Big Secrets, Small Towns

1986, Blue Velvet, by cult author David Lynch, opens with the sequence below: the perfect life of an American suburban neighborhood is suddenly halted. A middle-age man, who watering his yard, seems to suffer a heart attack and he drops dead in an instant. The camera dives slowly into the perfectly cut grass, deeper and deeper. At the bottom, we find the insects, the filthy, the rotten… Lynch showed us with this shot, together with the well-known ear with ants, that under the superficial, seemingly perfect, American way of life in the small idillic communities there’s always a dark hidden shadow, a place where people bury their most infame secrets and desires.

Who would say that that initiating sequence would become a TV genre in itself. The “Big Secrets in Small Towns” has become a reflection of contemporary television and, obviously, a reflection of ourselves.

David Lynch himself established the first relevant work in television within this genre, the recently renewed Twin Peaks. The town of Twin Peaks was quickly connected with the word mystery, not only about “who killed Laura Palmer?” but the mystery of the town itself, its inhabitants, its spaces, questions could only be answered with questions… the show was a continuous unsolvable secret. The most relevant question mark though was Bob, the exterior supernatural force that haunted the town and whose origin was linked to the Red Room, a plane of reality beyond our understanding.

After S-11, the genre gained momentum once again due to national hysteria, and the believe that the enemy lied within everyone of us, no one was to be trusted. Desperate Housewives but, most of all, Lost was the clear heir of Twin Peaks in this aspect. Let’s take a look back: the survivors of Oceanic 815 worked as a small American community with representation of every race (Latins, African-Americans, Caucasian, Asians, Arabs…) and the mystery was all around, in fact, the mystery lied now, in a first instance, within everyone of them. We saw in every single flashback their own Red Lounge that haunted them from their pasts. In addition, Dharmaville was also, even architectonically, a small American community with their own secrets, to the point its existence was a secret itself.

The Leftovers is the contemporary expression of “big-secrets-small-town”, a postmodern version of the mystery where the mystery is no longer relevant but the guilt of those left behind centers the discourse. The “departure” occurred three years ago and, in the present, we only perceive souvenirs of that past life and event. The (pos)mystery is a feeling, a communal experience, personified in the Guilty Remnants. They are the revelation, the counterpart of the unknown, a continuous exposition of the question mark that annoys the rest of the characters. They feel their inner guts exposed, their inner persona revealed in the simulacrum the cult proposes.

Just a couple of weeks ago we received Fortitude a hyperthrophied take on Twin Peaks: the community is more isolated than ever -a frozen island in the Arctic Circle-, every (!) single (!!) character (!!!) seems to hide something and the mysteries seem bigger than ever -what is going on with those fossils?-. The town of Fortitude reveals itself as a below zero Twin Peaks, or Dharmaville, or Mapletown: a proclamation of the form and the quantitative peak of a tradition. However, there is something fishy about this show’s mysteries: three episodes into the series we still don’t know if they are coming from within or from outer space. The mystery folds: the nature of the mystery is the actual mystery.

J.

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