In this blog post I want to challenge the separation of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ paratexts as divergent trajectories within what Jonathan Hardy (2011) has named the ‘commercial intertextuality’ of contemporary television series. To do this, I’m going to respond to Jason Mittell’s recent post for In Media Res where he suggests exploring the affective, rather than purely interpretive, meanings that paratexts generate. In short, what I want to argue here is that exploring affective responses to paratexts may complicate distinctions linked solely to sites of production by highlighting that emotional reactions to (faux-)promotional images may intersect with subcultural constructions of authenticity and hence account for (subjective) classifications of ‘unofficial’ paratexts as ‘official’. To do this, I need to recount an event from last week when I became blown away/fooled by a fan-produced poster for the return of Twin Peaks in 2017.
The story goes a little something like this…
It was relatively early on a Tuesday morning. I’d just arrived into my office and was in that strange, liminal period between entering in to work, (crucially) making some tea, and starting making my way through the day’s (lengthy) ‘To Do List’. Before tackling emails, I briefly logged on to Facebook and there it was: an image posted from fan-site Welcome to Twin Peaks accompanied by the elegantly simple text “25 Years Later. It is Happening Again”. Words couldn’t describe the wave of uncontrollable excitement which came over me. “This is it!”, I thought. “This is the first, official promotional poster for the new Twin Peaks and it’s beautiful!” I quickly began scanning it for information and it provided plenty: it is being referred to industrially as an event; it is going to be set in 2014 (25 years after Twin Peaks’s events taking place in 1989); they are keeping that dreadful font but it somehow looked lovely when combined with the Showtime logo; those woods are still mysterious; the owl was not what it seemed. Slightly distracted, but aware that this was an itch that would need scratching at some point throughout the day, I shared the image on my social media accounts and quickly scanned eBay for one to buy for my office. Nothing listed. I set up a notification search and then engaged the ‘To Do List’.
The Offending Item. A Fan-Made Teaser Poster for Twin Peaks‘s Return in 2017
During my (brief) pause for a sandwich I returned to this captivating image (still none on eBay) and suddenly realised I’d made a grave error of judgement as the poster I’d been fawning over wasn’t an official Showtime release but instead was a (still very talented) piece of fan art. My immediate reaction was one of embarrassment and hurt pride: as a TV academic, I’d neglected my duties. I hadn’t checked the facts or verified the source. My affective response had taken over. The perils of being an aca-fan that Matt Hills (2002) had discussed had come home to plant the egg in my sandwich firmly on my face. How could I have got it wrong?
As the week went on, and my wounded pride eased, I returned a few times to the fan-produced image to try and unpick my response to it. Eventually I realised that it had fooled me because it looked and ‘felt’ in line with Twin Peaks’s established branding strategies. Although Twin Peaks’s brand identity has been developed retrospectively (as the image below demonstrates, paratexts produced for the show during the early 90s don’t demonstrate coherent branding), recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases have reclaimed the (ambiguously received in fan circles – see Jowett 2016: 215) logo and reproduced the show’s mixture of greens and blues used for exterior locations as recurrent elements of the show’s brand identity. What’s more, these paratexts have continually required fans to ‘go deeper’ as, in a clever trope, more information about the show is revealed by moving beyond the packaging’s surfaces (whether this is revealing Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) dual identity or finding a hidden message from BOB (Frank Silva) – see below).
Not ‘On Brand’ – Twin Peaks‘s 1990s paratexts
It is these similar readings that were re-produced in the fan-produced poster as this was also negotiating the familiar and the different, the recognisable and the new. The colour palette and the woods were present but this time they were accompanied by the addition of Showtime’s logo and arguably enhanced by the sense of scale connoted (read as links between ‘quality’ TV and discourses of the ‘cinematic’ – see Mills (2013)). Additionally, the idea of ‘looking closer’ was there as, although not immediately noticeable, the inversion of gravity arising from the direction of the woods against the position of the owl seemed to heighten and confirm my existing reading of the brand. If branding as a practice which is partly supposed to provide familiarity and reassurance to consumers (Danesi 2006), then this image looked and felt ‘authentic’ by confirming my (scholarly-informed) reading of the Twin Peaks brand. “Ah, what the hell”, I thought. “It’ll still look awesome on my office wall.”
Full of secrets – Twin Peaks‘s DVD and Blu-Ray releases encouraging audiences to ‘look deeper’.
This was not the end of my journey through Peaks publicity, however, as what Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton (2011: 23) would deem the “paratextual completist” in me endeavoured to see whether Showtime had released any teaser images for the forthcoming 2017 series. As it transpired, the ‘Twin Peaks – Now in Production’ teaser video released in December was accompanied by a (less-circulated) teaser image featuring a cup of black coffee seen from above against a simple white background.
Showtime’s official teaser image for Twin Peaks‘s return in 2017.
There’s no denying that the official Showtime poster is clever as it is a multi-layered image that works strategically to stimulate popular memories of Twin Peaks alongside appealing to both ‘knowing’ fans and contemporary imaginings of ‘quality’ audiences. At first glance, the image appears inconsequential and bears no immediate connections with Twin Peaks: the show’s expected brand colour palettes and logo are absent whilst the red Showtime logo provides little additional meaning or context. In fact, the only way that you might immediately locate the image in relation to Twin Peaks is through intertextual knowledge concerning the centrality of (damn fine!) coffee to Twin Peaks and the fact that it is Showtime who is bringing the programme back. What Showtime’s teaser image appeals to, then, are generational identities underpinned by popular memories of watching Twin Peaks during the early 90s. Previous discussions of the show – whether academic, journalistic or fan-produced – frequently comment upon the popularity of ‘Cherry Pie and Coffee parties’ in the US during Twin Peaks’s initial broadcast (we even had one at the University of Salford’s Twin Peaks conference last year!). Coffee has therefore become part of what Lynn Spigel and Henry Jenkins (1991) would name the ‘repisodic’ text of Twin Peaks as it forms part of the cultural shorthand that is drawn upon in popular memories of the show. By forging these associations, Showtime’s marketing through this image is attempting to nostalgically fire memories of the reception contexts that have come to be associated with the original series.
Alongside these appeals, fans and/or ‘quality’ audiences are also targeted through the (repeated) brand requirement of ‘looking deeper’. This is because Twin Peaks’s winding entry road and ever-present forest is identifiable within the dark liquid’s swirls. On the one hand, this strategy addresses knowledgeable fan audiences by replaying established branding practices by inviting them to deploy the same analytical skills that Agent Cooper does within the show’s Pilot episode. Just as Cooper works out that Laura’s secret boyfriend is a biker by examining the reflection in her eye that is caught on videotape, we are encouraged to demonstrate this assumed shared knowledge. On the other, and arguably seeking to address a contemporary ‘quality’ audience, the trope of ‘going further’ suggests that Twin Peaks, like shows such as True Detective (2014- ) and Better Call Saul! (2015- ) will reward the attentive viewer. As Sarah Cardwell (2007) and Jane Feuer (2007) have argued, ‘quality’ dramas in the US differentiate themselves from their network equivalents by demanding heightened forms of engagement such as noticing small details and piecing these together to comprehend what is going on. Such instances of what Jason Mittell (2009) has latterly named ‘forensic fandom’ are arguably traceable back to Twin Peaks because, as Henry Jenkins’s (1995) study of the show’s emergent online fandom demonstrated, many posters spent a lot of time pouring over miniscule details in the hope of cracking the show’s enigmas. ‘Past’ and ‘present’ again seem to interweave here as contemporary assumptions about ‘quality’ audiences are reflexively incorporated at the same time as nostalgically reminding older generational audiences of the show’s assumed pleasures. Although not as harmonious with Twin Peaks’s established brand identity as the trailer is, Showtime’s teaser image is nevertheless a multi-faceted image that simultaneously addresses multiple audiences.
However, although sophisticated in its strategies, I’d nevertheless offer that Showtime’s image lacks the affective engagement I experienced towards the fan-produced example. In short, I’d state that whilst I admire Showtime’s official teaser poster, I actively love the one that I unexpectantly encountered last week. Of course, there are different contextual factors underpinning these responses – the latter was sought out for academic purposes whereas the other was a chance encounter through fan-orientated niche media, for example. Nevertheless, the comments and interpretations provided in this post arguably tell us more than my own anxieties and insecurities of being an aca-fan.
This is because the paratextual journey that I have recounted begins to muddy distinctions between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ paratexts if they are approached from an audience- and affect-orientated approach. ‘Official’ and ‘unofficial’ typically have ‘common sense’ and taken-for-granted meanings which are used to maintain symbolic power relations between sites of production and consumption with regards to forms of publicity. However the response I have examined here has led me to wonder whether these categories can also be considered as affective and therefore discursive. Thus, if approached from a (fan) audience perspective rather than purely in terms of industrial meanings, might differentiations between affectively ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ paratexts take place? If they do, what relationship do these have with subculturally-agreed constructions of ‘authenticity’? It’s impossible to generalise from my own responses but this might be a future avenue for paratextual research.
Ross Garner is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He has published various articles discussing nostalgia, popular memory and television institutions in edited collections and journals and is currently preparing the monograph Nostalgia, Digital Television and Transmediality for publication in 2017 with Bloomsbury.