Anyone who is still stuck on the question of who killed Laura Palmer is hopelessly out of date. There are so many other, newer conundrums in the secret-infested town of Twin Peaks. Like who is the one-armed man and how did he really lose his arm? What was the relationship between Laura and the creepy psychiatrist, Dr. Jacoby? What has Hank Jennings got on Josie Packard?
Most of all, what is ABC going to do with TV's most talked about new show of the season? Will sagging ratings finally bury Laura Palmer? And whatever the immediate fate of David Lynch's eerie soap opera, will TV ever be the same again?
Twin Peaks fever has been hard to ignore, even if you are not a viewer. Fans break appointments and rush home for each Thursday-night episode, then talk about little else at the office water cooler the next morning. Magazines print charts detailing the convoluted relationships among the show's three-dozen-plus characters. Quirky scenes and dialogue have entered TV's collective memory bank, like Lucy's spread of doughnuts for Sheriff Truman and his deputies: "A policeman's dream." At George Washington University, students launched Thursday-night pie-eating rituals: everybody digs in as soon as FBI agent Cooper bites into a slice of cherry or huckleberry. Fans are trading theories about Laura's killer (the Log Lady? the sheriff?), while a European video version of the pilot identifies the killer as a drifter named Robert. Don't be so sure, say the show's creators; in the U.S. the culprit could be different.
The frenzy among Peaks watchers, and media coverage of the show, grew so fast that only the pros noticed the ratings were slipping badly. The two-hour pilot drew a 33% share of the viewing audience and ranked No. 5 for the week. The regular episodes, positioned in the difficult time period opposite Cheers on Thursday nights, have dropped to 18%. Obviously, a large chunk of Middle America has paid its visit to Twin Peaks and decided to move on.
ABC executives are keeping mum on whether the show will return next fall (a decision will be announced next Monday, when the fall schedule is unveiled). But recent signs are hopeful. Ratings for the past two weeks seem to have stabilized, and the show has settled in the middle of the Nielsen pack. Moreover, the audience includes a high proportion of young, upscale viewers, those most desired by advertisers.
So Twin Peaks can be counted a success -- and not just d'estime. The show has proved that original, challenging and idiosyncratic fare can be done for TV, even within rigid network confines, and that people will tune in. Twin Peaks is, in fact, the culmination of a surprisingly fruitful season for offbeat, formula-breaking shows. ABC's Elvis, though a failure in the ratings, deconstructed the rock king's life into fresh, evocative snippets of biodrama. Fox's The Simpsons put an off-kilter, animated spin on TV's portrayal of the family, while Fox's The Outsiders, at least in its early episodes, brought filmic texture and subtlety to a potentially cliched drama of small-town adolescence.
Nothing quite prepared viewers, however, for the mind-altering pilot of Twin Peaks, or the now famous dream sequence that ended the third show. In that bizarre scene, Special Agent Cooper envisioned himself in a room with a Laura Palmer look-alike and an ethereal midget, who made enigmatic comments ("That gum you like is going to come back in style") in weirdly distorted language, then started to dance. The series lost much of its surrealistic intensity after that episode (the only one, besides the pilot, directed by Lynch). But it still has more richness and resonance than any other show on TV. New characters keep entering, old ones reveal greater depths, and Angelo Badalamenti's hypnotic music seems to charge every moment with electricity. Repeat viewings reveal how well thought out the series is. The dream sequence, for example, was explicitly foreshadowed a week earlier in Laura's tape-recorded message to Dr. Jacoby.
That such a "difficult" show could achieve prime-time success is testimony to changing times in network TV. A decade ago, when the networks accounted for 90% of TV viewing, a series needed mass-audience numbers to survive. Today, with the networks attracting less than two-thirds of the audience, an 18% or 19% share is a passing grade. A show of limited appeal like Twin Peaks can make it; the art-house audience has become a marketing niche.
Will Twin Peaks inspire the networks to seek other adventurous fare? It is too soon to tell. A growing number of filmmakers like John Sayles (Shannon's Deal) and Steven Spielberg (Tiny Toon Adventures) are dabbling in TV, and others could join them if the creative climate continues to improve. The 100-plus series being considered by the networks for next fall include several unusual items, among them Steven Bochco's musical police show, Cop Rock. All, of course, were put in motion before Twin Peaks debuted. But the final choices may be influenced by the lesson of Twin Peaks: taking risks can sometimes pay off. Says Peaks co-creator Mark Frost: "Playing safe is a policy that has not worked."
ABC is reaping the benefits of its gamble. Programming chief Robert Iger fought to air the show over the reservations of other top executives. The result has been a public relations bonanza for ABC, which is being widely hailed as TV's most innovative network. "This is not a scheme to try new things on TV," says Iger modestly. "It's just a program that we liked very much. We still like it."
Director Lynch has been happily watching Peaks mania spread while finishing work on his forthcoming feature film, Wild at Heart, which will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival this week. "It's been a real thrill to watch the show," he says. "The commercials are even thrilling. I like to see who's been advertising on it. Like Mitsubishi and McDonald's. Big companies." The otherworldly director of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet is even talking Nielsenspeak like a veteran. "I'll admit that we got a little bit depressed when each week the numbers fell off," he says. "But the show has found its audience now. It looks like it's leveling off and everything's fine."
Lynch and Frost are talking with ABC about how the series will develop if it returns. (One network meeting featured coffee and doughnuts served by Kimmy Robertson, the actress who plays Lucy.) The show will probably be less serialized, says Iger, with episodes more self-contained. Lynch says he wants to remain involved, co-writing and possibly directing some segments if he has time. "I'm torn," he says, "because I want to be able to make features, but I love Twin Peaks."
Just how much ABC loves it will become apparent in the upcoming announcement. Meanwhile, Peaks fans are salivating for the season finale, which will air on Wednesday, May 23. No, don't expect an answer to the "Who killed Laura?" mystery. But the show's creators promise at least seven other cliffhangers to pique interest for the fall. A network programmer's dream.