Alexander Danner, Brad C. Wilcox, Danny B. Pineda, David Lynch, Horror, James Oliva, Karim Kronfli, Kristen DiMercurio, Kurt C. Nelson, Los Angeles, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Postmodernism, Richard Penner, Tanja Milojevic, Twin Peaks: The Return, What's the Frequency
[The following contains spoilers.]
I have a friend who tells a good story about David Lynch’s first horror movie Eraserhead (1977). It was late at night and my friend was just home from a long day at work. He was off the following morning, so he decided to sprawl back on the sofa, smoke a joint, and sample a movie from this avant-garde director who he had heard so much about. Yet that particular joint, set to this particular movie, proved an unhappy combination. My friend found himself growing more and more immersed in the film – it was mesmerising! – dumbfounding! – irresistible! Suddenly he froze. His nose had bumped against the TV screen. Without realising it, he had been creeping furtively across the carpet towards the TV on his hands and knees. Thoroughly unsettled, he switched off the TV and went to bed.
With the finale of James Oliva’s audio-drama podcast What’s the Frequency?, there is no screen and thus no safety barrier. I am listening on headphones whilst walking around Edinburgh, already a bit too immersed, as this story begins to drain enormously away into a squalling industrial soundscape and a meditative trance. Fortunately, I still have enough of my mind left to pull myself back. I will have no equivalent story about walking stupefied into a cement mixer or the path of a tram. With drugs, however, this episode would be seriously dangerous. With mushrooms, it would probably kill you outright. Imagine being trapped within all of that repetition, with all of its suspense and paranoia, struggling on the surface like a kicking insect, and with no escape!
It sometimes seems to me as if every work of art these days is directly influenced by David Lynch. It is like commenting on the ubiquity within our culture of the colour blue. One might encounter numerous obstacles when trying to interpret What’s the Frequency? in light of Lynch, since podcasts are naturally hampered in supplying imagery. This podcast is also missing the haunting music and general sexual scariness of Lynch’s aesthetic. Even so, What’s the Frequency? is in other respects swimming familiarly in this aesthetic, and especially within that of Inland Empire (2006) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). There is the same devotion to the US’s stylish postwar heyday, the same use of crime-fighting as the access point into mystery and horror, and the same extravagant warping of normal physical dimensions.
It is just as true to say that the finale of What’s the Frequency? is infuriating and self-indulgent at precisely the points where Lynch would be infuriating and self-indulgent. There is no attempt to render the finale user-friendly – you are the one who is required to be friendly, patient, and understanding. Indeed, What’s the Frequency? is similarly elaborate and cluttered in its design to Twin Peaks: The Return. There are countless characters and they are each allocated a roughly equal morsel of the story. Young economists could doubtless select What’s the Frequency? as the subject for a complex research dissertation. How does this series manage to pay everybody? – are there pay grades? – is it possible to break even or have the costs long spiralled out of all control?
Within fiction, postmodernism typically receives expression through self-referentiality or a narrative’s deliberate consciousness of its own materials. Postmodern novels are always making daring references to how they are, in fact, novels. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a metafictional farce in which the characters of a novel team up and rebel against the author, is a classic of this genre. There is a lot of comparable game-playing within Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch himself was active both within and outside the story, performing as a director (a FBI one) and directing his own performance. And the story within What’s the Frequency? steadily unravels until nothing but a bunch of storytellers and their writing materials remain.
This self-awareness is a common trait within horror podcasting. As Cian Gill has noted in his survey of such podcasts, they tend to share “an obsession with their own medium.” Troubles and Whit (Karim C. Kronfli and Tanja Milojevic), the crime-fighting duo in What’s the Frequency?, are always retelling the story of how they had met and, consequently, of who they are. It might sound like they are here indulging in a running practical joke, but the joke of the story is possibly that they are not joking. They first met when their names were typed together on the script and so they are entirely free to invent whatever had come before.
On the other side of the workshop, the demonic crime boss Doug Kowalski (Richard Penner) is determined to procure a typewriter. As soon as he has done so, a character called The Narrator (Danny B. Pineda) drops in at his home and he is made acquainted with the machine. He proceeds to script a story that ostensibly culminates with Troubles and Whit being slaughtered.
So how is this script delivered to them? The answer to this is that in the finale, The Narrator replaces the author. This might resemble the logic outlined in Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” (1967), but it actually entails more of a loss. Joseph Ells is incapacitated and his radio play, “Love, Honour and Decay” ends with its glamorous cast, Donald and Lou (Brad C. Wilcox and Kristen DiMercurio), scrabbling about scriptless and begging for “words.” Yet Ells’ own lifeless body turns out to be channelling the radio signal that is disrupting his original play. And only finally on this signal is there to be found an unauthored story, about a man, apparently Ells himself, who is lost deep in a forest. As in Twin Peaks, all evil emanates from the wilderness, but in What’s the Frequency? the forest seems to have some subtle affinity with reams of blank, unused paper.
Ells’ attempts to broadcast to the noir urban world that he has left behind will wreak a murderous influence. Even before he gets going, though, the wireless is a routinely destructive force. The adverts from Spishak, the popular consumer goods manufacturer (its name is taken from the 1990s US television sketch show Mad TV), are throbbing with carnage and massacre.
It is likely that every character within What’s the Frequency? will be killed by the wireless. If they survive an encounter with Ells’ radio broadcast, the goods that the radio compels them to buy will surely finish them off. They will have their faces melted by Spishak’s cosmetic cream; they will be poisoned by its “Shimmer Sheen” culinary spray; or their offspring will expire in the womb after Mom treats herself to one too many pre-natal vitamin cigarettes. The radio henceforth piles death upon death onto passive listeners with scripted lives. Unless, that is, the words are suddenly withdrawn and the listeners are, like Donald and Lou, left without anything to live by.
You might think it unjust to focus on the plot of What’s the Frequency? because this is to disregard what is so unique about the series: just how awesomely cool it sounds. What’s the Frequency? gives an impression of being the biggest or most important podcast currently out there simply because it sounds by far the coolest. Does it really matter if it means anything? The dialogue is snappy – the vocal acting is naturalistic and yet cartoonishly stylish – the soundscaping and production are of a mesmerising grain of detail – and the plot twirls the dial between its different signals so deftly that, although you might be often infuriated, you are invariably on tenterhooks.
This is unlikely to be anything like the authentic sound of 1940s radio drama. But who can tell? As with Twin Peaks, it is instead the glamour of the postwar period enhanced or fully liberated by the nostalgia of those who were born decades afterwards.
Postmodernity nonetheless comes at a steep price. Tychy had concluded of Twin Peaks: The Return that, “After promising a banquet of nostalgia, Lynch leaves us with empty stomachs. We cannot dine on postmodern sniggering.” If the plot of What’s the Frequency? is liberated from the realism of normal storytelling, it equally tramples on some conventions that should be respected more carefully.
Characters such as Troubles, Whit, and Ronnie/Krog (Alexander Danner) are too smooth and pleasant – too jaunty in how they are evoked – to be killed off quite so flippantly. I was left perplexed by how they were treated. They are like merry donkeys that are coerced into becoming police horses – they look somehow uncomfortable beneath the harsh new uniforms. Likewise, that Gans (Jamie Price) is revealed to be a bent cop inflicts some overly abrupt, inexplicable damage upon a hitherto enjoyable character.
You cannot just create any old story on a typewriter and will it to be so. To bring a story to life requires engaging with how stories conventionally behave. The flaw could be that What’s the Frequency? is too skilfully crafted to slip effortlessly away from these conventions. The characters are too vivid – their world is too real – and so the bid for freedom from the usual rules of storytelling is ultimately impermissible. Detaching from the detachment, suddenly unsure about what it is going on, it is as though your nose has bumped against a screen.
[Tychy‘s earlier overview of What’s the Frequency? is here.]