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Decoding the Hypothetical Viewers of “Twin Peaks”

            “Twin Peaks has been off the air for years – why don’t you guys get a life?” is a common cynical question posed to the still intact alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. To those who revere the now defunct TV show from 1990, the answer to that question is a simple one: “Those of us still addicted to the show revel in studying the subtleties of plot, mood, and meaning that become apparent with repeated viewing.  Like all great TV ("The Prisoner", "Star Trek", "The Singing Detective") and all great art, ‘Twin Peaks” holds up to more-than-casual study and provides fodder for endless contemplation and discussion. [1] . These addicts represent just one hypothetical viewer of the show, and a small one, if the Nielsen ratings for the show are carefully studied. Like many shows that have been canonized as “quality” (“Star Trek” before “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” after), there exist many hypothetical viewers who have differing opinions on how they would like to see each episode pan out. In the case of “Twin Peaks”, these hypothetical viewers abandoned the show for a variety of incidental reasons (as I will soon explain) but also for one general reason: “Twin Peaks” defied conventional standards of television and refused to pin down one theme. The theme was left to the viewer to determine and the producers of the show made no guarantees that the theme that the viewership picked would ever be come to fruition. “Twin Peaks” was offering several meanings and significances for every character’s action and the general TV audience did not wish “to see beyond the literal” [2] . Ratings slipped, viewers abandoned the show shortly after ABC switched its time slot to the deadly Saturday night, and only the dedicated fans of “Twin Peaks” remained. When the show still had a large viewership (the seven episodes that are considered the first season), the hypothetical viewer’s makeup represented a mis-mash of ages, genre preferences, and careers.

            “Twin Peaks” debuted on April 8th, 1990 in a cloud of media praise and ABC hype. In an article that coincided with the pilot’s debut, Terrence Rafferty remarked, “[David Lynch] is everything that American television isn’t: adventurous, disturbing, erotic, visually exciting, and absolutely personal” [3] . Television had adopted its first auteur, someone who would imprint his personal style on a medium known for its banality. As for the actual pilot itself, Rafferty raved, “It’s miraculously good. Twin Peaks does a sensational job of storytelling. It has extraordinary momentum – you can’t wait for the next episode” [4] . Unknowingly, Rafferty was planting the first seeds of what would be seen as cultural phenomenon: there became, in the coming months, a “virulent strain of adult peer pressure” in which anyone not quoting “Twin Peaks” come Friday morning at the water cooler felt “like a cultural idiot” [5] . Rafferty and other created the first breed of what NBC hails now as “Must See TV”.

            The initial viewership was staggering. Its Sunday debut pulled in a 21.7 rating and a 33 percent share of Sunday primetime viewership. It became the 5th ranked show of the entire week, and ABC programming chief Robert Iger was being hailed as a genius for his fight to see “Twin Peaks” get airtime. ABC promised the next episode (which will be referred to as episode one) in four days, a Thursday date with the seasonal favorite, NBC’s “Cheers”. ABC also capitalized on early feedback from the show and starting selling the show mainly with the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” storyline. ABC did not realize at the time the consequences this would produce, as audiences expected an expatiated resolution to the case based on ABC’s method of promotion.

            Meanwhile, the toll on viewership was immediately seen that Thursday. Viewership dropped, producing an 11.3 rating and an 18 percent share of Thursday night. The show had already suffered its first loss of viewers: those who were not willing to part with a new episode of “Cheers” over the wacky auteurist television of David Lynch and ABC. If the “Cheers” viewers were also catching “Twin Peaks”, they were certainly taping “Peaks” and watching “Cheers” live, which would continue to hinder “Peaks’” attempt to pull in viewership.

            On May 23rd, the first season of “Twin Peaks” came to a close with a cliffhanger that left its viewers wondering who shot Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Viewership had evened out at about an 18 percent share, but the show had lost the “over 50” age category entirely. Their reasoning was simple: too many characters and subplots. “Twin Peaks” regularly engaged fifteen to twenty characters an episode and keeping track of their connectedness became frustrating for the older crowd. On “Cheers”, they only had to remember the name of five or six regulars, and none of the plot elements of “Cheers” were nearly as intricate as “Twin Peaks” was. The many faceted characters became a double-edged sword for “Twin Peaks”. Those who had listened to Rafferty were confused: should they praise this show for its “multi-character, multi-plot continuing narrative” even if they were becoming increasingly annoyed? [6] . Viewers who had tuned into the pilot and were attracted by the detective story of uncovering “Who Killed Laura Palmer” started tuning out around episode 3, when a dream sequence of Cooper’s shows him conversing with a dancing midget in a strange red room. Those viewers were used to the conventional types of television, including shorter story arcs. Those thinking that Laura Palmer’s killer would be revealed within the first couple of shows were not willing to wait until its eventual revelation in episode 14.

            The summer turned into a knife in the aorta of “Twin Peaks”. After three months of summer reruns, interest in finding on Laura Palmer’s killer had diminished. ABC decided to help “Twin Peaks” into its grave by moving its time slot from Thursday against “Cheers” to the graveyard Saturday night slot. Saturday was a terrible night because “VCRs gave those people not inclined to weekend nightlife the option of staying home and hiring a copy of their favorite film. Saturdays became in the 1980s the least-watched night of network television; and, as night follows day, the least-watchable” [7] . In simpler terms, David Lynch stated the same thing: “Partying is very important to a great deal of people” [8] . ABC stated that “Twin Peaks” still retained 18 to 49-year-olds as its highest viewership, but that also exposed the problem of moving it to Saturdays. The college viewer was now going to drop out unless he was an extremely dedicated watcher, and the twenty-somethings were frequently the bars or the video stores on Saturday instead of tuning into “Twin Peaks”. The new question became, “Does anyone still care who killed Laura Palmer?” [9] .

            The show’s revelation of Leeland Palmer (Ray Wise) as the killer under the influence of BOB (Frank Silva) on November 10th played to low audiences (its rank in the Nielsens was 44 for the week, which actually marked an slight one week improvement for the series’ rating). The darling show of programming chief Robert Iger had lost two million viewers, it was ranked at 75 out of 101 shows for the season, and it was the third lowest rated show that ABC owned. Viewers had not tuned in long enough to solve the central riddle of the pilot it seems.

            After episode 23, in which the Windom Earle mini-arc seemed to be the central thrust to the “Twin Peaks” narrative, ABC decided to put “Twin Peaks” on hiatus as they determined whether or not they could endure another ratings freefall like episode 23 had endured (it placed 85 out of 89 for the week). ABC felt they were doing the right thing, pulling a show no one it seemed cared about.

            The response between the February 15th announcement of hiatus to the airing of episode 24 on March 28th was overwhelming. Spurned on by the mantra of David Lynch, “we’re in trouble, and we need help”, a massive letter writing campaign ensued. At the forefront were two organizations. The first was the “Viewers For Quality Television”, who had saved cult favorites “Laverne and Shirley” and “Designing Women”. The second was a new organization that spoke volumes about the dedicated nature of the “Twin Peaks” fan base that had been established: COOP. COOP, or Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks, saw its membership “swell to 5000 in seven cities” [10] . Iger, now the archenemy for pulling the plug on “Peaks”, received 10,000 items from fans urging him to reconsider, all pertinent to the show’s narrative and proving that people were still watching [11] . In response, Iger promised the return of “Twin Peaks” on its Thursday slot for the dedicated fans still watching. As a side note, he implored all the letter writers to “please tell a friend” [12] .

            The return to Thursday did not return “Peaks” to its once staggering 18 percent share. “Cheers” again clubbed “Peaks” in the ratings and those who had conveniently tuned in on Thursdays before now found themselves having missed too many of the Sunday episodes to ever “catch up”. Amid characteristically low ratings, ABC decided to combine episode 28 and 29 and end the show with a two-hour finale on June 10th, 1991 so they did not have to endure another week of slumping ratings. As Robert Goldberg stated, “When the "Twin Peaks" finale aired to anemic ratings, it was taken by the

networks as proof positive that there is no audience for experimental television” [13] .  “Twin Peaks” had closed with storylines, especially those involving BOB’s new residence inside of Cooper, unresolved. The show had been kicked off the air for abysmal ratings.

            Where did the hypothetical viewer of the pilot go? The theories are endless but some are more grounded then others [14] . Series co-creator Mark Frost had a theory that represented the first problem with the show: its media overkill. “I think a lot of things contributed to the show’s short life span. Among them was the tremendous hype that surrounded ‘Peaks’ when it first came on, because that can raise expectations to extraordinary degrees, and it probably robs anything of its ability to survive over the long term” [15] . People seemed to be watching “Twin Peaks because ‘everyone’ was talking about it and they wanted to be ‘in’. These viewers abandoned it as soon as it lost its cachet, because they didn’t find it inherently interesting” [16] . These fringe viewers are lost to a majority of television shows, but in the case of “Twin Peaks” the buzz by ABC had created a large majority of these fringe viewers.

            After the fringe viewers left, the viewers who were looking for ABC’s promised resolution of the killer of Laura Palmer started tuning out. Those hypothetical viewers were interested in the murder mystery, but usually were not patient enough to wait a whole summer and then some, enduring quirky little subplots and surreal dreams with dancing midgets to find out the killer. ABC had billed the show as being about finding the killer of Laura, and that was really a mistake on their part. The hypothetical viewer who enjoyed mystery and the whodunit aspect left. These whodunit viewers also overlapped with those who were in general annoyed with the lack of self-contained episodes. If this viewer missed just one episode, they felt like they had missed too much to pick up the next week. The lack of self-contained episodes have killed a few other quality television programs, most notably Stephen Bochco’s 1995 show “Murder One”. Overlapping with the viewers who felt oppressed by the lack of self-contained episodes were those viewers who felt too confused by the multiple characters (statistically these fell in the “over 50” category). 

            After the whodunit, short-arc seeking elderly viewership dropped, the core audience who had Saturday night social lives dropped when ABC switched Peaks to Saturday night. It was no long necessary to be “in the know” at work because viewership had dropped off significantly already, so the scheduling changes allowed casual viewers an excuse to not keep up anymore. These viewers usually ranged in the core 18 to 49-year-old category.

            After alienating the casual viewers, the reluctance of David Lynch and Mark Frost to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer frustrated many viewers. Those who were willing to wait the whole summer were not willing to wait a full seven months. Viewers waiting for the killer to be revealed became convinced that Lynch was using them and that he was not going to reveal anyone ever [17] . Those of these viewers who stayed around to find out about Leeland were either angry about the explanation or resolved that this was their excuse not to follow the show anymore. The next major arc, the Windham Earle arc, was not introduced until episode 20, giving disappointed viewers from Laura’s killer six episodes to stop watching.

            Those determined to watch post-Laura were treated with a new strain of “Twin Peaks”: the supernatural. In an era pre-“X-Files”, the supernatural element was not regarded as an acceptable substitute for the supposed “mystery” genre. Viewers started complaining about the supposed “weirdness” of the post-Laura shows and ratings continued to slump.

            The ratings reflected a trend: many hypothetical viewers, attracted to the show for a variety of reasons had siphoned into one hypothetical viewer. The hypothetical viewer who “survived” “Twin Peaks” was a fanatic about the show. The viewer had to: they enjoyed the dark style of David Lynch and company, they liked the storylines crossing episodes, they had endured three different nights of “Twin Peaks” and one hiatus (debuted on a Sunday, existed on Saturday and Thursday), they found the terrestrial/supernatural element engaging, and they had wished to see the character’s fates post-Laura’s killer. These were people who found the texts of “Twin Peaks” not to be just literal, but multi-faceted. They speculated on the general (reading the show as a feminist text that addressed real concerns about sexual abuse and incest; viewing the show as a unique spin on the classic detective conventions established in such films as Chinatown) and the specific (why, for instance, does Sarah Palmer see a white horse in episode 15?). These fanatics were creating “Wrapped in Plastic”, a magazine devoted to closer study of the episodes and also celebration of actors who performed after “Peaks”. They were creating conventions in Washington State every year (their Mecca) and above all, re-watching the episodes to decipher new meanings on old images. The viewer that survived the initial showing of “Twin Peaks” did not have to embody all of these characteristics but they certainly flaunted some of them. For this viewer, “Twin Peaks broadened the possibilities of what television could be” and something that is sorrowfully not present in current television programming [18] . Talking about “Twin Peaks” provides a cathartic feeling to a group of people who feel snubbed that quality television like “Twin Peaks” does not exist (although David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos” says he conceived of the show as “Twin Peaks in Jersey”. Is it any wonder that he is now receiving the same praise from critics that “Peaks” once received?). By reinterpreting their texts, they try to demonstrate that the initial viewership missed the point when they tried to look for one theme or genre. For “Peaks” fanatics, the show must be watched with all genres in mind and with the viewer avoiding falling into the pitfall of categorizing the show as merely about the search for Laura’s killer or for the Black Lodge.

            So was “Twin Peaks” an idea bound to fail on television? That depends on whom you ask. The ratings told one story: that of a initially interesting television show that fizzed from episode seven to maintain decent ratings, who was finally pulled after twenty-two consecutive episodes of abysmal viewership. The change in viewership told another part of the story: “Twin Peaks” was a success as a short term murder mystery, with viewings enjoying certain characters. On the other hard, the general audience saw “weirdness” from Lynch, some new plot elements, and the pacing of the show as troubling. Those who remain fans of the show tell the third part of the story: as a critical text, to be studied multiple times, this show represented the genesis of many successful ideas in which other successful shows stole from. “Twin Peaks” fans definitely give credit to their show for the success of “Northern Exposure”, “Picket Fences”, “X-Files”, and the current critic’s darling, “The Sopranos”. Was “Twin Peaks” a television success then? Well yes…and no.


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“Arbitrary Law” (episode 16). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 1 December 1990.

“The Black Widow” (episode 19). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 12 January 1991.

Carrion, Maria M. "Twin Peaks and the Circular Ruins of Fiction: Figuring (Out) the

Acts of Reading." Literature Film Quarterly Vol. 21, Issue 4 (1993): p240, 8p,

1bw.

“Checkmate” (episode 20). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 19 January 1991.

Colloff, Pamela. "Lynch Mob." Texas Monthly Vol. 27 Issue 6 (Jun99): p98, 4p, 1bw.

“Coma” (episode 9). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 6 October 1990.

“The Condemned Woman” (episode 23). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 16 February

1991.

“Cooper’s Dreams” (episode 5). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 10 May 1990.

“Demons” (episode 13). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 3 November 1990.

“Dispute Between Brothers” (episode 17). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 8 December

1990.

“Double Play” (episode 21). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 2 February 1991.

“Drive With A Dead Girl” (episode 15). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 17 November

1990.

Goldberg, Robert. "TV: Winners That Were Losers." Wall Street Journal (06/24/91): 1pg.

Hammer, J. "From Peaks To Valleys." Newsweek Vol. 116 Issue 21 (11/19/90): p.76, 1p,

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Hastings, Deborah. "Calling All Twin Peaks Fans." Associated Press (02/25/91): 2/3pg.

“Laura’s Secret Diary” (episode 11). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 20 October 1990.

“The Last Evening” (episode 7). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 24 May 1990.

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19 (05/07/90): p.58, 2p, 1chart, 1c.

“Lonely Souls” (episode 14). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 10 November 1990.

“The Man Behind Glass” (episode 10). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 13 October 1990.

“Masked Ball” (episode 18). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 15 December 1990.

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“The One Armed Man” (episode 4). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 3 May 1990.

“On The Wings of Love” (episode 25). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 4 April 1991.

“The Orchid’s Curse” (episode 12). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 27 October

1990.

“Path to the Black Lodge” (episode 27). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 19 April 1991.

Pellman, Jim. http://www.twinpeaks.org/faqgen.htm#g2

Pellman, Jim. http://www.twinpeaks.org/faqgen.htm#g3

Rafferty, Terrence. "One Thing After Another." New Yorker (04/09/90): 3pg.

“Realization Time” (episode 6). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 17 May 1990.

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Roush, Matt. "A Big Push For Peaks." USA Today (03/28/91): D1

"Saturday Night Dead." Entertainment (03/08/91): 2pg.

“Slaves and Masters” (episode 22). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 9 February 1991.

"Sloping Off." Economist Vol. 318 Issue 7696 (03/02/91): p.86, 2/3p, 1bw.

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“Variations on Relations” (episode 26). Twin Peaks. ABC/Worldvision. 11 April 1991.

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[1] Pellman, Jim. http://www.twinpeaks.org/faqgen.htm#g2

[2] Carrion, Maria M. "Twin Peaks and the Circular Ruins of Fiction: Figuring (Out) the Acts of Reading." Literature Film Quarterly Vol. 21, Issue 4 (1993): p240, 8p, 1bw.

[3] Rafferty, Terrence. "One Thing After Another." New Yorker (04/09/90): 3pg.

[4] Ibid, 1.

[5] Leerhsen, C and L. Wright. "Psychic Moms and Cherry Pie." Newsweek Vol. 115 Issue 19 (05/07/90): p.58, 2p, 1chart, 1c.

[6] Rafferty, Terrence. "One Thing After Another." New Yorker (04/09/90): 3pg.

[7] "Sloping Off." Economist Vol. 318 Issue 7696 (03/02/91): p.86, 2/3p, 1bw.

[8] Hastings, Deborah. "Calling All Twin Peaks Fans." Associated Press (02/25/91): 2/3pg.

[9] Hammer, J. "From Peaks To Valleys." Newsweek Vol. 116 Issue 21 (11/19/90): p.76, 1p, 1c. Ironically, this question was posed after the killer had been revealed nine days earlier in episode 14. This suggests the resolution of Leeland Palmer (Ray Wise) as the killer found an apathetic audience.

[10] "Saturday Night Dead." Entertainment (03/08/91): 2pg.

[11] Roush, Matt. "A Big Push For Peaks." USA Today (03/28/91): D1. Among the items Iger received were: letters, banners, logs, and chess pieces. He also received 163 voice mail messages and numerous faxes, which caused his fax machine to shut down.

[12] Ibid, D1.

[13] Goldberg, Robert. "TV: Winners That Were Losers." Wall Street Journal (06/24/91): 1pg.

[14] For instance, Lynch’s blaming of CNN’s 24 hour coverage of the Gulf War as a contributing factor for “Twin Peaks”’s cancellation rings a tad absurd.

[15] "Twin Peaks." UC Irvine Newspaper http://www.twinpeaks.org/archives/articles/910610_future_of_tp (06/10/91): 1.

[16] Pellman, Jim. http://www.twinpeaks.org/faqgen.htm#g3

[17] The viewers were not alone in thinking. Lynch never intended to reveal the murderer and instead let the murder be a “maguffin”, letting the murder expose the town of “Twin Peaks”. Frost explained that Lynch and him had worked out the killer from the beginning, or at least before they told Ray Wise that it was going to be him in a meeting the Monday after the Emmys.

[18] Colloff, Pamela. "Lynch Mob." Texas Monthly Vol. 27 Issue 6 (Jun99): p98, 4p, 1bw.

© Jude Seymour 05.02.01