Four Ways To Do Surrealism Well (That I Learnt From A 1990s TV Show)


As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been watching an old American TV show from the 1990s called “Twin Peaks” on DVD recently (I haven’t seen any of the new episodes though). This series has something of a reputation for being slightly on the stranger side of things, although it isn’t really as ludicrously surreal as I’d expected it to be.

Still, it does provide some interesting lessons in how to do surrealism well. But, before I begin the list, I should point out that this article may contain some mild plot SPOILERS. That said, let’s begin…

1) You still need a story: For all of the strange stuff that happens in “Twin Peaks”, there’s still an actual storyline that you can follow. Yes, there are lots of twists and turns, but the series actually has a proper plot that – mostly – makes sense. Even the stranger parts of the series often end up having some kind of explanation later in the series.

In other words, for all of the strangeness, there is still a coherent narrative. There is still something that the audience can understand and, as such, they are more willing to overlook the parts of the story that they can’t understand.

In other words, you need to find a good balance between traditional storytelling and strange surrealism.

2) Different logic: For all of the strange things in the show, there is often some kind of logic behind them. As an example, one of the show’s most famous characters is the Log Lady. She’s a slightly strange woman who carries a small log with her wherever she goes. She’ll also talk to the log sometimes and claim that she receives messages from it.

The Log Lady from "Twin Peaks"

The Log Lady from “Twin Peaks” (1990)

Although she could easily just be a “strange for the sake of strange” character, the series contains some mysterious paranormal elements. So, the Log Lady’s initial explanation that the log contains the spirit of her deceased husband makes slightly more sense when you’ve seen more of the series. Of course, given that the one of the main themes in the TV show is mourning and/or grief, it’s also possible that her obsession with the log is merely a psychological reaction of some kind to her husband’s death.

Even though this is left slightly ambiguous, the fact that there is at least one “logical” (in the context of the story) explanation for this “strange” part of the show helps to avoid breaking the audience’s immersion in the story.

3) The ordinary: For all of “Twin Peaks’ ” strangeness, most of the unusual parts of the series are at least vaguely related to ordinary life.

Sometimes, this can take the form of a character owning an unusual (but available) object – for example, one character is seen eating a piece of smoked cheese that has been sculpted to look like a pig. It’s strange, but it’s also the kind of thing that can probably be bought from gift shops in areas where smoked cheese is made.

Sometimes, this can just be ordinary things that are subtly out of place. For example, the pilot episode of “Twin Peaks” includes a scene set in a rural American bank. This is the kind of place where you might possibly expect to see a hunting trophy in the lobby. A stag’s head wouldn’t look totally out of place here. Yet, merely by placing it somewhere slightly unusual, the show is able to add a touch of surrealism to what would otherwise be an “ordinary” dialogue-based scene:

As you can see in this scene from "Twin Peaks", the placement of a "normal" item in a slightly unusual location can instantly add a surreal atmosphere to a story, comic,. TV show, painting etc...

As you can see in this scene from “Twin Peaks”, the placement of a “normal” item in a slightly unusual location can instantly add a surreal atmosphere to a story, comic,. TV show, painting etc…

4) Comedy and horror: The surreal parts of “Twin Peaks” that aren’t fully explained are often still surprisingly interesting for the simple reason that they’re designed to either frighten the audience or make them laugh. Or both.

Since these parts of the show are designed to evoke strong emotions, they are more likely to bypass the more “logical” parts of the audience’s minds. Since these scenes are clearly designed purely for comedic and/or horrific effect, then they are less likely to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief too. After all, “it’s meant to be funny” or “it’s meant to be scary” can often be a logical explanation for otherwise illogical things.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂