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‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘House of Cards’ Offer Differing Lessons in Morality

One’s a little bit silly, the other a lot like the Talmud

Liel Leibovitz
May 26, 2017
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks.Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME
Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks.Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

With the long-anticipated third season of the classic Twin Peaks having debuted this past weekend, and the fifth season of the political drama House of Cards just a few days away, it’s shaping up to be a banner week for TV aficionados. But watch both shows carefully, and you’ll see a stark difference between them, a chasm that can teach us a lot about the ways we tell stories in America, which, really, is to say the ways we choose to make sense of our lives.

First, the Frank Underwood Show. You may argue that any show that has a high-ranking politician meet a reporter in a D.C. Metro station only to push her in front of an oncoming train is patently silly—as if we’re supposed to believe that the D.C. Metro actually runs!—but that would be missing the point. Fans of House of Cards watch it for the same reason pro-wrestling buffs tune in to see two fleshy mounds embracing: not despite the artifice, but because of it. To watch a glistening Hulk Hogan barely lift Andre the Giant and slam him into the mat is to witness the essence of the eternal struggle of good versus evil. No one really cared that their actual match—Wrestlemania III, to the uninitiated among you—was a long and mediocre slog. The storyline was compelling not because it was wrestling at its finest but because it pitted two very different characters against each other and allowed each to be blissfully, ridiculously free of the confines of nuance, gravity, or good taste.

The same is true of House of Cards: Can the American president really have a showdown with his Russian counterpart in the middle of the Jordanian desert, both men wearing camouflage, the Russki lusting after the American’s lovely wife? Not even the most feverish member of the #resistance to Donald Trump would entertain such a scenario, and yet here we were, in the climactic moment of the show’s previous season, reveling in watching our leaders be as bad and bawdy as they want to be.

Is there anything wrong with such an approach to plot? Maybe not—millions, after all, are clamoring for more of their beloved Devil of D.C. But any allusion to Trump is far from theoretical: The president ascended to his perch in part by emulating in real life what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on Netflix: a universe in which stories come at us rapidly and roaringly, making little sense and much merriment. We the bingers don’t much care for the fineries of character development or common sense; that’s for slower, fussier eaters. All we require is the next course and now, bold in flavor and rich in calories. House of Cards, like Trump’s daily diet, is a procession of fatty fast food served salty.

Not so Twin Peaks. The show’s new season will have 18 episodes featuring 238 speaking roles, an unprecedented torrent of humanity. If its previous life is any indication—season three comes to us after a 26-year hiatus—the show’s new incarnation will continue its tradition of being baffling. The show, as Jim Geraghty recently noted, “was always an acquired taste, a series that borrowed bits and pieces and styles of almost everything that had come before and mixed them in a blender: murder mystery, 1980s night-time melodrama, slapstick comedy, ’50s Americana nostalgia, the supernatural and occult, gripping psychological portraits, dark serial-killer horror, and surreal, dreamlike imagery. The show was never designed for the widest audience or casual viewing.”

If House of Cards is a lot like One Thousand and One Nights, Twin Peaks is a lot like the Talmud: Instead of enforcing a single, unifying point of view, it offers a multitude of characters to interact and argue with, urging the viewer to open her heart, use her imagination, and make sense of the world’s immense complexities in whatever way she sees fit. Again, like the Talmud, the show takes pleasure in weaving together flights of fantasy with deeply ordinary moments, finding beauty and meaning not in the drumroll of big reveals but in the fragility of everyday exchanges between friends, neighbors, family members, and lovers. Often, it makes no sense because, often, life doesn’t, either.

But unlike the oily egomaniacs who haunt House of Cards, the folks shuffling about Twin Peaks, Washington, don’t expect life’s great big difficulties to be resolved neatly and in broad dramatic swoops. They agonize and falter, betray and forgive, try and err, and try again. They are humans, and they invite us to see them just as such, even when they happen to be possessed by demons. The show asks us to suspend our judgment, never our disbelief.

Which, if you think about it, is a fine recipe for a healthy moral life. If you come to view the world like one long season of House of Cards, you grow addicted to the cascade of infighting and outrage. If you see it instead like an episode of Twin Peaks, you realize that there are many speaking parts to every existential drama, that motives and behaviors aren’t always clear, and that the only hobgoblin you should fear is the foolish consistency of little minds. You also realize that you, the viewer, have a responsibility to do more than just view—you must interpret, infer, and invoke, becoming every bit as much a meaning maker as the show’s creators are.

Sadly, this Talmudic approach doesn’t get you very far these days; Twin Peaks’ season debut attracted barely half a million people, far less than the hordes likely to gulp down the new Underwood fix. Never mind: We will all have to give account on Judgment Day for every good permissible thing we might have enjoyed and did not. Twin Peaks taught me that, or maybe it was the Talmud.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.