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‘Twin Peaks’ Original Series in 1990: Oddball, but ‘Brilliant Television’

Variety logo Variety 5/20/2017 Tim Gray
© Provided by Variety

On Sunday, Showtime debuts “Twin Peaks,” a continuation of the 1990 series that is unique in TV history — the show has maintained a fan base after a quarter century, even though there were only 20 episodes, most of them low-rated.

Like the new incarnation, the original “Twin Peaks” was kept in secrecy, but media (and audience) anticipation was high. ABC premiered the two-hour pilot on April 8, 1990, and it was an immediate hit. However, the show quickly faded from view.

Even before it started, Variety predicted it would be a challenge. In a story on Feb. 28, 1990, a few weeks before the debut, Elizabeth Guider wrote that it was much hyped, but “the series represents a ratings risk: It has no big names, no car chases, no glitz, no overt sex or violence. What it does have is an offbeat intelligence at work on a very American kind of story — murder in a small town.”

“Twin Peaks,” developed under the title “Northwest Passage,” was created by filmmaker David Lynch (“Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet”) and Mark Frost, who had served for three years as story editor on “Hill Street Blues.” ABC kept the show under wraps until the last minute, which only fueled the media’s fervor. One TV exec, who had seen all nine hours of the first season (the pilot, plus seven one-hour episodes), told Variety that the upcoming show was basically “Norman Rockwell meets Salvador Dali.”

In an interview with Guider, Frost told Variety that the show had undergone a year-long gestation at ABC development and that the network “put no restrictions on Lynch or the directions the project was taking.”

When it finally debuted, Variety reviewer Amy Dawes hailed it as “brilliant television.” She said the network had spent $3.8 million on the pilot and pointed out that it had fewer commercial breaks than the usual telefilm (11 minutes of ads instead of the usual 14).

The premiere earned a 21.7 rating, 33 share, making it the highest-rated telefilm of the season. But viewer interest lagged, and a Saturday-night time slot didn’t help. By the end of summer, ratings had fallen to 5.8/11. The show featured a traditional storyline, asking who killed Laura Palmer. But the investigation by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean), mixed mystery with deadpan humor, surrealism and dream logic, with unsettling touches like the Log Lady, rampant sexual repression, and psychic visions.

The show received 14 Emmy nominations, but won only two: for Patricia Norris’ costume design and Duwayne Dunham’s editing on the pilot. Despite fading ratings, it was renewed for a second season, which kicked off with a two-hour premiere on Sunday Sept. 30, then the hourly episodes returned to Saturday night.

On Oct. 2, 1990, Variety’s Brian Lowry review of the second-season opener admired the “awe-inspiring oddness of TV’s most talked about show … beyond all the hoopla, this is great television.”

Despite its fast fade, the series proved surprisingly influential. The network’s order for eight episodes, then 12, was unusual, but it was an early acknowledgment of the showrunner-as-auteur theory. Lynch was considered indispensable to the show, then as now.

A few months after “Twin Peaks” launched, CBS offered its own version of an outsider-in-a-small-town, “Northern Exposure.” It was less dark and unsettling — and more successful. But “Twin Peaks” foreshadowed TV’s experiments in rule-breaking storytelling, paving the way for such shows as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Riverdale,” and many others that challenged viewers to ignore TV conventions.

“Twin Peaks” was also ahead of its time in other ways, including color-blind casting. Joan Chen played the mysterious widow who owns the lumber mill; on March 6, 1990, Chen told Variety that Lynch and Frost had written the part for an Italian actress. But after doing a reading for Lynch, she got the part. In 2017, when people are lamenting Hollywood whitewashing, with Caucasians playing roles that were originally Asian, the Lynch-Frost openness is especially notable.

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