What We Mean When We Say "Lynchian"

You know that certain strain of surrealism when you see it.

After Sunday’s True Detective episode, I noticed a certain word, or phrase, popping up all across my Twitter feed:

Yes, this new season of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime drama has gone “Lynchian,” abandoning the philosophical Southern Gothic landscape from Season One. Now, it appears to be wading into the murky surrealist waters of David Lynch’s neo-noir dreamscapes.

Using dreams in storytelling is not an intellectual property exclusive to David Lynch films. Dream sequences happen all the time, and many are flat and uninspired. These moments are defined as Lynchian when the departure seems to have a purpose, a definitive style, and it doesn’t feel like the writers are taking a day off.

What makes a film or a series Lynchian is its attempt to depart from linear storytelling to show the subconscious hangups of certain characters or situations. In a Lynchian sequence, music is often involved, stark color and lighting convey mood, and no matter how pleasant the scene may appear, there is always a nightmarish and threatening undercurrent. Where most of these moments involve the dream world, a true Lynchian departure can happen right in the middle of what is perceived reality. In Sunday’s episode of True Detective, as well, was an aesthetic callback to this sequence in Lynch’s surrealistic 1986 noir Blue Velvet:

The juxtaposition of Roy Orbison’s silky-smooth love song with the unsettling visuals and rogues gallery of criminals in Lynch’s Blue Velvet is quintessential Lynch. Coming as it did in a near-death dream sequence, the True Detective scene might have been more of a departure than a precedent for the rest of the series. But it did demonstrate Pizzolatto’s drawing on a worthy predecessor to inform the sinister elegance of this season.

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