David Lynch and Mark Frost's early 90s series Twin Peaks certainly qualified as event television during its first season. It's a phenomenon that rarely occurs nowadays; a mass audience gathering around a single show, now that seemingly endless options on cable, audience time-shifting (via dvr, streaming options, etc.), tv on dvd and video-on-demand (VOD) have significantly fractured the way in which we view content, thereby reducing a given show's possibilities for the level of water-cooler potential (keep in mind that even something as critically celebrated as a Mad Men or Breaking Bad is, as far as Nielsen ratings are concerned, more of a cult-hit than a commercial success) that 20th century shows enjoyed.
But back to Twin Peaks; a show that, when it premiered in April of 1990, seemed to possess limitless potential for expanding notions of what television could do but, by the time of its cancellation just over a year later, ended up frustrating the majority of its initial fan base. Plenty has been written about the mishandling of the show by ABC, so I won't waste time or energy detailing how both the creative and marketing teams behind the series failed to fulfill audience expectation.
Far more interesting is the show's continued influence on how television operates as a medium. There's a phrase that's invoked quite often in critical circles to describe the current state of the tv landscape: a new golden age of television. What's usually being referred to here is not the countless permutations of reality shows being hocked by the networks but the popular movement away from episodically-driven series to a more serialized form of scripted content. Shows like The Sopranos and Lost (as well as the aforementioned Mad Men) are regularly cited as high water marks within this revolution in televisual storytelling.
It's difficult to imagine the current climate existing without the groundwork laid by Twin Peaks. The show effectively showed how a series could break out of the self-contained episode trap that plagued much of tv before it. Lynch and Frost also taught creatives like J.J. Abrams/Jeffrey Lieber/Damon Lindelof (Lost), David Chase (The Sopranos) the value of injecting soap opera tropes into prime-time dramatic fare. But, beyond that, Twin Peaks helped usher in the notion that television could strive to be as good (and sometimes better) than cinema. After all, what are the best shows of today other than extended films that just happen to be exhibited via television?
Watching Peaks now it's possible to appreciate the struggle between the creative, the commercial and the audience reception during its short run. Lynch has stated on numerous occasions that he never intended for central mystery of the show ("Who Killed Laura Palmer?") to be resolved; a question for which, quite understandably, the average viewer wanted an answer. Despite never really returning the heights of the initial 10 or so episodes, there are only a few truly awful missteps (this episode is a particularly stinky one) once that struggle was in play.
I'd even argue that the series finale is a brilliant slice of surrealist cinema smuggled into the average joe's living room; I can't personally think of a more subversive hour in broadcast television history (outside of, maybe, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour).
The pilot episode of Twin Peaks will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre tonight (3/7) at 9:30. Beginning next Wednesday (3/14), the Hollywood will screen two episodes on Wednesday nights until "we find out 'who killed Laura Palmer.'" More info available here.
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