The Cult of `Twin Peaks'
It's hip to watch David Lynch's eerily funny "Twin Peaks." It may not top the ratings ("Cheers" is the competition), but the mystery-soap lures a bevy of fans who can't get enough of the dark saga of FBI agent Cooper, the dead homecoming queen Laura Palmer and the dancing midget.
In the grip of "Twin Peaks" mania, even die-hard fans aren't quite sure what's going on.
Have you noticed, down at the job, that the coffee-wagon conversation has gotten a little campy of late? "Damn fine cuppa joe," a coworker will say, smacking his lips-while someone else stares at the doughnuts and sighs, "A policeman's dream." Then there are those constant water-cooler questions: "Are you watching it?" and "Who do you think killed her?" Anyone who needs to be told that those pronouns refer to ABC's "Twin Peaks" and homecoming queen Laura Palmer is, by the standards of midspring 1990, hopelessly uncool-a cheese-headed "Cheers" watcher still enraptured by the rhythms and rules of conventional TV. "Twin Peaks" fever is sweeping the land, and Americans are leaving dinner parties, cutting nightschool classes and lying to their lovers just so they can sneak off and watch this eerily funny, and sometimes sweetly somber, story. Laura's death draws out the ugly truth about the cheatin' hearts and gentle people from the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks. And what a change this is: being hip is usually hard, especially when it involves staying up late and wearing leather garments. But thanks to "Twin Peaks," trendiness is as simple as turning on the TV each Thursday evening-and then, at work the next day, pretending you understood what the hell was going on.
Filmmaker David Lynch, the cocreator of the show, built a cult following with such movies as "Eraserhead" and `Blue Velvet"-but what's driving many people to watch "Twin Peaks" is a virulent strain of adult peer pressure. "Everyone at parties is talking about it," says George Stephanopoulos, 29, a staff assistant to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. "It's gauche to walk away with nothing to say." Carmen Kroel, a San Francisco editor, agrees: "It's only a TV show, but you feel like a cultural idiot if you can't quote it on Fridays." It's not that "Twin Peaks" is another "Roots" in terms of ratings; it routinely gets beat by NBC's perennial hit "Cheers." But once people begin watching, addiction usually follows. Then, madness.
Chris Ervin, 39, a General Motors speechwriter from Detroit, picks up a Canadian signal on a roof antenna so she can see each episode a day early. Movie director Penny Marshall has women friends over each week to cook dinner and, says actress Susan Forristal, revel in what is "beautiful and moody and everything that American television isn't." New York artist Mel Odom, who also has a weekly "Twin Peaks" party, reports that his guests "scream and run around the room during com commercials because the show can build up emotion, tension and angst. "Oleg Egorov, a Russian emigre living in New York, can relate to that. Says Egorov: "I missed the first episode, which I regret absolutely."
Hey, Oleg, lighten up. Bootleg tapes of the first four "Twin Peaks" episodes are selling for about $20 each. Besides, you did see the much-discussed third episode, the one with the dream sequence featuring a creepy dancing midget and the dead Ms. Palmer whispering seductively in FBI agent Dale Cooper's ear. It is worth noting that many people are leading productive lives without having any knowledge of "Big" Ed's Gas Farm, the Log lady or Sheriff Harry S. Truman's affair with Josie Packard, the Chinese sawmill owner he's described as "one of the most beautiful women in the state." The show, which started out with a 21.7 rating and a 33 share when it was broadcast as a two-hour, Sunday-night movie, had settled down to an 11.3 rating with an 18 share by last week.
ABC claims it isn't overly concerned with that statistical dip just yet. The network's research indicates that it's the over 50 audience, much less coveted by advertisers, that's abandoning "Twin Peaks" as the hunt for Laura's killer grows weirder and the huge crowd of characters spend more time eating pie, drinking coffee and having psychic visions. The core group of 18- to 49 year-olds remains; indeed, thanks to people like 37-year-old Doug Marshall-a member of a Chicago group that ritualistically repeats key script lines such as "There's a fish in the percolator"-the show is doing as well in its time slot as any ABC show in four years. "There's a combination of surprise and great pleasure that the show is as successful as it is," says Robert A. Iger, president of ABC Entertainment. Iger should be a hero to "Peaks" fans; he fought for the show when other executives pointed out (not incorrectly) that Lynch moved his story at a glacial pace, tangled tragedy with comedy-and relied on "stars" who hadn't been heard from since "West Side Story" (Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn).
Red herrings: Even as he takes TV down a road less traveled, Lynch has gotten caught up in the ratings game. "I never thought I'd be watching numbers like I am," he says, "but I love the cast, I love the place of Twin Peaks and the coffee and doughnuts. I don't want to say goodbye to them, so I'm sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see what will happen." He is, of course, speaking in terms of the show's next season, about which no decision will be made for several weeks. Most people, however, are more concerned with the next four episodes of "Twin Peaks." Which information that we've seen so far is pertinent to the mystery at hand? Perhaps none; it could be that Lynch-and cocreator Mark Frost-have tossed nothing but red herrings into our poor little percolators from day one. (True fans may want to avert their eyes from what follows, but in a two-hour version of "Twin Peaks," marketed in Europe as a home video, a long-haired man named Robert proves to be the murderer. The American version may have a different solution.)
Those who don't want to guess what will happen are trying to guess what has happened-a topic on which there is no consensus, even among diehard fans. Lynch already has introduced a Russian novel's worth of characters, any one of whom the average "Dallas" or "Knots Landing" fan would find mind-boggling. Consider the late Laura, who tutored a retarded teen, helped with Meals on Wheels and seems to have been a cocaine dealer. And what are we to make of FBI agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), so sensitive that he can practically read minds and yet dull enough to believe that Twin Peaks is an idyllic place, full of honest people and Douglas firs? Perhaps the show's appeal lies in its unprecedented similarity to real life. Think about it: what else but life is as absurd as "Twin Peaks"? And where else but in real life can you get such good cherry pie?
CHARLES LEERHSEN with LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles and bureau reports
Copyright 1990 Newsweek
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