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.
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