The original Twin Peaks was known for its quirky turns of phrase (“Damn good coffee – and hot!”), cryptic warnings (“The owls are not what they seem.”), and seemingly random non-sequiturs (“There’s a fish, in the percolator!”). Regardless of the purpose, the dialogue was incredibly specific to the character. (“My log saw something that night.”)
Co-creator Mark Frost was the series writer to Lynch’s visionary director, and many think Frost was the show’s unsung hero – together with a stellar team of scribes that included Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, they structured Lynch’s visions into a cohesive narrative (most of the time). Frost is quite an accomplished writer in his own right, having penned a number of bestselling novels, like The List of 7, The 6 Messiahs, The Second Objective, and the YA series The Paladin Prophecy. He heralded from the writer’s room of Hill Street Blues, where he earned a Writer’s Guild award. His nonfiction book on the history of golf was named by the Wall St. Journal as one of the greatest sports books ever written.
That’s why it’s puzzling to think Frost could have penned Showtime’s Season 3, where the dialogue is dull, droning, and lacks the complexity of his earlier work. Instead, The Return plays like a cross between an introductory improv class and an unscripted soap opera taped during a writer’s strike.
Character dialogue is much like plot, structure, and costume: it has a role to play in crafting a compelling narrative, and no single scripted word is used haphazardly. The purpose of dialogue in storytelling is threefold: for exposition (“We call her the Log Lady.”), characterization (“I’d rather be here than Philadelphia.”), and action (“I need a favor. Strictly between us. I need one of the Bookhouse Boys.”)
Consider the purpose of the following lines of dialogue from the initial series:
SHELLY: He was so great at first, you know. This flashy guy in his hot car. Then we get married and I find out all he was looking for was a maid he didn’t have to pay.
Exposition: I married the wrong man.
Characterization: I regret it.
Action: Maybe it’s time I do something about it.
AUDREY: Agent Cooper loves coffee.
Exposition: I love Agent Cooper.
Characterization: I’ve got a school girl crush.
Action: So, I’m going to get him to notice me.
DR. JACOBY: Laura had secrets and around those secrets she built the fortress that, well that in my six months with her, I was not able to penetrate and for which I consider myself an abject failure.
Exposition: I know nothing about the murder.
Characterization: I’m probably not a very good psychotherapist.
Action: Can I go now?
The worst type of exposition occurs when an onscreen character tells a story. Instead, the director should have incorporated the story into the action. The Return is full of these faux pas, which are not only indicative of lazy filmmaking and bad writing, but boring to watch. From Michael Cera’s forgettable travelogue to the British kid with the gardening glove and his shopping spree, to David Lynch recalling his Monica Bellucci dream, to all the sudden FBI confessions about backstory. Failing to incorporate this information suggests the production was rushed, the plot points were rewritten, or scenes were reshot.
In the classic series, Miguel Ferrer’s Albert Rosenfield frequently incorporated all three elements of exposition, characterization, and action into one fluid tirade of wit and snark:
ALBERT: Mr. Horne, I realize that your position in this fair community pretty well guarantees venality, insincerity, and a rather irritating method of expressing yourself. (characterization) Stupidity, however, is not necessarily an inherent trait, therefore, please listen closely. You can have a funeral any old time. You dig a hole, you plant a coffin. I, however, cannot perform these tests next year, next month, next week or tomorrow – I must perform them now. (exposition) I’ve got a lot of cutting and pasting to do, gentlemen, so why don’t you please return to your porch rockers and resume whittling. (action)
It’s easy to see why Albert was a great character – and fun to write. He was feisty, belligerent, and abusive. And most importantly, uniquely Albert.
Not so much in Season 3. Consider his two most memorable lines.
When he responds to a wide array of evidence:
ALBERT: What, no cheese and crackers?
When he responds to hearing a litany of horrific accidents:
ALBERT: What happens in season two?
The new Albert is practically neutered compared to 25 years ago. Nevertheless, Agent Gordon Cole feels the need to apologize for this “rude” behavior multiple times, even though Albert insults no one. Worse, this new dialogue is devoid of its greater purpose – subtext. The subtext of old Albert was that he was an arrogant cad who looked down on rural folk. New Albert has no subtext. His comments are sarcastic, without informing his character, actions, or exposition. Albert’s new purpose is only for David Lynch to have someone to tell stories to.
In screenwriting, the role of subtext is specific: to expose the “hidden life of characters’ thoughts and feelings, desires and actions, both conscious and subconscious – the unsaid and the unsayable,” explains screenwriting master Robert McKee in his book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen.
Reconsider these classic lines from earlier, noting the subtext:
“We call her the Log Lady.” (because she always carries a log and we think it’s weird)
“I’d rather be here than Philadelphia.” (because Twin Peaks is not a concrete jungle)
“I need a favor. Strictly between us. I need one of the Bookhouse Boys.” (because this assignment is off the record)
Spoken words are considered text. This is what an actor reads. But the goal of text is to convey subtext – that which remains unspoken, yet drives a character’s delivery and actions. The clearest real-life example is when a patient interacts with a therapist. The patient speaks the text in an anecdote, but the therapist writes the subtext in his notes.
Well-written scenes are full of subtext. Consider this one between Donna and Harold Smith from Season 2:
HAROLD: I grew up in Boston. Well, I grew up in books. (Harold reveals his loneliness.)
DONNA: There’s things you can’t get in books. (Donna tries to subtly seduce Harold with her only bargaining chip – intimacy.)
HAROLD: There’s things you can’t get anywhere… (Harold knows his destiny is to be a loner.)
There’s even veiled subtext in the following statement:
“There’s a fish, in the percolator.”
Can you figure it out? It was Josie who made the fish-tainted coffee; thus, something is fishy about Josie.
The ABC series Grey’s Anatomy is basically a tutorial in how to write text so that subtext is clear, but not obvious. The words the doctors use to describe a patient’s condition are generally the words they can’t bring themselves to verbalize about their own emotional dilemmas, like when they describe how a tumor has festered, but are really talking about their own festering resentment. Or when they have an emotional breakdown about losing a patient, yet are really coming to terms with losing their own personal battle of that week.
This is a staple of great writing – from classic literature to modern television. In real life, when a husband and wife fight about leaving the toilet seat up, they are really channeling an ongoing frustration about him failing to acknowledge her needs, or his tendency to disrespect her, or any number of things – but it’s rarely about the actual toilet seat. When a marriage is healthy, the toilet seat isn’t worth arguing about.
Actors win Oscars for conveying subtext. If their text did that job, they’d have nothing to do. This is why so many actors receive accolades for drastically changing their appearance to play a drug addict, or go against type as a closeted gay or transgender person. They do not say, “I’m gay,” or “I just snorted an ounce of coke.” Their subtext conveys that message.
When subtext is lacking, and text is painfully obvious, it’s referred to as being “on-the-nose.”
“Of the many varieties of inept dialogue, writing on-the-nose is by far the most common and most ruinous. It flattens characters into cardboard and trivializes scenes into melodrama and sentimentality.”
ON THE NOSE
This is where Twin Peaks: The Return goes off the rails – engaging in dialogue that serves only as a screen caption.
JANEY-E: (to Dougie) I’m gonna fix you a sandwich, and then I’m gonna get you a piece of Sonny Jim’s chocolate cake ’cause we saved a piece for you.
And then she fixes him a sandwich and gives him some cake.
The Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department is just as on-the-nose:
ANDY: Cell phones, that means their mobile, punky. The sheriff can be moving. It’s not like your phone. He can be moving or even driving while he’s talking….I’ve got to go see Sheriff Truman.
Then Andy exits and enters the conference room.
ANDY: I’m here, Sheriff Truman.
Or when Hawk receives a call from the Log Lady:
LOG LADY: Hawk, my log has a message for you. Something is missing, and you have to find it. It has to do with Special Agent Dale Cooper. The way you will find it has something to do with your heritage. This is a message from the log.
And Truman repeats everything a few episodes later back to Hawk.
TRUMAN: So, Margaret says that something is missing having to do with Special Agent Dale Cooper, and only you can find it because of something about your heritage.
HAWK: That’s what she said.
In both instances, the dialogue couldn’t be more straightforward – and therefore less interesting.
Although the greatest violation is when the Log Lady dies. She phones Deputy Hawk to literally say, “I’m dying, Hawk.” And she says it twice. And then she says it two more times through metaphor. And then her lights dim, which says it once more, visually. As a result, the conversation is melodramatic and dragged out. If a real human being were dying, he wouldn’t call a friend to say, “I’m dying tonight,” without meaning it ironically. A more realistic phone call would have expressed only the subtext:
“In case we don’t get the chance to speak again, I want you to know how much our friendship has meant.”
Human beings are not that on the nose when it comes to death. Most of the time, we use euphemisms like “passed,” “passed away,” “moved on,” “is in a better place,” “bought the farm,” or something else that sounds less harsh. Pregnancies, engagements, weddings, and other good news are shared on the nose. Death, not so much. A screenwriting pro would use metaphor only. But like most scenes in Season 3, what little dialogue there is, is overkill, which ignores the most basic tenets of the discipline.
THE BANAL AND THE REPETITIOUS
Dialogue must focus on the most essential message, stripping away all unnecessary verbiage.
Failure to omit these types of errors is a hallmark of novices, especially when it comes to repeating curse words, character names, and what other characters say or know. Repeating curse words is gratuitous and unnecessary, often serving as a crutch when characters are underdeveloped. For example, anytime Diane speaks in Season 3:
DIANE: F– you, Albert. And f– you too, Gordon.
We get it – she’s surly.
Repeating character names is also unnecessary, as real people rarely do this unless they are screaming at kids. In fact, friends rarely use each other’s names when conversing. In scripts, this is done so sparingly, only for emphasis and pivotal introductions. (“Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi.”) Likewise, repeating what others said is another common error. This is known as parroting, and it rarely occurs in real life. In sitcoms, this happens only for comic effect. However, if you’ve ever had to improvise lines onstage, you may have found yourself parroting simply to fill space, and this is usually anything but funny.
Repeating what characters already know is just as bad. Real friends do not waste time recounting information they both know. This type of bad exposition serves only one purpose: to inform the viewer, like when Shelly says the following to her daughter and baby daddy Bobby:
SHELLY: “Becky, we know that you are a grown, married woman, but we are your parents.”
Instead of parsing out this information, the director dumps it all at once. No parent has to remind their children of their parental or marital status. Nor do colleagues have to remind each other of their shared work history, as David Lynch’s character does to David Duchovny’s:
GORDON COLE: Before you were Denise, when you were Dennis, and I was your boss, when I had you working undercover at the DEA, you were a confused and wild thing sometimes. I had enough dirt on you to fill the Grand Canyon, and I never used a spoonful because you were and are a great agent. And when you became Denise, I told all your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.
Examples like this are why episodic TV often shows “Previously, on…” before the episode begins.
Consider this exchange from Episode 4:
BAD COOPER: Gordon, I’ve really, really missed spending time together.
GORDON: Yes, Coop. I too have missed our good times together. Where have you been all these years?
BAD COOPER: Gordon, I’ve been working under cover all these years.
These repetitions operate like “um” or “uh” in real-life: their only purpose is to buy the speaker a few seconds to collect his thoughts, or for an actor to recall the next line. This also includes phrases like, “I told you that…”, “You know that…”, and “How many times have I told you…,” “Suffice it to say…,” and other figures of speech that add little value to the sentence. This is most common in early drafts or scripts that were rushed due to crunched production schedules. When there’s a lack of rewriting, the top-of-mind tripe that pours out of a writer during the early stages never gets replaced with more nuanced dialogue. Great lines in great films are labored over until the rhythm reverberates and the sentiment crystallizes in as few syllables as possible. In an early draft of Star Wars, George Lucas had written, “May the Force of others be with you.” It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the now-famous phrase – but you can’t chip away to a pithy sound byte without doing the necessary revisions.
WHAT NOT TO DO
To bring all this home in one painful example, consider the first seven minutes of Audrey Horne’s conversation with her husband in episode 12 – the first time she appears in the season. (Strikethroughs are mine, eliminating redundancy and dead weight.)
AUDREY: Ok, I’m tired of waiting for the phone to ring. I’m going to the Roadhouse. I know he couldn’t stand that place, but we’ve checked everywhere else. Are you coming with me?
HUSBAND: Audrey, look at this paperwork I have and I’ve got a deadline. Look, stacks of it. How can I leave this to go out so late at night? I wanna find Billy same as you, but can’t we start out in the light of day? It’s a new moon tonight. It’ll be dark out there. Stay here and get a good sleep and we’ll both go looking tomorrow.”
AUDREY: What kind of shit are you? If you were missing, would you want people finishing their homework before they went looking for you? You’re nothing but a spineless, no-balls loser. Do you know that? Do you? Because that’s what you really are.
HUSBAND: Audrey, I have a deadline. I have to do this. Why you put me down for doing my allotted duty in life? Billy is out there somewhere, but you’re not gonna find him tonight. I guarantee it.
AUDREY: Oh, you know for certain. What f–ing crystal ball are you looking into? Why don’t you ask your crystal ball where the f– Billy is, who’s been missing for two days. Huh? Ask your ball.
HUSBAND: Come on Audrey, you know I don’t have a crystal ball. It’s getting late. I’m already sleepy. I have so much more work to do before I get to sleep.
AUDREY: You poor, f–ing thing.
HUSBAND: I told you, don’t talk that way to your husband. I’ve been good to you. You always say it, how I’ve been good to you.
AUDREY: Who cares? What? I gotta thank you every hour on the hour? Get on my knees and adore you?
HUSBAND: Audrey, I don’t like the tone of your voice.
AUDREY: Look, Charlie. Let’s just call a spade a spade. You have no balls. That’s why I’m in love with Billy. That’s why I am f–ing Billy.
AUDREY: I saw Billy in my dream last night, and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth. And dreams sometimes harken the truth. Now I gotta go Charlie, I asked for your company, your protection. But you’re such a milquetoast the only protection would be me protecting you. And Tina, I gotta find Tina. She was the last person to see Billy, and I can’t f–ing stand being in the same room as her. You were supposed to call her, but you never did.
HUSBAND: Don’t be sore at me, Audrey. You know I just want the best for you.
AUDREY: Yeah, well then sign the papers I gave you.
HUSBAND: I don’t Audrey, those papers, there’s something fishy about them. I’m not signing anything until I run them by my lawyer.
AUDREY: Oh, I see. Maybe I should run them by Paul. Maybe I should have Paul come give you a visit.
HUSBAND: Don’t, Audrey, don’t. be like this. I’m your lawfully wedded husband. I have rights.
AUDREY: You gave up those rights.
HUSBAND: What? You mean you’d go back on our contract? Renege on a contract?
AUDREY: That’s what I will do. That’s what I’m doing.
HUSBAND: Ok, Audrey, I’ll go with you. I’m so sleepy, but I’ll go. Where are we going?
AUDREY: We’re going to the Roadhouse. I told you.
HUSBAND: Oh, Audrey. I’ll go then. I’ll need my jacket. I see you already got yours.
AUDREY: Yeah, what the f– do you think, I told you we were going out. Obviously I’ll need my jacket.
HUSBAND: There’s thousands of square miles of woods out there Audrey. Do you think we’re just gonna walk out the door or waltz in to the roadhouse and presto there he’ll be?
AUDREY: Just get your jacket, asshole.
The scene continues for three more minutes. Then it continues into episode 13, still arguing in circles. Then it continues into episode 15, arguing about putting their coats on.
From Episode 15:
AUDREY: Oh, you got your coat on.
HUSBAND: Of course I do. We’re going out; we’re going to the roadhouse. I will need my coat.
AUDREY: Well yeah, I just… you’re really something, Charlie, what the hell?
HUSBAND: Put your coat on, Audrey. It’s already late and I’m so sleepy.
And on and on. This conversation is insufferable because it’s belabored and repetitive, yet it occurs three times in three episodes! There’s no characterization. There’s no action. There’s no exposition. And worse, there’s no subtext. But the name “Audrey” is repeated 10 times in 7 minutes, roughly every time her husband opens his mouth, in case viewers weren’t sure who Sherilyn Fenn portrayed. Twin Peaks season 3 basically serves as a crash-course in how not to write dialogue.
MISSING THE MARK
Constructing the right sentences and selecting the proper words is an ongoing part of the screenwriting process – even happening up to and during production. Wordsmiths like Aaron Sorkin never stop rethinking word choices, and he would be appalled if someone handed him these unrefined lines. They read on paper just like they read on television – as if the actors did not have a script, but instead had to ad lib to fill screen time. The Return is exactly what unscripted dialogue sounds like, minus the pressures of reality to drive the forward momentum. By comparison, even reality programming is better scripted because of the drama the conflicting personalities bring to the show.
One needs merely to watch enough student films, read enough amateur scripts, or sit in an Intro to Improv class to recognize bad verbal art. There is no deeper artistic merit behind the banal, nor is there an attempt to upturn convention, as loyal Lynch fans are wont to argue. These failures of dialogue are not some post-modern deconstruction of text/subtext, or any other artistic nonsense.
As documentarian Chris Rodley observed in Lynch on Lynch, the director “deals in a direct way with ideas, images, and feelings that make themselves known to him in ways other than through the printed word…His extraordinary success in ‘plugging into’ various emotional states without any apparent need or desire for conventional research has, on occasion, dispensed with a valued refuge of American cinema: subtext.”
In other words, the lazy writing is a result of the artist brushing over the least interesting parts of the creative process so that he may focus on his area of expertise – the visual.
The real question is: while Lynch was visualizing, where was writer Mark Frost to pick up the slack? Did Frost let Lynch have his way with The Return in order to tell his own stories in print, as in his upcoming book Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier? A recent interview with Peaks‘ Executive Producer Sabrina Sutherland suggests exactly that. Reddit user PicaTron asked, “Will Mark Frost’s Final Dossier expand on or help explain the ending of The Return? Or is it more his own thing about the gap in between Seasons 2 and 3?”
“The Final Dossier is completely Mark’s book. David and I do not know what it will contain at this time,” Sutherland responds. In fact, she confirms that David Lynch has not even read Frost’s Secret History of Twin Peaks, published last fall, and when Frost left to write it, Lynch continued writing the season without him. “I know that all the big scenes David wrote separately were sent to Mark so he could see them before we shot them. Mark did not change anything.”
A writer of Frost’s stature would never make such pedestrian mistakes, or he’d have no writing career. His lack of involvement explains why so many scenes were so poorly written – and why they seemed as ad libbed as President Trump at a press conference.
Unfortunately for Peaks fans, whoever improvised Michael Cera’s clunky mouthful from episode 4…
WALLY: It’s good to see you too, Sheriff Truman. As you know, your brother, Harry S. Truman, is my godfather. I heard he is ill. I came to pay my respects to my godfather and extend my best wishes for his recovery, which I hope will be swift and painless. It’s an honor to see you again. You know, my heart is always here with you and these fine people, my parents, who I love so dearly. And I was in the area and wanted to pay my respects.
…is not the same person who wrote this:
“Mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are…Mysteries are the stories we tell ourselves to contend with life’s resistance to our longing for answers.” –Mark Frost, The Secret History of Twin Peaks
Images: Showtime, Twelve Books, ABC, Faber & Faber