Twenty years ago this week, dark fantasy series Twin Peaks had become an unexpected hit, garnering 33% of viewers in its timeslot, and was about to air its second episode. Will there ever be another show this popular and weird?
David Lynch, bizarro director of Dune and Blue Velvet, managed to cross over into the mainstream with the two-hour pilot episode of Twin Peaks on ABC. It began with the dead, naked body of Laura Palmer being discovered wrapped in plastic on the beach. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlin) is called in to solve the murder, whose repercussions are felt throughout the tiny town of Twin Peaks - as well as in the spirit world that haunts the woods around it.
The pilot was so popular that it nearly beat out Cheers in its Sunday night time slot. In 1990, Twin Peaks became what Newsweek dubbed a "watercooler show," the thing you had to watch in order to be able to talk to your coworkers on Friday mornings (the show aired Thursday nights). Like Lost, Twin Peaks was renowned for its twisty plots and disturbing scenarios. But the show was always more popular than Lost: after the pilot, the show settled into an 11.3 rating for its first season (compare to Lost's 5.6 ratings among 18 to 49-year-olds for its premiere this season).
These days, it's hard to imagine a mega-hit show about small town sexual murder, corruption, vengeful ghosts, and psychic powers. What did 1990 have that 2010 doesn't? One obvious answer is cable television: These days, a show like Twin Peaks might find a home on HBO or A&E where it would never have a chance to capture the kinds of audiences that ABC commanded in the early 90s. Even at the time, it was hard for the show to maintain its popularity. During the second season, after Laura's murder was solved, ratings took a deadly nosedive.
The fact is that it's incredibly tough for scifi and fantasy to command people's attention the way CSI or American Idol can. American audiences seem to want realism (or pseudo-realism) more than dark dreamscapes. Twin Peaks may always be the only hit show of its kind.
If you want to trip down memory lane, you can pick up a copy of Twin Peaks' blockbuster first season pretty cheaply. (Season two is recommended only for completists.) When you watch, you'll discover that - stylistically, at least - the closest match for Twin Peaks is probably Mad Men. Crossed with, you know, David Lynch.