After a few weeks in a row of pretty easy watching (The Office, Roseanne, Easy A), I have my students watch the opening two episodes of Twin Peaks in my introductory level popular culture course (English Textual Studies 145: Reading Popular Culture). To say they were perplexed is to put it lightly. I screen the 94 minute pilot (“Northwest Passage”) and the 45 minute second episode (“Traces to Nowhere”). The screening ended to a blanket of silence and then an almost collective “What the…?”
We watchTwin Peaks in order to talk about excess and complex narratives and to pave the way for the following week in which we discuss fan response, collective intelligence and LOST. For the week on narrative complexity and Twin Peaks, I teach Jason Mittell’s fantastic piece “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”. For the week on fan response and LOST, I teach Mittell’s “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia”—these two tend to work really well when taught together.
For this post, I want to briefly outline an in-class exercise I did with Twin Peaks which could be easily adapted to other complex narratives (film, television, or novels) in a way that makes quite dense texts accessible while fleshing out understandings of narrative complexity, producerliness and collective intelligence.
I print out pictures of all of the characters we meet (26!) and all of the places we visit in the first two episodes. I tape the places to the board, pass out a character picture to each student and provide them with the following prompt:
You will receive a picture of a character from Twin Peaks. Spend 5 minutes talking with classmates and collectively gather as much information as possible about your character. Consider family and romantic associations, occupations, and relationship to the crime. We will reconvene and you will be asked to place your character on the Twin Peaks world map on the board and we will compile all of the data you have collected.
When all was said and done, we produced a fantastic map of collectively gathered information. We used this map to further explore plot developments, the difference between serial and episodic narratives and self-reflexive approaches to storytelling. While they walked into class thinking they knew or remembered very little from this show, they left with not only a firmer grasp of the narrative world, but also an excitement to learn more about it and keep watching. This activity helped them to solidify and recall the information they knew about Twin Peaks as well as further established some of the concepts we were playing with that week. I think this type of exercise would work really well with other dense story worlds such as, for example, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
Plus, at the end, you get an awesome board like this:
(Feel free to borrow and adapt this exercise as it fits your class.)