By Daniel Cerone
Inside a Studio City sound stage, which had been colorfully outfitted to look like a 1950s network TV studio belonging to the fictional Zoblotnick Broadcasting Corp., a random pattern of absurd activities was taking place.
"I need a weird sound! Can anyone make a weird sound for me?" shouted the director preparing to shoot the next scene. Seconds later a synthesized gurgling erupted from loudspeakers overhead. "Thank you!"
Meanwhile, an actor playing an irate plumber, with the assistance of his irate son, was tubing together a temporary patchwork of bright turquoise pipes on the fake TV studio set, but they were too low, so that all the other characters milling about had bandages on their foreheads from banging into them.
Elsewhere, sitting on a stool in the corner of the studio, a sad, droopy actor dressed up as the Great Presidio, a fading magician, rehearsed his lines: "Aaahh! Is that dog smoking?" he erupted with a horrified expression, pointing to a nearby remote-control dog. "I dreamed of a dog like that. He was wearing a hat and smoking a cigar. He brings . . . transformation."
A few months ago, there was no containing the energy-and oddities-spilling over on the wildly imagined set of "On the Air," a new ABC comedy series from "Twin Peaks" creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. The series takes place in 1957, behind the scenes of a TV variety program, "The Lester Guy Show," and stars Ian Buchanan as a former matinee idol trying to revive his career on television.
But now that "On the Air" has been scheduled to premiere this Saturday night at 9:30, there seems to be no containing the frustration felt by some of the cast members and producers who believe that ABC is dumping the show in a lousy time slot with little promotional support.
"Why don't they just put a bullet in its head?" muttered Miguel Ferrer, a "Twin Peaks" alumnus who plays the tough network boss in "On the Air."
"The support we've gotten from the network-or the lack of support that's perceived on my part-is enormously disappointing," Ferrer explained. "It's perceived that way by everyone on the show. We feel we're buried in the summer with zero promotion, just hung out to dry without being given any kind of a shot."
Ferrer, Lynch and others on the show have heard that ABC executives are not sure mainstream Middle America will warm up to the absurdist humor in "On the Air."
ABC declined to comment, other than to report that the network is promoting the series like any other. "We sent review tapes (to TV critics) across the country and we're airing promotions, which is the same any new series gets," a network spokesman said.
That's not how Lynch sees it. He recalls when ABC was toying with the idea (later abandoned) of airing the bizarre two-hour premiere of "Twin Peaks" with no commercials to make an event of it. In comparison, he feels, ABC is dropping the ball with "On the Air."
"I've heard that summertime is pretty much the worst time you can be on, but we're going on in summer," he said this week. "I've heard that Saturday night is the worst night of the week to be on, and we're going on Saturday night. . . . So I don't know. What can you make of that?"
Lynch doesn't understand what he views as ABC's lack of support for "On the Air," considering that the network was pleased with the pilot episode, which he said tested well with audiences. "They were very, very happy with the show. They ordered six more episodes after they saw the pilot. They had to be happy," he said.
But when the episodes started rolling in, ABC put off scheduling "On the Air" until summer, even though the series was ready to go in the spring.
"It's a little bit disconcerting when you feel that . . ., " Lynch trailed off before starting again. "See, I felt that the network was really with us until very recently. And since I haven't talked to them, I can't say what their thinking is. But I think Saturday night is an indication of how they see the show. But I didn't think they felt that way.
"Those things make me feel pretty bad. When I love the show, and people seem to love the show, what's wrong when we're not given a primo spot? The same thing happened to `Twin Peaks.' It was moved to Saturday night, and that's when we started losing every bit of momentum."
When Lynch and Frost, a former writer on "Hill Street Blues," teamed up on "Twin Peaks" in the spring of 1990, the enigmatic nighttime soap opera was hailed as daring by critics and attracted a modestly sized but trendy, upscale audience who began fantasizing over cherry pie, doughnuts and really good coffee.
But for the second season, ABC moved "Twin Peaks" to Saturday night at 10 to create a new programming block for young audiences. At the same time, the serial story lines on "Twin Peaks" began thickening and the question of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" grew more muddled. All but devout fans departed, and ABC canceled the series at the end of the season.
"We should have been less complicated," suggested Robert Engels, a producer on "Twin Peaks" and co-executive producer of "On the Air." "It felt like we had 4,000 extras at the end of the year. We probably should have been simpler and stayed on the core cast members more."
Perhaps fittingly, Lynch was mixing the sound for a "Twin Peaks" episode during the second struggling season when he came up with the inspiration for "On the Air." "It just came into my head, the idea of people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong," Lynch said.
So the film director who prominently featured a severed ear in "Blue Velvet," an exploded head in "Wild at Heart" and a dead teen-age prom queen in "Twin Peaks" decided to go for some laughs with a show full of slapstick and pratfalls that he calls great family entertainment.
"Because it's a half-hour comedy, this show is more self-contained than `Twin Peaks' and therefore accessible to a wider audience," Ferrer said. "But the dyed-in-the-wool Lynch fans are not going to be disappointed-it's still this crazy world where something went really wrong. . . . I used to describe it as `I Love Lucy' on acid, but that hardly scratches the surface."
When asked if he learned anything from the "Twin Peaks" experience that he applied to "On the Air," Lynch said: "Not really. I think it's dangerous how much time, how much involvement, one needs to have in television for it not to get away. Mark was the one overseeing `Twin Peaks.' He was the one tied to it. I was off making `Wild at Heart.' So yeah, for myself it was a heartache, because something can't be what you want it to be if you're not there all the time.
" `Twin Peaks' could have been a lot of things," said Lynch, who has been more closely involved with "On the Air," directing the pilot, writing several episodes and supervising post-production. "I'm talking about little details, little abstractions. God is in the details."
Lynch, however, disagreed with the notion that "Twin Peaks" was too convoluted. "For a lot of people it didn't get too complex. For me, if someone is following something very closely, it's a joy to have complexities, and to leap out of your seat when you see two pieces of a puzzle jump together finally. And I think we got into that really heavily, and if someone missed an episode they might have felt they were lost."
Even after the series ended, Lynch's involvement with "Twin Peaks" continued. He directed "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," a movie that is a prequel to the TV show, exploring the final chapter of Laura Palmer's life. The film, which is scheduled to open here in August, received decidedly mixed reviews earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, with critics recommending it primarily for "Twin Peaks" groupies only.
"I think that really, finally, `Twin Peaks' was not for everyone," Lynch said. "But it had a very strong following. In television numbers, it wasn't big enough to keep going, but it was still a massive number of people who were digging every detail and understood what was happening."
Now it's left to be seen whether Lynch's comic vision in "On the Air" will be understood by enough viewers to make it a hit. "I don't think the idea of being shocking or strange or offbeat ever occurs to David," Ferrer said. "He just closes his eyes and that's the music he hears, that the rest of us aren't hearing."
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company 1992
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