Has ABC's 'Happy Town' Got the 'Twin Peaks' Curse?

"Don't let the name fool you," warn the advertisements for Happy Town, a new drama premiering tonight on ABC about creepy goings-on in Haplin, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern town. Do however, the ads seem to beg, let the promotional campaign fool you into thinking Happy Town is the second coming of ++Twin Peaks,++[[http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098936/]] the David Lynch–created series that is among the oddest successes in network-television history. All the ingredients that made Twin Peaks the short-lived phenomenon it was are utilized in Happy Town: a general sense of foreboding, townspeople with Gothic secrets, and a murder that shatters the town's Rockwellian veneer long enough to expose them. The ad campaign seems to promise that the recipe will come together just as well as it did in Twin Peaks, but the problem with this premise is that Twin Peaks, for all the initial heat it generated, itself fell apart narratively. It's easy to forget that, 20 years after its premiere, but ++Twin Peaks was plagued with problems++[[https://www.newsweek.com/id/128083]]—ones that television writers still haven't managed to remedy. If Happy Town fails, it'll add yet more evidence to the increasingly convincing case that producing serialized drama successfully is an impossible task. Well, almost impossible.

Where is the line between an intriguing show and a maddening show, and is it OK to occasionally overstep it? How do you introduce new characters while still servicing the old ones? How do you reveal enough information to make viewers feel rewarded, but not so much that their investment decreases? How do you negotiate a satisfying story arc when you're not completely sure from the beginning how many episodes you'll get to tell it? Those were the same questions facing Lynch and his co-creator, Mark Frost, when they set out to tell the story of a skewed Washington community and Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the equally off-kilter FBI agent assigned to uncover its mysteries. Chief among those mysteries was the identity of the person who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a pretty blonde homecoming queen whose body is found wrapped in plastic. Palmer's murder became the focal point for the audience, but in truth, Lynch and Frost would later reveal, it was never intended to be the crux of the show. Twin Peaks was supposed to be about a weird little town and its denizens, a weekly realization of the noir-infused Americana Lynch explored in his film Blue Velvet. But ratings started to drop when the audience wasn't getting answers to the question it wanted resolved, and ABC strong-armed the writers into revealing Laura's killer, which only hastened the show's narrative disintegration. After only 30 episodes, ++it was gone.++[[http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/12/arts/twin-peaks-finale-draws-low-ratings.html?scp=9&sq=twin%20peaks%20cancelled&st=cse]]

Since Twin Peaks, dozens of serial dramas have come and gone, and the only ones that have somewhat managed to work through the challenges of the format are 24 and Lost, both of which are sprinting toward their series finales. They've succeeded for different reasons. Fox's 24 made serial drama work by never giving the audience enough time to stop and breathe, let alone mount a counterargument to the nonstop twists, double-crosses, and improvised torture sessions. But 24, as serial dramas go, was always a relatively low-risk investment for a viewer. Every season has been as close to a reboot as possible, and all you really need to know is that there's this counterterrorist agent named Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and that if you have information he wants, you'd best hope there are no car batteries nearby. Lost, meanwhile, is arguably the most ambitious narrative in television history, a sprawling genre epic with dozens of characters, a bottomless bag of narrative trickery and lots of Big Ideas. If the Lost finale succeeds at satisfying even most of its audience, it'll be the first time a show of its kind has maintained its creative and financial viability long enough to even have a resolution with integrity. But it'll be another month before we know whether the Lost brain trust has managed to thread the needle. In the meantime, there's Happy Town (not to mention Heroes, FlashForward, and V) to serve as a reminder: if you think the success of Lost means serial drama has gotten its kinks worked out, don't be fooled.