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Television

Twin Peaks Bad Dale

With the season finales of “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” behind us, the prestige TV season is almost over.  There’s really only “Twin Peaks” to keep us going until next spring, when the Emmy-bait shows return.

This also means we have a short respite from highly stylized violence deployed in the pursuit of art.  Unfortunately, it will be a very short respite, because “Game of Thrones” is right on the horizon, and “The Walking Dead” will be back soon after that.

For decades, television violence has been one of the most hotly debated issues among academics, family groups, lawmakers, and critics, with most of the debate revolving around the impact of violence on children.

The rule of thumb is that conservatives are more worried about sex on TV and that liberals are concerned with violence.  And I have to admit that I am among those who think that a teenager is more likely to be influenced by watching their peers having sex than by people shooting each other.

Having said that, I’ll leave the debate about TV’s influence on kids until another time.  I’m more interested now in the impact of violence on adults, specifically the violence that appears on the most highly honored and respected television shows.

Any list of great shows from the Golden Age of Television would include some of the most violent ones — not just the previously cited “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo” but also “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “The Leftovers,” “Dexter,” “Justified,” “True Detective” and “The Americans.”

A comparison between the original “Twin Peaks” and its sequel illustrates how our tolerance or even craving for violence has grown in the past three decades.  The first “Twin Peaks” was plenty scary and psychologically disturbing through good writing, haunting music, original storytelling, and eerie production values, but there was little in the way of obvious blood and guts.

Even accounting for the fact that the first “Twin Peaks” was shown on broadcast television (ABC) and the new one is on Showtime, the new version is markedly more grisly, with disembodied corpses or gruesome murders in almost every episode.   In one recent episode a dwarf brutally stabbed two women to death with an ice pick, and a drugged-up teenage driver ran over a small child in front of his mother.  These scenes effectively illustrated the depravity of modern life — but boy, they were tough to watch.

Part of the problem with evaluating television violence is that there are qualitative but hard-to-quantify differences between different types of violence.  When I was growing up, the adults used to worry that the face slaps and head bonks of “The Three Stooges” encouraged violence. And there was rarely a Western or crime show that didn’t begin or end without someone being shot dead.  But those violent acts were relatively bloodless and not particularly disturbing.  Even today, there are shows with plenty of gunplay that don’t make you question whether life is worth living.

But one of the features of prestige TV is beautiful and powerful visual direction, with each scene composed like a masterpiece.  When someone on these shows gets killed (or even beaten up), the director’s talent is on full display.  For example, one murder on “Fargo” involved a guy getting stabbed in the neck as he was retrieving a carton of milk from the refrigerator. The resulting image was a stream of bright red blood pooling with the white milk – a beautiful but disturbing contrast between life and death.

On prestige TV, violence is supposed to be disturbing — it’s not to be taken lightly.  If a couple of bad guys are kicking a woman on the ground, each thud makes you feel sick to your stomach, as it should (see following video for proof of that).

Further, the more the show aspires to real art, the more the innocent suffer and the more random life feels.  This is one of the differences between prestige and traditional TV.  Most TV viewers prefer unchallenging shows where emotions are not ripped raw and where evil is punished.  That’s not always the case on the artier shows. Sometimes the good guys end up dead and the bad guys walk free.

Look, I like shows that challenge my assumptions and make me think about the bigger issues as much as the next guy, but the over-reliance on violence as an emotional intensifier seems a bit lazy after a while.

Here’s where shows like “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Friday Night Lights” really differentiated themselves.  Almost all of the drama we experience in our own lives is free of physical violence.  We are subjected to plenty of EMOTIONAL violence, but most of us don’t get shot, stabbed or garroted even once in our lives — never mind with the frequency it happens on TV.

So give us a break, prestige TV artists-of-the-first-rank.  Find a way to get our blood racing without showing someone else’s blood flowing.

sports-politics-web

It’s been a tough spring for ESPN.  They laid off 100 anchors, reporters, analysts and production staffers.  Then The Walt Disney Company announced that operating income at its media division suffered a 3 percent decline because of ESPN’s declining subscriber base and higher programming costs.

And to add insult to injury, the former ESPN analyst Jason Whitlock published a widely discussed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that ESPN has lost its mojo because it succumbed to political correctness and started to lean left.

This confluence of events spotlighted an ongoing debate about whether ESPN has become a liberal network, with most of the mainstream media averring that, no, it certainly is not, and the Right acerbically responding that left-leaning reporters wouldn’t recognize media bias if a “Resistance” poster fell on their head.  (For what it’s worth, Sporting News reported that 60 percent of TV sports fans believe that ESPN lean left, compared to only three percent who believe it leans right.)

The debate over ESPN is just the latest in a series of episodes demonstrating the increasing politicalization of sports.  There was San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem.  There was the berating of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for having a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker.   There was the refusal of some New England Patriots players to go to the White House and be honored by President Trump.  Before that there was the support of the Black Lives Matter movement by many of the NBA’s most prominent players.

When we’re talking about politics in sport, it’s important to point out that we’re not talking about politics as it was understood for the first two hundred years of the Republic.   For centuries the important political questions concerned the distribution of the nation’s wealth – who gets what. But politics today is increasingly defined as identity politics, or the respect paid to people who consider themselves part of vulnerable population, which is essentially everyone who’s not a straight white male.

Consider the case against ESPN – it has nothing to do with interest politics like healthcare reform, international trade, or infrastructure spending, and everything to do with identity.  Among the bill of particulars: they gave a heroism award to Caitlin Jenner for publicly transitioning to female; they played up Michael Sam as the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL; they fired Curt Schilling for tweeting (rather crudely) in favor of North Carolina’s “bathroom” law.

The same is true in sports in general.  No one in sports gets in trouble for having opinions about the budget deficit or taxes (although I’m sure that athletes definitely have opinions about taxes since they are among the most highly compensated people in America).  No, where players and commentators trip up is by addressing issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Sportswriters and social media enforcers make life tough for athletes, who are in no position to navigate the complicated world of identity politics.  Many commentators yearn for the golden age of sports activism in the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War and African American Olympic runners raised their fists in “Black Power” solutes when receiving their medals.

According to this narrative, Michael Jordan is a corporate lackey because he declined to take political stands, allegedly remarking that “Republicans buy sneakers too” (although has denied this and there is no proof that he ever did say it.)  This is another example of the extra burden that is put on African Americans that white athletes easily avoid. No one ever gives Larry Bird a hard time for not popping off about Indiana rural poverty.

When commentators say they want athletes to speak out more, what they are really saying is that they want them to articulate positions that they, the commentators, support.  They falsely assume that everyone will conform to stereotypes: that all African Americans are democrats or all women are feminists.  Yet Caitlyn Jenner is a vocal Republican and Charles Barkley spoke approvingly of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.  There were no media accolades when former tennis great Margaret Court spoke out against gay marriage.  If every athlete honestly started offering political opinions I can promise you the media would be appalled at what they heard.

Count me among those sports fans who prefer to root for my teams as a mild form of escapism.  If politics permeates every other aspect of our lives, is it too much to ask for a couple of hours where I can commune with my fellow sports fans regardless of their political opinions?

What’s particularly surprising about this issue is that many sports writers think it’s a good idea for athletes, teams and leagues to voice opinions that alienate their core audience: older white men.  What a good business model!  And for what?  The chances that I will change my mind on an issue because of something a basketball player says are about as likely that I will do so after a Facebook friend post a snide meme.    I can unfollow over-opinionated friend on Facebook, just as I can change the channel whenever an athlete gets under my skin in an interview. Please guys, save the politics for the ballot box.

 

 

 

File photo of Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News  in Pasadena

Last summer I recounted the time that Roger Ailes tried to get me fired from Nielsen, claiming I had leaked Fox Business News’ bad ratings to The New York Times.

But that wasn’t the first time I had run across Ailes and his modus operandi.  An earlier encounter was almost as revealing of the Ailes ideology of enemies, revenge and hate.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a PR agency that did a lot of work for NBC, which came to us with those in the business called an “executive transition” assignment. Ailes, then the head of CNBC, had expressed his displeasure with the way things were going. Among other grievances, “America’s Talking,” the cable network he created for NBC, had been taken from his control and changed into MSNBC through a partnership with Microsoft.  He’d indicated that he planned to leave CNBC at some undetermined time in the future. But NBC didn’t want to wait until he jumped.  They were going to push first.

So we created a PR plan announcing that Ailes had resigned and that Bill Bolster, the head of NBC’s New York affiliate, was taking his place.  On January 7, 1996, NBC informed Ailes he was resigning that day, and the day after that we made the announcement.

As executive transitions go, this was pretty benign.  NBC said very nice things about Ailes, and the media played it as we wanted: that this was his decision, which was mostly true.

Ailes, of course, was quickly hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, a competing cable channel, proving that NBC had been right to force the issue when it did.

So everyone should have been happy, right?

Apparently not, because someone started planting negative stories about the new CNBC management in the New York tabloids — personally nasty stories about the new executives and how much everyone at CNBC hated them.  Whenever Ailes hired someone new away from the CNBC newsroom, this would be the occasion for another negative story. Reporters soon told us that Ailes’ PR guy was behind these stories.

There was really no strategic reason for this vindictive campaign against CNBC.  Ailes gained nothing from it other than revenge. The new Fox News was not going to be competing against a financial news network like CNBC.  It was just nastiness for its own sake.

Ailes went on to create the juggernaut of Fox News and changed American politics forever (it’s also worth mentioning that CNBC itself became an immensely more profitable asset after Ailes left).  You have to wonder, though, the extent to which Ailes’ rage powered his success — and whether it actually was a good thing for the political causes he supported.

The day Ailes died, Ross Douthart tweeted that there were two eras in conservative journalism: the William F Buckley era and the Roger Ailes era.   Buckley’s form of journalism was rooted in intelligent argument, wit, and sunniness.  The Buckley approach to politics reached its climax with the Reagan presidency.  Reagan was considered by his opponents to be an amiable dunce, but he was actually a man of ideas and a Buckley acolyte.

By contrast, Ailes began his career advising Richard Nixon and ended up as a consultant to Donald Trump.  What these three had in common was a burning resentment at real and perceived slights.  They passionately hated anyone who dissed them, starting with the political and media elites.

The Buckley era resulted in the most successful implementation of conservative ideas in a century. And the Ailes approach?  The New York Times’ Bret Stephens made a good point about Ailes and Fox: that they were really in the business of hating the Left, not in pushing conservative causes. Ailes-style candidates gave us one disgraced presidency that resulted in a huge expansion of government, and another presidency on its way to disgrace and the potential destruction of the Republican Party.  That’s some legacy.

Here’s the thing. Ailes was a genius to recognize there was a huge audience for a news network that was not dominated by the liberal elite.  For the Right, Fox news coverage actually was “fair and balanced,” for a change.

But a lot of conservatives can’t stand to watch Fox, with its nastiness, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and endless grievances.  Liberals sometimes conflate conservatism with populism, but they are two entirely different things.  Fox’s goal was to generate huge ratings by stoking resentment, decidedly not a conservative approach.

So when Ailes launched his vengeful campaign against his successors at CNBC in 1996, none of us could understand why he couldn’t just move on.  Little did we know that he was in the process of constructing a network explicitly dedicated to not moving on – to being perpetually outraged.  And maybe it made business sense to keep his audience of older white men in a state of fury.  But let’s not pretend he was successfully making the country more conservative.

Dear White People

Netflix recently debuted the first season of “Dear White People,” a sitcom about the micro-aggressions visited upon African American students at a fictional Ivy League University.  Almost simultaneously ABC’s “black*ish” spun off its own college show starring the show’s oldest daughter Zoey, who leaves the nest to become a college freshman next year.

In other words, after decades of TV not paying attention to a frequently transformative experience that more than half the population goes through, we suddenly have two series about college.

What interests me, though, is not why we now have two shows about college but why we’ve had so few in the past.  There are 20 million people in college at any one time.  Yet in television history there have only been a handful of series set at college.  There was “A Different World,” in which Lisa Bonet, the eldest daughter on “The Cosby Show,” was spun-off into her own show (almost exactly what’s happening with the “black*ish” spinoff).

Then there was “Felicity,” a highly regarded drama set at a New York university that followed the ups and downs of Keri Russell’s title character from her freshman to senior year.  Also there’s the cult classic “Undeclared,” the before-its-time Judd Apatow series about a group of college freshmen at a northern California university.

FELICITY, Scott Speedman, Keri Russell, Scott foley, 1998-2002

And that’s about it, unless you want to count “Community,” which I don’t because it’s really a workplace comedy in which the workplace is a community college.

Television’s reluctance to create shows about college contrasts with the cinema, where some of the most successful comedies (“Animal House,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Legally Blonde”) and dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “The Paper Chase”) are set on campus.

And why not?  College is frequently one of the most intense, dramatic and ridiculous times in a person’s life.  A writers’ room would be able to come up with enough real-life material to produce dozens of scripts.  And there’s a built-in narrative too.  Students usually start out callow and insecure, proceed through a sometimes-disastrous, sometimes-triumphant period of self-discovery, and graduate as much more mature adults.

Part of the problem might be that although most people go to some kind of college, not that many attend the elite colleges that factor so significantly into the upward mobility aspirations of the upper middle classes.  Millions of students attend two-year community colleges; millions more commute to state colleges and universities.  Many drop out burdened with debt.  It’s hard to depict a college experience that is relevant to a large section of the population when there are so many different ways of attending college.

Then there’s the problem that actors quickly age out of their roles, precluding the possibility of a long run.  Even if the series begins with a group of freshmen they can credibly play their characters only four or five years before viewers start asking why they aren’t graduating.  This was a bigger problem back in the days when a production company dreamed of extending a series to seven or eight years and then cashing in on syndication.  Today, when the name of the game is creating a content library that can be accessed forever or monetized on a streaming service, you don’t need a hundred episodes to turn a profit.  In fact, I’d bet that the single season of Apatow’s “Undeclared” is far more valuable on Netflix than most of the other longer-running series that debuted the same year.

Something else that perplexes me about college TV shows is that they are usually told from the perspective of the students, not the professors or administrators. A show with adult staff at the core (a professor, dean, or admissions officer) would provide anchor characters that could be supported by an evolving cast of students.  Probably the most successful college series was “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as a put-upon college football coach, which lasted nine seasons.  Yet even with the success of “Coach,” most college series focus on student life.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the excellent “Dear White People” were to spark renewed interest in this tiny genre.  A series doesn’t need to attract 20 million viewers to be a success these days.  It just needs to attract a loyal audience who will keep subscribing for the one show they really love.

So I’m looking forward to shows about fractious basketball teams, crusading student newspapers, bored faculty wives, university chaplains who have lost their faith, unrestrained political correctness, and kooky campus security officers.  There are a million stories to tell about college life and a thousand platforms to tell them.

 

 

April tv

On Friday April 7, the New York Times Crossword offered this clue for a six-letter answer at 36-down: “When people meters are used.”  I am embarrassed to admit it was my wife who solved it for me: SWEEPS.

I have three reactions to this clue:

  1. Are People Meters really so well-known for delivering TV ratings that they can be used in a general interest crossword puzzle, even on a Friday?
  2. Not to get too nerdy, but People Meters are not used for sweeps. “Sweeps” are used to measure local markets that don’t have year-round measurement so local markets with People Meters by definition don’t have sweeps.  Paper diaries produce sweeps in non-People Meter markets. No wonder I didn’t get it! I was overthinking it.
  3. Huh. Sweeps. I haven’t thought about sweeps in years.

There was a time when TV was obsessed with sweeps.  The networks would cram all their best programming into the four sweeps periods of November, February, May and July because the ratings for these months would set advertising rates for local TV stations for the rest of the year.  If you had a character who was going to be killed, married or born, you’d do it during sweeps.

Not anymore.  Sweeps ceased to be a major factor a dozen years ago when Nielsen implemented Local People Meters in the largest local markets. And when Nielsen finally phases out diaries next year, sweeps as we have known them for decades will essentially cease to exist.

The clearest indication of the anachronism of sweeps is all the good programming now being aired in April, which is not a sweeps month.  I would go so far as to argue that the week of April 16-23, definitely not a sweeps period, is the best single week for scripted television in years.  Consider the shows running last week: “Girls,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers,” “Silicon Valley,” “Billions,” “Better Call Saul,” “Dr. Who,” “The Americans,” “Fargo” and “Archer.”  My DVR is about to explode.

None of those series are affected by sweeps since they are on cable, but even the networks are serving up a cornucopia of quality programming this month: “Modern Family,” “blackish,” “New Girl,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Stephen Colbert.” NBC is debuting its new Tina Fey show “Great News” later in the month.

And of course April has seen the return of the baseball season, the launch of the NBA and NHL play-offs, and the Masters.  That’s a lot of TV to watch considering that spring is here and those of us in northern climates are starting to enjoy longer, warmer days.

It’s not just a coincidence involving production schedules that so much great television is airing in April; TV’s evolving business model and its award schedule are responsible.

Until pretty recently, the average TV season comprised 22-26 episodes and the big money came when the series had accumulated about 100 episodes that could be sold for syndication.  So the traditional TV season would kick off in September and end in May, with the episodes essentially spanning those nine months.

A lot of network shows still aim for 22-week seasons but not all.  Season one of NBC’s “The Good Place” comprised only 13 episodes and seems destined for Netflix instead of syndication.  And 13-episode seasons are the norm on cable, although “Girls” and “Veep” have only ten.  When you have 10- or 13-episode seasons you might as well concentrate them in the fall or spring instead of stretching them through the year. If by the end of the series you only have 40 or 50 episodes you can sell it to Netflix or Amazon, which need the content.

Then there’s the impact of the Emmys.  To qualify for an Emmy at least half a season’s episodes need to run by May 31, so April becomes to TV what December is for the movies – the launching pad for award contenders. Presumably the thinking is that Emmy voters are more likely to remember prestige shows that recently aired than ones that ran last fall.

So what we really have now are two seasons of TV: the Money Season, filled with highly rated procedurals, football, prime time soap operas, awards shows, reality shows and other programs that pay the bills; and the Prestige Season, with critically acclaimed but low-rated “quality” television that bring honor and acclaim to a network.

I guess I shouldn’t complain but after months of desperately searching for something interesting to watch, I am now overwhelmed by the bounty of great shows.  I’ll probably still be catching up in July.

 

child-watching-tv

The events of November 8, 2016 delivered a severe psychological blow to many corners of American society, including the boardrooms of television executives.

The election’s impact on TV news, with its higher ratings and Twitter feuds, has been much discussed.  So has the effect of the new president on the increasingly politicized award show category and the re-energized late night segment.

TV critics have been eager to view scripted entertainment through the same political lens.  About “The Americans,” the FX show about Soviet spies operating in the U.S. in the 1980s, The New York Times wrote: “In the light of today’s headlines, this Cold War drama feels newly relevant.”

When “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate reality show about a 1960s America occupied by Nazis, returned last December, Newsweek said: “Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different.”

And Slate called the new season of “American Crime,” which is focused on an illegal immigrant from Mexico searching for his son in America, “a worthy, Trump-Era successor to ‘The Wire.’” Looking ahead, you can be sure that when “Veep” and “House of Cards” return, we’ll hear similar commentary about their relevance to our time.

Given how long it takes to conceive, write and produce a season of scripted television, it’s a sure bet that none of these shows was intended to be a commentary on Trump’s America.  This is especially true since these shows were mostly written when everyone in Hollywood expected Hillary Clinton to win.

Eventually there will be TV shows that actually do reflect the Trump presidency. That has always been the case.  The disputatious “All in the Family” seemed to embody the Nixon era, while “Dallas,” with its celebration of buccaneering capitalism, could only have been a massive hit during the Reagan presidency.  And “24,” which preyed upon America’s apocalyptic fear of terrorism, provides essential insight into the George W. Bush presidency.

When television finally does deliver a Trump-era show, I doubt it will be an overt political series, which we are already drowning in anyway.  Seriously, how many dramas, sitcoms, soap operas and satires about the White House can television sustain?  And besides, the conventional wisdom about the Trump administration seems to change weekly.  In just three months the Establishment’s view of the Trump presidency has gone from potentially dictatorial to inept to laughable.  Who knows what’s next?  Any show that attempts to deliver direct commentary about Trump runs the risk of quickly getting stale.

A smart television producer would instead wonder how a complete outsider like Trump got elected in the first place and try to figure out what’s in the mind of his supporters.  That would require a pivot away from the upper-middle class lifestyle that was the focus of so much television programming during the Obama years (think “Modern Family” and “black*ish.”)

In another words, a true Trump-era show would dramatize or satirize the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who are anxious about their status, culture and economic prospects.  This could be a 21st century “Rosanne” with an even more pointed edge. Or a police drama about an immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) squad operating at the border.

If showrunners can’t wrap their heads around what it would be like to be a Trump voter or ICE agent, they could still do a Trump-era show about anti-Trumpers.  This could depict the lives of refugees or undocumented immigrants trying to adjust in America.  There have been recent shows about immigrants (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) but the characters were (mostly) legal.   I don’t think there’s ever been a show about refugees or the undocumented (unless you count “American Crime,” which is more about the crime than immigration per se.)

It looks like the TV industry is getting the memo that it needs more cultural diversity in its programming.  Last November, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, said at the Content London conference, “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places.  There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history, we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

If ABC and the other networks see a market opportunity among the 63 million Trump voters, then there’s a real potential for a wider variety of stories and perspectives.  And maybe our television entertainment would get even better — even if our politics doesn’t.

 

 

 

welcome-to-twin-peaks-1200x628-facebook

Watching “Twin Peaks” back in 1990 used to fill me with dread, but it’s a different kind of dread I feel now at the show’s impending revival on Showtime.  Do we really need to revisit this series and potentially spoil our memories of one of the weirdest and most original TV shows of all time?

I sure hope series creator David Lynch has something more to say and is not just looking for a paycheck, because it sure seemed that he had already squeezed more out of this tale than it could reasonably bear. Even before it went off the air after 29 episodes, it had run dry of ideas and been reduced to gimmicks and increasingly bizarre plot twists. And then there was a reunion movie, the less said about the better.

The weirdest thing about “Twin Peaks” is that it was on the air at all.  TV in 1990 was dominated by the four major broadcast networks with their paint-by-numbers dramas and prime time soap operas. No one had seen anything like this moody and discursive show, where plot took a back seat to atmospherics, dream sequences and raw emotion. And yet the pilot attracted 34 million viewers and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” briefly became a national obsession, justifying a hilarious parody on Saturday Night Live.

In anticipation of the revival and to see whether the show was actually as good as I remembered, I recently watched the original series on Netflix. To revisit “Twin Peaks” after all these years is to be transported back in time.  The show was so intense and out of the ordinary that even the opening notes of the theme song evoke specific memories of people and places from that era.  (And what a great theme.)

While rewatching “Twin Peaks,” the thing that struck me immediately is how much “Stranger Things,” that recent Netflix homage to the eighties, owes to it.  They were both creepy small-town mysteries with handsome sheriffs trying to combat the evil supernatural forces that thrived out in the dark woods.  Both shows deal with parental angst, class divisions, and bullies.

The difference is that “Twin Peaks” turns up the volume to eleven in every aspect and preys insidiously on the cultural anxieties of the late 1980s.  There’s a sweetness and innocence running through “Stranger Things” that is entirely missing in “Twin Peaks,” where unbridled sexuality, greed and drugs threaten to snuff out all that is good in small town life.

And speaking of small towns, I’ve lived in a few and I can tell you that the percentage of drop-dead beautiful girls is much higher in the town of Twin Peaks than it is anywhere else in the universe.

Twin Paks girls

Twin Peaks Girls 2

This is not what the girls looked like when I was in high school

Even 27 years later, “Twin Peaks” has the power to shock, and not just through the murder of a beautiful girl, which is now a commonplace trope, but through Davis Lynch’s eerie direction and Angelo Badalamenti’s otherworldly musical score.  Lynch also got more disorientation out of oddball casting than anyone, except for perhaps John Waters. He resurrected former “West Side Story” co-stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from obscurity, and gave major parts to “The Mod Squad’s” Peggy Lipton and “Carrie’s” Piper Laurie.  Seeing them all in “Twin Peaks” was just plain weird, then and now.

And yet, to be honest, the emotional impact of some scenes is undercut by the overwrought acting.  I actually laughed out loud at the wailing at Laura Palmer’s funeral, which was so over-the-top.  And throughout the whole series the characters show little nuance or depth – they are either good, bad, delusional or perceptive with no grays.

The real man of mystery at the center of the show is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan.  Outwardly, Cooper is a model FBI bureaucrat – straight-laced and playing it by the book.  But he’s full of quirks, including his over-enthusiasm for coffee and pie and a habit of dictating his every thought into a tape recorder for an unseen “Diane.” He’s also remarkably intuitive, able to tell at a glance who’s sleeping with whom, and prone to dreaming about dancing dwarves.

As great as it was, “Twin Peaks” is a cautionary tale about extending a series beyond its natural life.  Once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, there was no reason for the series to continue, but in those days, TV shows ran until their ratings got low enough to be cancelled, which happened just 15 episodes past the murder resolution.

“Lost,” that other popular show with a supernatural mystery at its heart, lasted far longer than “Twin Peaks,” but still tried its viewers’ patience to the breaking point.  More recently, “Mr. Robot” fell into the “Twin Peaks” trap, with a wildly original debut and an audience-displeasing sophomore season.  In the same vein, I am worried about the upcoming second season of “Stranger Things,” given that the first season was a near-perfect extended movie on its own with no need of a sequel.

Despite my reservations about what a contemporary “Twin Peaks” will bring, I’ll definitely watch it.  David Lynch is too great a filmmaker to blow him off.  My curiosity is mounting day by day.   I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, though.  And to be honest, I just hope I can make it through the end of the run.