven seasons, is a virtual cesspool of messy, flawed characters. The show follows the titular character, Buffy Summers, as she navigates high school and beyond while juggling a higher calling – that of a vampire slayer.
One of Buffy’s messier situations is her relationship with Angel, a vampire and Buffy’s “ironic true love” (Shepherd 246).  In the thirteenth episode of season two (Noxon and Lange “Surprise”), Buffy and Angel sleep together for the first time.  Afterwards, Angel literally turns into a monster.  “When [Angel] finds a moment’s true happiness, his soul is once again exiled and the demon takes his place” (Wilcox 21).  Angel spends the rest of the season stalking Buffy, terrorizing her and her friends.  Buffy’s predicament creates a safe distance from reality, while still remaining identifiable.

In season three, Buffy discusses her failed relationship with Angel with a school counselor, a man who has no idea that the ex-boyfriend in question is a vampire. When Buffy gives him the background of her relationship, he finishes her sentences for her.  “‘I loved him and then  he–‘ ‘Changed. …He got mean. …and you didn’t stop loving him’” (Noxon and Whitmore “Beauty and the Beasts).  Not many women can claim that their vampire lover turned on them, but how many can identify with the idea of a man changing drastically, and hurtfully?  Such as the nature of Whedon’s characters – using science fiction as a safety net, he allows his viewers to identify with the more difficult and painful aspects of his characters’ lives.

Whedon’s characters are complex – nearly as complicated as living human beings.  After all, “anecdotal and research evidence suggest that the characters who populate the programs play a key role in generating and maintaining audiences” (Hoffner and Buchanan 325), so the characters should be interesting enough to bring people back for more.  “Many television executives believe that the presence of likable, intriguing characters is a key component of a successful program” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).   Occasionally this complexity can lead fans and viewers to identify with their favorite characters as “real.”  The human race is, by nature, social, and so people feel the need to form connections in every area of their lives -including television.  “People have a fundamental need to form connections with other people, and television offers audience members access to a wide range of other human beings” (Hoffner and Buchanan 326).  Characters can become real to the viewer in a way that a plot cannot.  This is largely because of the complex nature of the characters.  “It is… possible (and plausible) that participants came to initially favor characters that seemed more real to them” (Gardner and Knowles 164).  In this case, the phrase “seemed more real” is applied to the complexity of Whedon’s characters, in the same way that non-fictional people are complex.

To understand reality, and thus how a fictional person can become real, one must look into Robert Fiske’s reality code.  The idea of code rises out of semiotics (the study of signs, signifiers and their symbolism).  “A code is a system of signs that is able to communicate meanings” (O’Donnell 156).  Fiske devised three levels of code, the first of which is reality.  The reality code relates to appearance: “skin color, clothing… facial expressions and gestures” (O’Donnell 156); speech: “spoken language, accent, dialect” (O’Donnell 156) and settings.  These aspects, when used in television, denote what is real and recognizable to the viewer.

Similarly, Wendi L. Gardner and Megan L. Knowles conducted a study on what it would take for a favorite character to be perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm.  Their results found that “greater knowledge of the character contributed significantly to perceived realness” (161).  Thus, the more complex back-story a character has been given, the more likely it is that a viewer will perceive that character as real.

One of Whedon’s most complex characters is Spike, a vampire that appears in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Spike first appearance on the show was in season two, as a villain.  He returned in season four, “neutered” by the government with a computer chip in his brain, and became a member of Buffy’s gang.  By season five, Spike had fallen in love with Buffy.  In season six they entered into a sexual relationship.  Toward the end of season six, Spike unsuccessfully attempted to rape Buffy, causing him to travel to South America to atone for his actions.  Spike returned to Sunnydale in season seven – the final season of Buffy – with a soul and a tortured realization of how great a monster he truly was.  After the events on Buffy, Spike moved to LA and became a regular on the fifth season of Angel.

Spike’s complexity as a character lies in his relationship with the women in his life, most notably his mother; Cecily, Spike’s first unrequited love; Drusilla, the woman who turned Spike into a vampire; and Buffy herself.  Spike’s curse is that he is never “good enough” for these women.  He loved his mother, but she was ill and all she wanted was for Spike (known as William when he was alive) to find a woman and become independent.  Spike found Cecily, who never loved him and informed him that “you’re beneath me” (Petrie and Marck “Fool For Love”).  In his depression, Spike became susceptible to the advances of Drusilla, a vampire, who offered to make Spike “special” –  an offer he accepted.  Spike and Drusilla were together for over a century, but Drusilla would routinely abandon Spike in favor of Angel, the vampire who created her.

Once he fell in love with Buffy, Spike was used to being shunted by the women he pursued.  Buffy routinely pushed Spike away, citing his lack of a soul as a reason why she could never love him.  Even when they entered into a relationship, it was purely physical; Spike was always last in Buffy’s affections, after her family, her friends and her slaying.  Spike’s complexity brings a reality to his characters that is not found in Whedon’s storylines (after all, Buffy is a television show about vampires).  This reality and level of identification means that the characters are more relatable than the plot.

Whedon’s characters have endured the years and joined the ranks of the pop culture icons.  This is primarily due to the relationships that have been developed between the fictional characters and their adoring fans.  Cynthia Hoffner and Martha Buchanan conducted a study exploring the degree of “wishful identification” in young adults.  Wishful identification is here defined as “the desire to be like or act like the character” (325).

However, in Hoffner and Buchanan’s results, they discovered that “wishful identification is also influenced by the manner in which characters are portrayed… Viewers assess characters’ personality traits and develop impressions and expectations of their behaviors” (329).  Some of the personality traits that were explored were intelligence, success, attractiveness and humor (330).  Overall, the study found that “men identified with male characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, and violent, whereas women identified with female characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, attractive, and admired” (342).  Looking at these results in comparison to the characters in Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly, it is easy to see how the series has received post-cancellation popularity.

Firefly, Whedon’s third television series, ventures into space, all the while retaining the familiar themes found in classic western films.  The show centers around Mal Reynolds, the captain of a space-ship called Serenity.  His crew of misfits include Wash, a playful pilot; Zoë, Mal’s tough as nails second-in-command and Wash’s wife; Jayne, a crude hired gun; Kaylee, a sweet and bubbly mechanic; Inara, the high-class, geisha-esque working girl; Simon, the intelligent, if somewhat dense, ship doctor; River, Simon’s crazy, fugitive little sister and Shepherd Book, the kind, mysterious traveling preacher-man in the midst of atheists.  Through two of the most popular characters on Firefly, Mal Reynolds and River Tam, one can see that Hoffner and Buchanan’s study applies to Firefly’s fan-base.

Mal Reynolds is the captain of a space ship named Serenity.  Mal is a struggling smuggler – at first glance he seems like a loser, not someone who would incite wishful identification in the mind of his viewers.  However Mal is successful, just not successful in the definition that many people use.  Hoffner and Buchanan defined success as “the achievement of a desired goal or reward, often as the result of one’s own actions” (330).  Mal’s success lies in his ability to survive anything.  Mal always comes up on top, no matter what the situation might be.  In the season one episode “Out of Gas,” Mal struggles to save his crew, his ship, and his own life when an explosion knocks out the life support that supplies the ship with air.  Mal sent his crew away in the shuttles, eliminating the number of people consuming air and lengthening the amount of time he would have to solve the problem.  Mal discovered the part needed to replace the engine, received it from a passing space ship that caught his distress signal, and got shot for his trouble.  Even as he bled to death, Mal’s persistence allowed him to succeed in his goal: to live, to save his crew and to salvage his beloved space ship, Serenity.

Mal is also admired, which was another important character trait according to the participants in Hoffner and Buchanan’s study.  Mal is the captain of his ship–every other character falls below him in the hierarchy created by Firefly.  His crew is not adverse to arguing or disagreeing with Mal, but in the end they always trust his decisions.  One character in particular, the hired gun named Jayne, consistently tries to undermine Mal’s authority.  However, Jayne always backs down and acknowledges Mal as the alpha male, which demonstrates his admiration.  In the pilot episode, “Serenity,” Jayne pushes the boundaries by teasing Kaylee, the mechanic, about her crush on Simon.  Mal utters one line: “Jayne, you walk away from this table, right now” (Whedon “Serenity”).  This line, coupled with a steady glare, causes Jayne to retreat. Jayne is not a timid man – his collection of weapons is extensive, and he has no qualms against using them.  His respect and admiration for Mal outweighs his desire for power.

Hoffner and Buchanan found that attractiveness was an important factor for female viewers to identify with female characters.  Attractiveness is, of course, a deeply subjective concept.  However, according to current standards of beauty, River Tam (portrayed by Summer Glau), is definitely attractive.  Her features are dainty and her body is slender.  River is a dancer, and she moves with a dancer’s grace that adds to her beauty.  River is also a genius, and her extreme intelligence manifests itself in her speech and actions.  In the episode “Safe,” Mal offhandedly remarks that River can shout until she makes their ears bleed.  River informs him that “The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds given adequate vacuuming systems” (Greenburg and Grossman “Safe”).  Nearly every line River delivers illustrates her intelligence.

Mal and River are successful, admirable, attractive and intelligent–all traits that are connected to the idea of wishful identification.  Mal and River only scratch the surface of the complexity of Joss Whedon’s characters – all of his characters touch on at least one, if not more, of the primary traits found to incite wishful identification in viewers.  In this way, Whedon’s characters connect to his viewers in a way that plot cannot.

Television has not abandoned Aristotle and his ideas about plot.  Instead, it has surpassed him.  No longer are storytellers concerned with a logical progression of plot, or even of plot at all.  Now, characters are the forerunners of television, not plot or narration.  People dress and speak like their favorite characters; sometimes they even cut and dye their hair to imitate these beloved, fictional, people (Hoffner and Buchanan 327).  Plot is second to character, and no one expresses this through television quite like Joss Whedon.

Works Cited

Auteur Criticism. Chapter 9. 231-242. Print.

“Beauty and the Beasts.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Three. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. James Whitmore Jr. WB. 20 October 1998. Warner Bros, 2003. DVD.

Caughie, John. Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.

“Fool For Love.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five. Writ. Doug Petrie. Dir. Nick Marck. WB. 14 November 2000. Warner Bros, 2000. DVD.

Gardner, Wendi L., and Megan L. Knowles. “Love Makes You Real: Favorite Television Characters are Perceived as ‘Real’ in a Social Facilitation Paradigm.” Social Cognition. 26.2 (2008): 156-68. Print.

Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. “Young Adults’ Wishful Identification With Television Characters: The Role of Perceived Similarity and Character Attributes.” Media Psychology. 7. (2005): 325-51. Print.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2007. Print.

“Safe.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Drew Z. Greenburg. Dir. Michael Grossman. Fox. 8 November 2002. Fox. DVD.

“Serenity.” Firefly, Season One. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. Fox. 20 December 2002. Fox. DVD.

Shepherd, Laura J. “Morality, Legality and Gender Violence in Angel.” Journal of Gender Studies. 18.3 (2009): 245-59. Print.

“Surprise.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. Michael Lange. WB. 19 January 1998. Warner Bros, 1998. DVD.

Wilcox, Rhonda. “There Will Never Be a ‘Very Special’ Buffy: Buffy and the Monsters of Teen Life.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. (1999): 16-23. Print.