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Prepping for 'Twin Peaks': Why We Watched, Why We Cared and Which Episode, If You Only Have Time for One, to Watch Again
May 8, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

Twin Peaks was the original 13-episode drama.

It might not have seemed apparent at the time — not when the average network season in 1990 ran 24 episodes and Twin Peaks’ second season was itself 22 episodes. Looking back, though, at all its peaks and valleys, this was a story that seemed a better fit for today’s limited-run premium cable dramas than a full-fledged commercial broadcast series.

For all the praise and plaudits — deserved, for the most part — and for all Twin Peaks’ hard-won cult following, it remains one of TV’s great cautionary tales. Once the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder was revealed — the core mystery behind Twin Peaks’ groundbreaking run of eight episodes in April and May of 1990 — it was as if the air had suddenly been let out of a delicately crafted, meticulously designed balloon. Laura’s killer was revealed in the episode “Lonely Souls,” directed by David Lynch (top) himself, half-a-dozen episodes into a second season that would go down in TV annals as a wretched misfire of lost opportunity.

More than 17.2 million viewers watched “Lonely Souls,” an hour of TV as psychologically violent and emotionally wrenching as any that had been seen on a mainstream broadcast network, then or now.

In a deliberate, Hitchcockian twist of storytelling-by-design, Lynch and his writer, Mark Frost, revealed Laura Palmer’s killer to the audience watching at home, but not to the characters in the show.

That would happen two weeks later, in the episode “Arbitrary Law,” when Kyle MacLachlan’s dogged, hard-pressed FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper finally gets his man thanks to a clue found in Laura Palmer’s secret diary. 

As it happened, “Lonely Souls” would be the last time Twin Peaks reached the 17 million viewers mark. The audience drifted away in subsequent weeks, from 13 million (Nov. 17, 1990) to 12 million (Dec. 1), to 11 million (Dec. 8), to 10 million (Jan. 12, 1991), to 9 million (Feb. 2), to 8 million (Feb. 9), to a series-low of 7.4 million (April 18).

More than 10 million viewers — 10.4 million to be exact — watched the two-episode finale, “Miss Twin Peaks” and “Beyond Life and Death,” on June 10, 1991, but by then the die was cast. Twin Peaks would not return.

Until now, that is.

So much has changed with TV between June 1991 and May 2017, not least of which is the numbers game itself. Today, an audience of 10 million would be considered a major hit for Showtime, which doesn’t measure its success in terms of overnight ratings, in any event. Premium cable channels measure their success by their subscriber base, and it’s a safe bet that virtually every Showtime subscriber on the planet will tune in to see the revived Twin Peaks’ early episodes, if only out of curiosity. 

It helps, too, that much of the original cast is being reunited — no pissing about with a Hemsworth brother or a Colin Farrell here — and that Lynch committed to directing every episode, rather than the occasional behind-the-camera cameo for “big” episodes only.

The who, what, when, and where of the new Twin Peaks episodes remain a closely guarded secret for the most part; by all accounts, Lynch’s appearance at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association earlier this year set a new benchmark in how to spin a crowd without actually saying anything. Those famously obtuse weekly previews of Mad Men episodes had nothing on the new Twin Peaks; about the only thing anyone learned from Lynch’s appearance is that, well, the guy is kinda weird, when he wants to be.

The biggest problem facing the new Twin Peaks, of course, is that old bugaboo: a decent story.

‘Who murdered Laura Palmer?’ was a classic trope that goes back well beyond Agatha Christie, all the way to Sophocles and Oedipus Rex — and, for all we know, early humans gathered around the fire in the family cave.

When Twin Peaks closed the book — more or less — on Laura Palmer’s murder, there was another murder, and more kidnappings, and a lot of mumbo jumbo about “the White Lodge” and its dark, don’t-go-there counterpart, “the Black Lodge.”

Twin Peaks ended with the intimation that there are dark unknowns in the sycamore groves surrounding the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest forest town of Twin Peaks, WA — things better left undisturbed in the dark recesses of the subconscious.

That’s a compelling backdrop for a new thriller in the age of Broadchurch and True Detective, but a backdrop is all it is. The key is whether the new core mystery will appeal to viewers the same way the original murder did. One of the many minor miracles of the original Twin Peaks was the way viewers were invested from the start in who killed Laura Palmer, even though they didn’t know who she was. (The uneven, mostly panned movie prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, was little help in that regard.)

By the time Twin Peaks’ post-Palmer mystery devolved into the mindset of mad-dog killer Windom Earle, Agent Cooper’s ex-partner on the job, few cared — even though, as a high-end TV drama, Twin Peaks retained its slick, polished look, haunting music (by longtime David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti) and cinematic feel.

Showtime has been streaming the original episodes for the past few months; the Canadian pay-cable outlet Movie Central, which recently signed an exclusivity deal with Showtime for its entire slate of programming, has been showing the episodes one-at-a-time, weeknights, leading up to the May 21 premiere.

As of this week, Movie Central is heading into the Windom Earle episodes, featuring star directors behind the camera: Todd Holland (“Checkmate”), Uli Edel (“Double Play”), Diane Keaton (“Slaves and Masters”), Lesli Linka Glatter (“The Condemned Woman”), James Foley (“Wounds and Scars”), Stephen Gyllenhaal (“The Path to the Black Lodge”) and, for the two-part finale, Tim Hunter and Lynch himself.

“Lonely Souls” remains Twin Peaks’ most representative episode, with its harrowing revelation, powerful performances — to say more would spoil the surprise for those TVWW readers who’ve yet to catch up with Twin Peaks’ plot turns — and Lynch’s eye for unique imagery, as originally evidenced in his early films Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man.

Still, if you only have to time to revisit one episode that will tell you about what to expect from the new episodes, it may be a better idea to watch “Dispute Between Brothers” instead. That episode, written by Tricia Brock and directed by Tina Rathbone, focuses on Agent Cooper as he leaves town, Laura Palmer’s murder behind him. That sense of what-next/where-do-we-go-from-here takes center-stage: It’s the classic one-door-closes/another-opens episode. It’s a fascinating episode to watch, especially now, full of portent and meaning, mixed messages and the promise of more, and better, to come.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say Twin Peaks never got its mojo back after “Between Brothers,” but we had no way of knowing that at the time.

The new episodes face the same conundrum “Between Brothers” did. The promise is there, and new opportunities seem boundless.

This time, though, Lynch, Frost, MacLachlan and the other writers and performers have had 25 years to restore and replenish their creative energy. The air may find its way back into the balloon yet.

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