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‘Twin Peaks’ at 25: Celebrating the Great Limited Series (That Wasn’t)

Can it really be 25 years since “Twin Peaks” premiered? Seriously, how long were we all stopped at that eerie traffic signal?

Still, the fact the show still resonates – and even inspired Showtime to brave the wacky world of David Lynch in pursuit of a possible revival – stems from the fact that this quarter-century-old artifact was really well ahead of its time, more suited to the subscription- and binge-oriented world of today than a broadcast network back when AMC was still exclusively airing old movies.

To borrow a bit of modern TV parlance, “Twin Peaks” was the perfect limited series. It just didn’t know it yet.

Indeed, the first eight-episode season of “Twin Peaks” caused the sort of hysteria that caught ABC unawares. Still, with all the heat surrounding its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery, the show would have been better served by being a self-contained story, as opposed to giving birth to a second season that the network relegated to Saturday nights in the pre-DVR age, where it died a slow and increasingly befuddled death.

With the benefit of hindsight, then-ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger (now CEO of the entire Walt Disney Co.) conceded as much, saying in an early-1990s interview that “Peaks” probably was more suited to a one-shot enterprise. In its wake the network did try out a few similar projects, such as “Wild Palms,” a surreal 1993 miniseries written by Bruce Wagner and produced by Oliver Stone.

Still, it was hard to replicate the buzz that “Twin Peaks” organically generated, anticipating a subsequent wave of dramas initiated by the death/disappearance of a teenage girl (“The Killing”) or young boy (“Broadchurch,” “The Missing,” “Secrets and Lies”).

One major problem was that the broadcast networks were still rooted in the notion of churning out series that could run years on end. Tellingly, “Peaks” premiered five months before “Law & Order,” the Energizer Bunny of police procedurals.

Today, of course, networks have embraced the wisdom of limited-run shows such as “True Detective” and “Fargo,” which can be extended only by rolling the dice on new casts and concepts. The advent of Netflix and other alternative means of distribution has also enhanced the value of such programs, which lend themselves to being consumed in greedy gulps, while emboldening broadcasters to weigh in. (Fox’s “Wayward Pines,” premiering in May, will certainly draw comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” among others.)

Although “Twin Peaks” derived much of its kick from the quirkiness of the town, the series milked the Laura Palmer murder beyond its expiration date, without delivering a fully satisfying resolution (as unsettling as it was) when the time finally came part-way through season two. By the time Lynch delivered the movie prequel “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the embers had cooled considerably.

Granted, “Twin Peaks” was hardly the first series to discover that a great opening act isn’t necessarily built for an open-ended run. But at the time programmers were more likely to write that off as a failure, instead of recognizing the triumph that the first season represented.

Seen that way, the greater viability of something like “Twin Peaks” offers a pretty good road map in charting how TV made it from some of the memorable but short-lived casualties of the ’90s to what can be called its current golden age. And if this slightly arbitrary anniversary isn’t cause for a full-scale celebration, it’s at least worth toasting with a damn fine cup of coffee.

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