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The mysterious new ‘Twin Peaks’

  • COURTESY SHOWTIME

    Madchen Amick, left, and Peggy Lipton in a scene from “Twin Peaks.”

NEW YORK >> In the current run-up to the “Twin Peaks” revival, viewers know almost nothing about what to expect. At the same time, they know everything they need to.

There will be no critics’ reviews to tip them off before the series debuts today at 6 p.m. with the first two episodes. Showtime has kept its episodes under wraps. Instead, it has been teasing fans with splashes of hype. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper was known to celebrate “a damn fine cup of coffee,” but what viewers have been privy to before his reappearance wouldn’t add up to a demitasse.

On the other hand, the “Twin Peaks” faithful have a pretty good idea of what’s ahead in the 18 episodes. Agent Cooper (played by returning lead Kyle MacLachlan) will be back in the weird little hamlet of Twin Peaks, Wash., a quarter-century after the original ABC series aired. He will presumably be investigating one or more fresh crimes that stir eerie echoes of a mystery that, way back when, nettled the nation: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Among 217 listed cast members, MacLachlan’s fellow returnees include Madchen Amick, Richard Beymer, David Duchovny, Sherilyn Fenn, David Patrick Kelly, Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, Harry Dean Stanton, Russ Tamblyn, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie. They are joined by such newcomers as Jim Belushi, Michael Cera, Richard Chamberlain, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Vedder and Naomi Watts.

Original architects Mark Frost and David Lynch co-wrote this new series, with Lynch directing, surely guaranteeing that “Twin Peaks” Redux will replicate its predecessor’s Lynchian mix of the macabre, camp and conspicuous obscurity.

The original series eventually — though not nearly soon enough for its viewers — revealed who had killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. But that was never the point. The point was to transport the audience to a “Twin Peaks”-addled state of mind, where those viewers would be constantly challenged, provoked, amused and confounded.

Including TV critics.

“I’ve watched every episode,” declared the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg a month into its run, “and I’m hopelessly behind and confused, but loving it. I think.”

But too many other viewers weren’t so sure. All too soon, legions of them simply gave up. After its explosive launch in April 1990, the series hemorrhaged audience. By June 1991 “Twin Peaks” seemed as lifeless as Laura Palmer. ABC pronounced it dead, leaving only a cult of loyalists to grieve over the corpse.

For anyone now who wants to discover or refresh themselves on what the fuss was all about, those 30 episodes are available for bingeing on Netflix.

But how to fully grasp their impact?

Recall that “Twin Peaks” erupted in a TV realm confined to four broadcast networks and public television. The closest thing to groundbreaking drama was Vietnam War-set “China Beach” and sleek-and-sexy “L.A. Law.” Or you could watch “Full House” and “MacGyver” (some things never change).

No wonder Rosenberg was at least as grateful as he was puzzled: “So much of television is so rigidly mainstream as well as simplistic, transparent and without mystique that you almost snap your neck doing a double take when sighting a series as gratuitously bizarre and magnificently opaque as ‘Twin Peaks,’” he cheered.

No wonder The New York Times’ John J. O’Connor marveled, “Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”

No wonder The Washington Post’s Tom Shales hailed it as “just this side of a godsend.”

No wonder it made such a splash in that shallow pool of TV sameness. What’s truly impressive looking back has nothing to do with what “Twin Peaks” was meant to be about, if anything, but the waves it made as a TV disrupter, waves felt ever since in the swelling ocean of programs.

It’s worth recognizing that the home for “Twin Peaks” was a mainstream broadcast network, where it was deemed to be failing when its audience sank below 11.6 million TV homes. By comparison, only 9.6 million households were tuned to a recent week’s most watched show. That show was “NCIS,” which is just one among nearly 500 scripted series beckoning viewers this year on nearly countless broadcast, cable and streaming channels. That all adds up to an embarrassment of riches some observers have, by chance, dubbed Peak TV.

“Twin Peaks” helped pave the way for the inventive, bizarre and mind-bending pleasures Peak TV is now offering more and more of — shows like “American Gods,” “Sense8” and “Mr. Robot.”

The question before was “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The big questions facing “Twin Peaks” this go-around: Can it hold its own against the stiff competition? Can it clear the ever-higher bar of TV artistry that, a quarter- century ago, it set?

10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT “TWIN PEAKS”

  1. It’s been aptly described as “one of the most talked-about, but least-watched, TV experiments of the early ’90s,” whose “eerie, nonlinear visual and narrative quality left many initially intrigued viewers wondering ‘what’s going on here?’ — just before they changed channels.”

  2. “Twin Peaks” gave the public something to talk about with its 1990-91 ABC run, followed by a 1992 feature film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”

  3. It’s still being talked about a quarter-century later as Showtime launches an 18-episode limited-series follow-up that premieres today at 6 p.m.

  4. The original “Twin Peaks” centered on (and tormented viewers with) the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” after the nude body of the 17-year-old homecoming queen was discovered wrapped in plastic on the bank of a river outside the hamlet of Twin Peaks, Wash.

  5. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper was dispatched to investigate Laura’s killing as well as that of another Washington girl the previous year who seemingly was murdered by the same person.

  6. As with so many things in Twin Peaks, little about Laura was quite what it seemed. Turned out she had been living a double life as the girl next door and a cocaine-addicted prostitute.

  7. Laura’s killer was eventually revealed to be her father, Leland, who had sexually abused her for years while possessed by a malevolent entity named Killer BOB.

  8. In the best tradition of soap operas, Laura had an identical “twin” — in this case, her cousin Madeleine (portrayed, as was Laura, by Sheryl Lee) — who was also murdered by Leland/BOB (Ray Wise).

  9. Twin Peaks, and hence “Twin Peaks,” was populated by numerous bizarre figures, such as the Log Lady (who was never seen without a log cradled in her arms) and Nadine (the shrill, eye-patched wife of gas station owner Ed who had a fixation on living-room drapes), and by campy tropes, such as Agent Cooper’s delight over cherry pie and “damn fine coffee,” and his affliction with weird revelatory dreams about dancing dwarfs and towering giants.

  10. Few details about the new “Twin Peaks” have been disclosed by Showtime, but the return of three key figures assures, for better or worse, more of the same titillating weirdness: co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, and, one among many returning cast members, square-jawed leading man Kyle MacLachlan, back as Agent Cooper.
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