Making Sense of David Lynch: A Rabbits Tale
“In a nameless city deluged by a continuous rain…
three rabbits live with a fearful mystery.”
David Lynch’s 2002 surrealist sitcom, Rabbits, is a collection of nine episodes that follow the disjointed conversation of three humanoid rabbits presented loosely in the form of a generic situation comedy. David Lynch is a writer/director both celebrated and criticized for his bizarre and often horrifying films that challenge viewers to discern any amount of meaning from his slew of signs and symbols. But, at the risk of potentially demystifying one of cinema’s most original filmmakers, David Lynch is merely a man who exists in a world where structure largely dictates art. It is no wonder then that even when Lynch attempts to take apart narrative formula, as he so often does, a conversational difference occurs that relies on the very structure of that which he is dismantling in order to make his apparent chaos meaningful, or oxymoronically, understandably misunderstood. For example, another cinematic work featuring a rabbit as a primary player that also explores a similar concept is Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult masterpiece Donnie Darko, when the titular hero states that destruction is ironically a form of creation in reference to Graham Greene’s The Destructors. X is the antithesis of Y, but knowledge of Y is required for the perception of X. In order for one to understand why Rabbits (X) is a surrealist work that challenges the conventions of sitcoms (Y), recognition of its place in the hermeneutic circle of sitcoms is required.
Although there is high praise owed to the set-design, lighting, and striking soundscape, I will only use these technical aspects of the work to compliment the narrative structure. That being said, Rabbits opens to a darkly imagined living room that is reminiscent of a 1950s apartment in New York (such as preeminent sitcom I Love Lucy). The lighting is focused on creating shadows rather than revealing characters and is accompanied by a dense, penetrating soundtrack. The tone is not set for humor. Two female rabbits occupy this single space (again, a focus on one room is a common occurrence in sitcoms). One rabbit is in the background ironing (Suzie) while the other (Jane) sits on the couch with a magazine spread across her lap. This continues for a couple minutes until finally a male rabbit, dressed in business attire, enters through the door with cheering from an apparent studio audience. The male rabbit (Jack) stands motionless, waiting for the audience cheering to die down so that action may continue while Suzie and Jane remain as they were before.
This mechanical nature and indirect awareness of the audience is a crucial aspect for sitcoms, sometimes demanding the characters to “ham” to keep from being motionless too long, especially in slapstick oriented sitcoms (see John Ritter in Three’s Company). Jack, the rabbit, however keeps eerily still, doing nothing for the audience but still being loved all the same.
Atmosphere aside, immediately noticeable about Rabbits is the dialogue. The conversations that span over the nine episodes are directly connected in that the narrative seems to have been written and then rearranged. There is actually only one conversation happening. Although the sentences remain complete, their timing and placement are scattered and incoherent. The purposeful nature of this random occurrence of dialogue brings a sense of unity over the work that requires a viewing in its fullness to be understood. One can rearrange the dialogue into its most sensible order in hopes to grasp what is happening, but this is not part of the structure and is to be ignored when considering its form is intentional and should be analyzed as such. For example, there are several recurring images and words found throughout the series of dialogue. This arrangement and repetition however is not terribly relevant within the show, because no matter the order, the audience is entertained and continues to laugh and cheer, even though very little can be gleaned and, as shown with Jack, physical comedy is non-existent.
The laugh track is one of Rabbits’ most direct challenges to the sitcom formula, serving as an almost parody or satire of its interrupting nature. As mentioned in Robert Parker’s How to Interpret Literature, there has been an evolution of sitcom subject matter with the gradual acceptance and comedy of formerly taboo topics, excluding abortion apparently (though South Park has done it in the past). In Rabbits, we as the fourth-wall viewers are unsure why the laugh tracks are occurring, and can acknowledge the humor of the possible satire. It is almost as if Rabbits represents laughter for the sake of laughter (similar to the notions found in the “l’art pour l’art” movement of the 19th century), or more jadedly, the declining brow of successful comedies. However, more directly, Rabbits exists as a sitcom and laugh tracks are indications of humor occurring, not humor itself. They are the signals that let the viewer know humor is happening and that they should be laughing at the narrative, not at the laugh track. Rabbits is taking this on by not only placing laugh tracks in situations that are not inherently funny, but placing laugh tracks in the show at all, as if to say that the audience of a sitcom will laugh regardless of what they are seeing. In this way, Rabbits seems to be a pointed criticism of the comedic integrity of sitcoms in general, specifically those that include laugh tracks.
Three of the episodes are distinct in their nature in that they are soliloquies. The first of the soliloquies is performed by Jane, the second is performed by Jack, and finally Suzie performs the third. Each soliloquy repeats lines from the previous and expands further, creating an emphasized sense of meaning and completion by the end of the third. Although single character soliloquies are uncommon in sitcoms, as monologues are generally more prevalent, some exceptions include Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. For Rabbits, the soliloquies are less about relation to the narrative, and more about the performer. Although the soliloquies are ripe with metaphors and other such devices, they almost disqualify themselves when the performer bows at the end of each and you learn nothing directly pertaining about the narrative of the other six episodes. This first point is especially crucial in Jack’s soliloquy, as he must incorporate much more of a physical aspect in order to eventually solicit cheering approval, even prematurely bowing to silence and continuing on after. Individual sitcom characters, and their actors, are constantly cheered and applauded at, and so competition may naturally arise. For example, in season three of Scrubs, the writers incorporated more physical comedy for the entire cast due to slight jealousy of Zach Braff’s constant slapstick stunts, although it is worth note that Scrubs is neither filmed before a live studio audience nor contains laugh tracks. In Rabbits, the soliloquies are actually about the level of performance demanded of their actors in order to achieve recognition and applause, like slapstick comedy. Jack struggles more than Suzie, who had earlier received a similar reception to that of Christina Applegate’s appearances in Married… with Children when she stops her ironing and approaches the couch, wearing a fairly loose robe.
Although the series is comprised of nine individual episodes, it is difficult to consider each episode to be a stand-alone. Many sitcoms have special two-part episodes with an arch that either takes two episodes to reconcile, or a perhaps have an event and aftermath episode. With Rabbits, since the story is intentionally difficult to follow and requires a full viewing of the series, one is strained to find a story arch or resolution of story in any individual episode. Sitcoms are almost always inherently linear in their chronology (I cannot think of one off the cuff that is not), but because Rabbits’ dialogue is so jumbled, we cannot know for certain if each episode is coming directly after the next. This is another challenge of form that Rabbits is making towards standard sitcoms. The exclusion of a window in the apartment defeats any attempts to ascertain time of day, and only occasionally are references made to what time it is, always evening. In the first episode, Jane says that “today is Friday” (which receives a laugh from the audience), and is the only reference to what day it is. The first laugh track in the series actually comes from Jack inquiring as to what time it is, even though he is wearing a watch. The blurring of time, which frequently receives a laugh track when mentioned, is making the concept of a chronological structure of sitcoms irrelevant to their purpose; entertainment.
Further on the irrelevance of sitcom structure, Rabbits seems initially to have what sitcoms commonly call for. There is a small group of main characters whom the series revolves around. These characters seem to be well-enough off to be comfortably living in a city (although occasionally programs such as Malcolm in the Middle have challenged the generally bourgeois setting of sitcoms). These characters are supported by a studio audience/laugh track (which has admittedly declined in frequency of use in post-millennial sitcoms). The world in which the characters inhabit is not necessarily unique, but the ways in which they interact and exist are. We do not know the age or even relationship of the characters, nor do we know their professions or any back story. They exist as blank slates of the sitcom setup, like so many character archetypes in the pilot episodes of other sitcoms, the difference being that Rabbits takes this blank potential and merely exemplifies and celebrates its superficial state. But still, we are expected to laugh and cheer even though we know next to nothing about these characters, simply because that is what you do when watching a sitcom.
We finally arrive to probably the most troublesome and nightmarish portion of Rabbits when viewed from a structuralist or essentially any lens: the story. There is a recurring sense of mystery that is sparked in the opening line of the series, uttered by Jane to Jack. She says, “I am going to find out one day.” This sets up a story arch that should be resolved if not by the end of the episode, then at least the season (or in this case, the series). There is further mention of a secret that Jack has as the episodes progress, but because of the ordering of dialogue, this secret is either never expressed, expressed in an unexpected time, or simply is not real. The answer is irrelevant because the resolution of the final episode is that of many other sitcoms: the family/cast comes together. Specifically, Rabbits has an ending similar to many The Cosby Show endings by cuddling on the couch. Although we still know nothing about the secret, phone call, man in the green suit, or much about the characters themselves, the unity of the characters on the couch signifies that everything is wrapped up as it should be, regardless of the (irrelevant) story itself.
Rabbits is a sitcom. It is not merely parody or satire; it exists as perhaps the most bizarre and arguably literal sitcom imaginable, though still an opposing force that challenges and defamiliarizes basic concepts. The bare-bone necessities are present, and are presented appropriately, but in our minds we acknowledge that there is something distinct about it from familiar sitcoms, yet we are still able to recognize it as such, a sitcom. Many sitcoms balance tragedy with comedy, but there is no apparent tragedy in Rabbits other than, however abstract, the nature of formulaic sitcoms. Still others are considered to be “black comedies” that often tackle difficult subject matter, such as M*A*S*H, but the only real darkness to Rabbits is found in its technical mood and tone. Otherwise, there are characters who are involved in something that is supposed to be comical though there is no real resolution or explanation of narrative. Their lives are familiar, but their reactions are foreign. It could be that the jumbled dialogue is detracting from humor simply because viewers cannot relate to the story, but that also could be a matter of taste. Rabbits is simultaneously in alignment with situation comedies in its essence while also serving as a destructive criticism that, when the dust of defamiliarization clears, is still a sitcom.
To say that Rabbits is a show about nothing would not only be unoriginal, but also somewhat insulting. As surrealism, Rabbits is forcing the viewer to place something abnormal into the normality of “the real.” It is doing this by taking the motifs of sitcoms and stretching them as far into the unfamiliar as it possibly can while remaining recognizable to even the most casual sitcom viewer. Rabbits is a minimalist approach to the subject of its critique by embodying sitcom elements and, instead of fulfilling them, simply leaves them to exist in a purgatory-like state of underdevelopment. Rabbits offers insight into sitcoms while attempting to distance itself as much as possible, but is still playing by sitcom’s rules. The ending, much like the beginning, is similar to many sitcoms, with laugh tracks and applause bridging the entrance of Jack to the resolution of the joined cast. The only thing Rabbits is missing from common sitcom cannon is a catchy theme song, but at least it has a great title screen.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’ve seen only a few episodes of “Rabbits” and I must say that it is one of the scariest, most disturbing, and terrifying things I’ve ever seen. Lynch is a brillant, brillant man.
My friend told me about this series and was so excited about it. I watched it and I’m not too impressed.
Oh you poor, ignorant and arrogant fool…
You’re a really sad Individual, for calling someone you’ve never met in your entire Life “Poor, Ignorant and Arrogant”, because this Series of Episodes weren’t His/Her Cup of Tea. You must be really out of your Mind.
Youre a really sad individual, for calling someone youve never met in your entire life “really out of your Mind” because he didnt like someones comment. you must be a poor, ignorant and arrogant fool…
You’re really a poor, ignorant and arrogant fool for calling someone you’ve never met before… wait, I see where this is going, and I don’t like it!
I have yet to see Rabbits, but eagerly/dreadfully want to. I have seen Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and was left with the vague feeling that I had experienced something profound, but couldn’t vocalize it for others’ benefit (It’s just strange, like a dream). I don’t know if they really matche the description of a dream, but the few folks who I talked to that have seen any Lynchbits seem to agree that it “FEELS” during and afterward that a dream was experienced.
Also saw Dune, and for 89% judge it personally better than the TV mini-series. It wasn’t all that strange as far as sci-fi goes, but the music running over the credits at the end by Toto, I believe, leaves me feeling haunted in a good way. Don’t know if anyone else gets that from it, but I haven’t found that soundtrack anywhere, and would like to find it.
David Lynch films do have a very dream-like quality to them, which is part of his “Lynchian Surrealism.” I think also, as an enthusiastic fan of the novel, “Dune” is just an underrated film in general. I mean, sure, it isn’t great and a bit of a blemish compared to his body of work, but as an adaptation, it was about as faithful as the constraints of film would allow.
“Blue Velvet,” though, is probably my favorite of his films, when all is said and done, and completely understand your dreamy feeling regarding it (and “Eraserhead”). “Rabbits” was on YouTube last time I checked, and there’s a continuation of it explored in his last film, “Inland Empire.” Like all of his work, there’s an incredibly dense and tangible atmosphere in “Rabbits” that is very enjoyable (if unnerving).
It’s on youtube. Look up “David Lynch- Rabbits”. Look for the video with “legenda em portugues”. It’s still in English, but it’s better than the other videos because that specific one doesn’t have the dialogue muted.
This reminds me a little, on a far more uncomfortable level, of shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies. Anthropomorphic creatures existing in a surreal space, simply interacting with one another without any real purpose. The episodes never necessarily flow together, continuity is completely thrown out the window, and there have been at times allusions to laugh tracks and breaks in the fourth wall when it serves no purpose.
Also, Naomi Watts playing Suzie? Didn’t see that coming
I just watched Inland Empire the other day, where the Rabbits sitcom plays a symbolic role for the esoteric emptiness of Hollywood, so it was really interesting to read this . . . how Rabbits is a clever and disturbing commentary on the psychology of sitcoms (I like how you wove in the different examples of I Love Lucy, etc.) It’s weird because, as you pointed out, there really is a “semiotics” of any sitcom that allows us to recognize it as such, even when the story focuses on a group of rabbits. And, as you also pointed out, we have a conditioned response to sitcoms- as long as there are certain cues and a predictable structure, their underlying absurdity is concealed. That’s what causes the Lost Girl to panic in Inland Empire- the dawning realization that we are controlled and manipulated by these structures whose meaning we fail to actually penetrate- namely because there is no meaning. (Lynch is all about torturing the viewer with surfaces.) The Rabbits are stand-ins for sitcom cutouts (aka “the sacrifice”) but they are also the people who control Hollywood (aka the “trickster” figures), and I think Lynch meant for them to possess this disturbing duality. By the way, I really liked your description of Lynch “leaving the sitcom in a purgatory state of underdevelopment.” That is really well said.
David Lynch is an artist-his films are art, and for mainstream non-artistic thinkers who misconcept what he does that is inevitable-they only see it as a film, a movie.
I see his films as art, more specifically the film version of surrealism. David Lynch doesn’t make films in order to excite us with action or comedy (although plenty of both can be found in plenty of his works). He makes films to reveal truths within both dreams and the subconsciousness. He is a surrealist in the form of a film maker.
Rabbits is complete trash. At it’s best it is really bad student film. It is pretentious- weird for weird’s sake (and I RARELY say that about Lynch- my favorite director)- and isn’t creepy or interesting in the least. To sum the entire thing up- a family of sorts in bunny costumes do mundane things around a house- they talk to each other out of sequence so that questions and answers do not link up- there is a laugh track which only makes the whole thing more a lame attempt at surrealism- and each rabbit has his or her own soliloquy of sorts- really bad singing or lousy poetry which is supposed to make you think there is some huge mystery taking place. Aside from that there are lame special effects like a giant flaming match head which appears during the soliloquys and some mumbling floating face that appears when one of the rabbits walks forward with two flashlights. There is only one brief change of camera shot- and that is of a telephone that is ringing- something that is meant to be ultra creepy happens at the end when a the door opens by itself and a scream is heard along with flashing lights- the soundtrack is made up of odd atmospheric noises like rain and shuffling sounds… believe me- it may sound cool- it may sound interesting- actually I know it does because I bought it thinking the same- but it is altogether ten times more grueling to watch than “The Amputee” on the short films disc… If you’re a collector like myself then hunt it down- but if you have all the Lynch films and are looking for something extra then hunt down The Industrial Symphony Number 1 bootleg DVD on EBay- Lynch’s live performance piece with Angelo Badalamenti (probably spelled that wrong) which is brilliant, beautiful, breathtaking and astonishing… Also get the Short Films disc which is amazing except for The Amputee… Sorry David- but Rabbits is awful.
The Amputee is BRILLIANT. ONe off the most genuinely disturbing things I’ve ever seen. And for simiar reasons to this.
I’ve watched just a few minutes and it seemed like Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” (a guy and two chicks in hell) re-written by Samuel Beckett.
There are structural similarities to NO EXIT, but the characters in NO EXIT were Hell to eachother. They were trapped, they couldnt stand eachother, and that was the point. In RABBITS the characters seemingly can come and go at will, and seem to be a family. They are not antagonistic to eachother. They seem to be united in a way against something else.
This sounds like a sit-com written by Samuel Beckett. That said, I ended up watching the show on Youtube off of the strength of this article. Very well done. The desolation of the soundtrack and the audio mixing quality are quite unnerving to say the least, but its nothing if not compelling. I will say your conclusion seems a bit hasty as you deride satire as a lesser form of media. This is satire through and through. A genuine deconstruction of the situation comedy.
Interesting you’d bring up old Sammy B…he took to writing about “nothing” after Joyce wrote about “everything,” and never looked back. It’s weird and maybe even jarring that we know Seinfeld as the “show about nothing,” and that that show, which we know as a “traditional” sitcom, has such deep roots in Beckett, whereas I’m not sure how Lynch fits in. Is Rabbits about nothing? I haven’t seen it, but maybe it does something similar to what 12 Oz Mouse does, deconstructing the genre very literally and with a genuine straight face.
This comment makes my very heart smile.
First thing that came to mind was Eraserhead. Very atmospheric. I especially like the sound of the train horn in the background. The room felt spooky with the lighting. I was waiting for the camera shot to change to a close-up of one of the Rabbits, but it never happened. I reckon I would’ve been scared if it did.
It seems like a parody of some 50’s American sitcom. With the audience laughing at inappropiate moments. The dialogue has been cut up and placed in a random order. I wonder if you wrote down everything that each character spoke and rearranged it you could make a proper conversation out of it?
What made me laugh was when every time the male Rabbit came through the door the audience would applaud, and the way he would walk over to the sofa in the same manner.
The bit I didn’t enjoy was when there was only one rabbit in the room, and the matchstick lights up above. A bit boring those episodes as they were too silly.
All in all, enjoyable, in a strange way. I wonder if anybody has asked Lynch what the hell this is supposed to be about?
I am a huge fan of Lynch. Not because he is “weird” or “insane”. As true as that may be to some, I love Lynch for the fact that he makes what HE wants and doesn’t cater to pop culture. Sometimes I am stunned by his visions. Rabbits is one of those times.
I thought it was terrifying, transfixing, and brilliant. I admire someone with such a strong creative drive.
I think ‘Rabbits’, whilst viewed as its own thing, should be viewed as an integral part of ‘Inland Empire’ (really the peak on the ‘WTF’ scale). I have only seen it once, but it would be interesting to know what they have got to do with the ‘story’ of ‘Inland Empire’.
Still, I love this article and how you have read into what is a really great surreal group of episodes. Gotta love Lynch.
I haven’t watched Rabbits yet, but I plan to. David Lynch is one of my favorite artists, because he truly creates straight out his mind – without trying to cater to any certain box or cultural expectation. Some of his stuff is admittedly very strange and can’t have any rational explanation, at least I seem to think so! But excellent read!
Rabbits scared me more than anything else ever has, and had me sleeping with the lights on for about a month. I love it.
Or…it could be a joke played by David Lynch. People need to resolve ambiguity, so they imprint meaning, motive, and purpose onto situations that actually have none of these things. Perhaps the only “intent” here is to make the show mysterious and tantalizing enough that it engenders people to build their own ideas and justifications and interpretations to give order to something that is otherwise devoid of substance.
The emperor is naked, but he’s really just an exhibitionist with good intentions.
Though you say it doesn’t matter, I would love to see your reconstruction of the entire script. Whether such a thing one could be reasonably produced (and, presumably, independently re-produced by others), I think would be very telling. Because I’m not so sure it could be.
I thoroughly enjoy much of Lynch’s work, with a few exceptions. I always get a kick out of people trying to interpret his work or intentions, and how different people can see one particular piece in entirely different ways. I haven’t had a chance to watch Rabbits in its entirety, but i have enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. To the writer of the original piece, you mention something to the effect that there are no sitcoms that are chronologically un-linear, however I believe Arrested Development is, at least partially, just that. And if that’s the case, I’m willing to bet some other sitcoms have already ripped it off as well.
You is dumb, Rabbits is dumb, Lynch is dumb, Lynchians is dumb, everything is dumb. – John Joseph Bair
For me, the sense of uncertainty – what on earth is going on? – is part of what Lynch is trying to convey. As human beings we try to make sense of things, and it’s disturbing for us when we can’t….
…so we use our imaginations to fill in the gaps – and in doing this perhaps project our own fears and insecurities into the film. We’re not just passive viewers, but stirring up our own imaginations and creativity as we watch.
Excellent review & opinion. Thank you.
Now it’s dark…
Lynch’s other sitcom On The Air had a funny ironic ’50s theme song.
real talk….. not as good as die hard 2.0
Lynch may have stumbled onto this idea from Alain Resnais.
He was most definitely influenced by Kenneth Anger in his use of irony and surrealism.
This review was not helpful at all to me. The review had the pretense of being intellectual/academic when really all it did was scratch the surface. What I really wanted to know is why Satanic devil voices were appearing to the rabbits and perhaps what the voices came to say/portray.
How is it that a review of “Rabbits” not even mention the Satanic devil voices!!?? It ignores them like they are not even there!
Worse yet what if they are not really there? That means I’m crazy! JK, they are there and the reviewer ignored them!
Very good analysis. Illuminating, and mostly confirmmed what I perceived as I watched the show.
43 minutes of precious time better spent doing anything other than watching and listening to the word salad that is, “Rabbits.”
Story Arc, not Arch. Good piece, though.
There’s a simple layer to it as well that the reviewer missed. They are like lab rats. Everytime the Father comes home the “audience” cheers because he’s still alive. When you dig too deep for every meaning you miss the obvious things that Lynch likes to throw in his work. For the record, Mulholland Dr is Lynch’s ultimate masterpiece. Its certainly his most beautiful/heartbreaking/haunting piece of work.