'Twin Peaks' rejoins TV era it helped create

Kyle MacLachlan in 'Twin Peaks.' Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

(CNN)In 1990, "Twin Peaks" was clearly ahead of its time. Now the program returns with a new edition on Showtime, rejoining a TV landscape that has caught up with and embraced its quirky charms.

"Twin Peaks" represented a premium-type series on a big broadcast network. It was "the original social media discussion show," as Showtime president David Nevins put it, "before the tools for social media engagement existed."
The eight-episode first season caused an immediate sensation with its "Who killed Laura Palmer?" mystery. In the show's heyday, New York magazine's John Leonard wrote, "Everybody in the continental United States -- including my children, my editors, my enemies -- wanted to know about the dwarf."
The first-season finale, however, failed to resolve the murder plot, irking many fans. Unsure what to do with it, ABC parked the show on Saturday night -- a tough time period for such a program in the days before DVRs or streaming. Ratings faded, and the show was canceled.
In a 1998 interview, Mark Frost, who co-created "Twin Peaks" with avant-garde director David Lynch, suggested there was "a design flaw in the show," whose serialized nature made it difficult for viewers to keep up if they missed an episode or to join the series in progress.
So basically, like practically every prestige short-order drama currently on channels like HBO and FX, as well as services like Netflix and Amazon.
Showtime is hoping to catch lightning again with the new "Twin Peaks," reuniting many old faces while adding a sprawling assortment of new ones. (The cast list on the network's website includes more than 200 names.)
The series premiere is perhaps appropriately shrouded in mystery, other than the fact that Lynch is directing all 18 episodes, which pick up a quarter-century later.
"Twin Peaks" obviously wasn't for everybody. But almost everything about it -- from its surreal storytelling to its niche appeal to the little clues scattered along the way -- has been absorbed and recast in what's known as the "peak TV" (as opposed to "'Peaks' TV") era.
It's possible, even likely, that this "Twin Peaks" revival has waited too long, and that like a lot of movies and TV steeped in nostalgia, the concept won't wear particularly well once the original rush subsides.
What shouldn't be lost, though, is the show's considerable influence. After its cancellation, the idea of "Twin Peaks" preyed on network executives' minds, if only to avoid being suckered in by shows that burned brightly for a short time but lacked the wherewithal to survive beyond that initial spark.
"The idea of 'event television' became its legacy," "The Leftovers" and "Lost" producer Damon Lindelof says in a new promotional video Showtime made about the show. "It would be on for an hour, but it actually necessitated discussion following it."
What has seemingly changed is the ability to reach a mass audience with that sort of densely crafted exercise -- and an explosion of options that happily cater to a passionate niche.
During the second season, Lynch appeared on David Letterman's late-night program and complained that the Saturday-night timeslot had depressed the show's ratings.
Letterman, however, appeared to identify the larger problem: "The truth of it is, if you stop and think about it, it might be the kind of show that would kind of have a limited run, and then would become a classic forever," he said.
Even in TV, nothing lasts forever. But as we've seen in the past, almost everything that was popular -- even for just a while -- can mount a comeback.
"Twin Peaks" premieres May 21 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.