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The trouble with MacGuffins – the Laura Palmer problem

Alfred Hitchcock was a brilliant man who made innumerable contributions to the world of entertainment, both in cinema and television. One of these contributions was his popularization, if not creation, of the term MacGuffin. If you are unfamiliar with the word, it essentially means the object, whether tangible or intangible, that drives the plot of a film or television show. A great example is the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Just about every show has a MacGuffin to push the characters forward (some more obviously identifiable than others), but some shows deal with theirs much better than others. This summer I’m going to be examining a bunch of shows and how they manage their MacGuffins.

Before I get started I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I will be taking liberties with the term MacGuffin. Hopefully not so much that Hitchcock will roll around in his grave, but I’ll be using the term interchangeably with show-based mythology at times. This is mainly due to the fact that I am in love with the word MacGuffin. Please bear with me.

I’m going to start off examining the one show that I believe really illustrates the problem with MacGuffins perfectly: Twin Peaks. It’s one of my all time favorite shows, as you may know. I take every opportunity to gush about it. If you’re not familiar with the show, it centered around the murder of a young prom queen: Laura Palmer. Her murder was the drive behind the plot of the show. It acted as a catalyst to reveal all the dirty secrets that the members of the idyllic northwestern town were hiding.

Laura’s murder was a great MacGuffin. It captured the imagination of the viewers, while driving the show and the characters into interesting places. It was not flawless, however. In fact, it was far from it. David Lynch and Mark Frost, the main creative minds behind Twin Peaks never wanted the Laura Palmer murder to be solved. They saw it as an endless well in which to explore their quirky characters. Unfortunately, the network had other ideas, as did the fans. The fact was that the murder was so intriguing, people demanded answers. Well, Frost and Lynch delivered the answer during the second season of the show and Twin Peaks promptly fell apart.

The show stumbled along for the remainder of the second season, trying to establish a new mystery in Windom Earle, but it just didn’t work. The show needed its MacGuffin to survive. The murder was never meant to be solved, and once it was there was no show left. It must have been infinitely frustrating for the creators of the show, as they knew it was the wrong answer to end the murder case, but their hands were tied.

I feel like Twin Peaks showed the way for so many other shows, with people learning from the mistakes of the quirky night time soap. That, however, is a topic for another post….

Photo Credit: Amazon

Categories: | Clack | Features | General | TV Shows | Twin Peaks |

9 Responses to “The trouble with MacGuffins – the Laura Palmer problem”

June 22, 2009 at 11:34 AM

Did Veronica Mars’s first season bring this on for you? Because the first season’s mystery was never trumped by the mysteries in the last two seasons of the show. Same goes for Desperate Housewives.

June 22, 2009 at 11:39 AM

I think those are both good examples of shows that learned from the TP mistakes. They both were structured to have mysteries contained in one season, which avoided one problem, but created another: starting up a fresh mystery each season that is as compelling as the last.

I’ve been kicking around this series of posts for a while… I think it was the final episodes of BSG that really got me going on it, with how they handled the cylon mythology/search for earth.

All three shows will most likely get separate articles.

June 22, 2009 at 12:01 PM

Lost I think is a good example of smaller MacGuffins working, season to season. There’s been the hatch, the Others, the smoke monster and Jacob. Maybe that’s just tossing the term around too much though.

June 22, 2009 at 12:06 PM

Yeah… I freely admitted that I’ll be using the term loosely. I think Lost is a show that really skirts the line between doing it well and doing it poorly. I think it depends on the viewer really. Some people have given up on the show, as they are so frustrated with the island mythology, while for other viewers, it’s the only reason to watch.

June 22, 2009 at 2:59 PM

Who’s on the freighter (“Not Penny’s boat”)… who’s in the coffin… the 4-toed statue… lots and lots of MacGuffins…

June 22, 2009 at 5:13 PM

I don’t agree about Windom Earle being the big mystery of season 2. It was more about the Black Lodge and where the murderer came from (Earle was just a pawn in the big picture and a way to get Cooper interested in the Black Lodge).

June 22, 2009 at 7:00 PM

Yeah, that’s probably fair Faskil. Earle just symbolizes, to me, the beginning of the end for TP. :-(

June 23, 2009 at 9:29 PM

I forgot to say I loved your article, TP is definitely a milestone in TV history (even with the flaws of season 2). ;)

June 23, 2009 at 9:46 PM

Thanks! I still miss TP. I think I need to rewatch it again soon.

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