From Peaks To Valleys

By the time you read this, you'll probably know the ending to television's biggest mystery since J. R. Ewing nearly got bumped off in "Dallas" back in 1980. The question is--will you care? Long before the much-hyped denouement of ABC's "Twin Peaks" finally aired last Saturday night, enthusiasm for the quirky series had grown colder than a day-old cup of joe. Just ask "Twin Peaks" fan David Jefferson. A Wall Street Journal reporter in Los Angeles, Jefferson decided to organize a "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" party on Nov. 10 and posted a sign-up sheet on his office bulletin board. "I had visions of getting a second TV because my apartment would be bulging at the seams with people," he says. Jefferson took down the sheet four days later--after attracting just one signature. "I'm a latecomer to this show," sighs Jefferson. "Now I'm being deserted. Nobody wants to come to my party."

Don't take it personally, Dave. Last spring "Twin Peaks" may have rivaled Donald Trump as the most-talked-about subject at the office water cooler. Now the show is sinking fast. The most recent Nielsen ratings ranked "Peaks" a dismal 75th place for the year out of 101 primetime programs. Viewership has fallen by more than 2 million households since last May, and "Peaks" is now ABC's third lowest-rated series, barely beating out the Vietnam drama "China Beach" and the police-opera "Cop Rock." Newsday TV columnist Marvin Kitman summed up the show's sagging state last week when he called Saturday's episode "the highlight of Sweeps Month for the literally tens of us who are still watching."

What went wrong? Many blame the fast fade on ABC's decision to ship "Peaks" to Saturday night, traditionally the networks' graveyard. ABC's top executives admit the strategy was risky, saying it was meant to lure baby boomers from movie theaters and their VCRs by offering them the most innovative programs on television. They insist the gambit is paying off. "I'm not saying the ratings are burning down the barn, but we're satisfied," says ABC's executive vice president for programming Ted Harbert. Harbert notes that "Twin Peaks" is beating its NBC and CBS rivals for the 18-to-49 audience, a group prized by advertisers, and is pulling in many more young adults than the show it replaced, the "ABC Mystery Movie."

But other experts say that ABC goofed by burying its best shows on a dead night. "When you put 'Chine Beach' end 'twin Peaks' on Saturday, you're saying these two shows have no ability to grow," says David Poltrack, CBS's senior vice president for research and planning. Indeed, both shows are losing members of the young audience they might attract on a weeknight. Cleve Keller, a 22-year-old Manhattan publicist, avidly watched "Twin Peaks" with eight friends every Thursday last spring. "We ate doughnuts--and we adapted the show's dialogue into our daily speech, saying things like 'damn fine cup o' coffee'," she says. "But nobody's home Saturday night, and we've all put the show out of our minds."

Some viewers say they're frustrated by the show's creative drift. Tracy Harshman of Youngstown, Ohio, got fed up with the knotty plot and the writers' stubborn refusal to' resolve its many mysteries. "Each week they do wonderfully creative things, but they go in a million directions," she complains. After missing a couple of early episodes, Bill Bowman, a lawyer from Chevy Chase, Md., says he "found myself helplessly confused, and wondering why nobody on the show seems to care who killed Laura Palmer anymore." Others say they're tired of creator David Lynch's weirdness for weirdness's sake--the intergalactic telegrams, the giant night visitors, the orchid-cultivating keeper of Laura Palmer's diary. Says New York attorney Franz Paasche: "There is this uncomfortable sense that the whole show is a joke on the viewer."

Can "Twin Peaks" survive? Well, somebody pushed Pocket Books' "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" to fifth place on The New York Times's trade-paperback best-seller list. Cultists still debate "Peaks" esoterica, pondering, for instance, whether a mysterious new Japanese character is really Catherine Martell in disguise. Mark Frost, cocreator of the show, says that he's "disappointed" by the poor ratings, but insists that ABC has promised to move the show to a weeknight "if it isn't working." Others don't see how the show can last. "I think ABC would really like this show to die," says Kitman. ABC insists it's on the right track, and has even begun exploiting its strategy in its promotions. One spot shows nervous ABC executives being chewed out by their boss for scheduling "the best shows on TV" on Saturday night. The tag line urges viewers to watch the programs and "save our jobs." If "Twin Peaks" ratings don't improve soon, they may have a real reason to worry.