Before the two-hour pilot premiered on TV, a screening was held at the Museum of Broadcasting in Hollywood. Media analyst and advertising executive Paul Schulman said, "I don't think it has a chance of succeeding. It is not commercial, it is radically different from what we as viewers are accustomed to seeing, there's no one in the show to root for." Initially, the show's Thursday night time slot was not a good one for soap operas as both Dynasty and its short-lived spin-off The Colbys did poorly. Twin Peaks was also up against the hugely successful sitcom, Cheers.
Initially, the show received a positive response from TV critics. Tom Shales, in The Washington Post, wrote, "Twin Peaks disorients you in ways that small-screen productions seldom attempt. It's a pleasurable sensation, the floor dropping out and leaving one dangling". In The New York Times, John J. O'Connor wrote, "Twin Peaks is not a send-up of the form. Mr. Lynch clearly savors the standard ingredients...but then the director adds his own peculiar touches, small passing details that suddenly, and often hilariously, thrust the commonplace out of kilter." Entertainment Weekly gave the show an "A+" rating and Ken Tucker wrote, "Plot is irrelevant; moments are everything. Lynch and Frost have mastered a way to make a weekly series endlessly interesting". Time magazine said that it, "may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV".
The two-hour pilot was the highest-rated movie for the 1989–1990 season with a 22 rating and was viewed by 33% of the audience. In its first broadcast as a regular one-hour drama series, Twin Peaks scored ABC's highest ratings in four years in its 9:00 pm Thursday time period. The show also reduced NBC's Cheers's ratings. Twin Peaks had a 16.2 rating with each point equaling 921,000 homes with TVs. The episode also added new viewers because of what ABC's senior vice-president of research, Alan Wurtzel, called, "the water cooler syndrome", in which people talk about the series the next day at work.
However, the third episode of the show that aired on the Thursday night time period lost 14% of the audience that had tuned in a week before. That audience had dropped 30% from the show's first appearance on Thursday night. This was as a result of competing against Cheers which appealed to the same demographic that watched Twin Peaks. A production executive from the show spoke of being frustrated with the network's scheduling of the show. "The show is being banged around on Thursday night. If ABC had put it on Wednesday night it could have built on its initial success. ABC has put the show at risk".
In response, the network aired the first season finale on a Wednesday night at 10:00 pm instead of its usual 9:00 pm Thursday slot. The show achieved its best ratings since its third week on the air with a 12.6 and a 22 share of the audience. (Each rating point in the A. C. Nielsen television survey represents 921,000 homes.) On May 22, 1990, it was announced that Twin Peaks would be renewed for a second season.
During the first and second season, the search for Laura Palmer's killer served as the engine for the plot, and caught the public's imagination, although the creators admitted this was largely a MacGuffin; each episode was really about the interactions between the townsfolk. The unique (and often bizarre) personalities of each citizen formed a web of minutiae which ran contrary to the quaint appearance of the town. Adding to the surreal atmosphere was the recurrence of Dale Cooper's dreams, in which the FBI agent is given clues to Laura's murder in a supernatural realm that may or may not be of his imagination. The first season contained only eight episodes (including the two-hour pilot episode), and was considered technically and artistically revolutionary for television at the time, and geared toward reaching the standards of film.
It has been said that Twin Peaks began the trend of accomplished cinematography now commonplace in today's television dramas. Lynch and Frost maintained tight control over the first season, handpicking all of the directors, with some that Lynch had known from his days at the American Film Institute (e.g., Caleb Deschanel and Tim Hunter) or referrals from those he knew personally. Lynch and Frost's control lessened in the second season, corresponding with what is generally regarded as a lessening of quality once the identity of Laura Palmer's murderer was revealed.
The above-mentioned 'water cooler effect' put pressure on the show's creators to solve the mystery. Although they claimed to have known from the series' inception the identity of Laura's murderer, Lynch never wanted to solve the murder, while Frost felt that they had an obligation to the audience to solve it and this created tension between the two men. However, viewers felt dissatisfied at the dénouement, feeling the solution was contrived.
Its ambitious style, paranormal undertones, and engaging murder mystery made Twin Peaks an unexpected hit. Its characters, particularly MacLachlan's Dale Cooper, were unorthodox for a supposed crime drama, as was Cooper's method of interpreting his dreams to solve the crime. During the run of its first season, the show's popularity reached its zenith, and elements of the program seeped into mainstream popular culture and prompting parodies, including one in the 16th season premiere of Saturday Night Live, hosted by MacLachlan.
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