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Critic on the loose

Critic on the loose — Our resident credit muses about ”Twin Peaks”

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Twin Peaks received the sort of raves and hype you would hope that Michelangelo and Mozart could have attracted in their days. New Yorker film critic Terrence Rafferty wrote about it in the movie section of his magazine — even though it’s a TV show, not a film; so did Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. America’s TV critics also spewed superlatives: ”Unprecedented.” ”Nothing like it has ever been seen on prime time.” ”Landmark television.” Entertainment Weekly put the show on its cover and I typed the words and the hyper punctuation that went there: ”The Year’s Best Show!” Twin Peaks deserves this praise. It’s that good.

But all this attention says as much about television, its critics, and its audience as it does about Twin Peaks itself. Television rarely gets any respect, so when it does, that’s news.

Peaks received critical gushes for many good reasons. It is daring, different, gripping, gorgeous, and as fun as a show filled with corpses and crying can be. But let’s be honest: It also received much of that attention simply because it was made by David Lynch (Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead), who’s a movie guy, not a TV guy.

The movie critics at The New Yorker and Rolling Stone had to praise the show in their sections because their magazines don’t have TV critics. But I can hardly smash those two publications for this sinful omission when on television, there are no prominent TV critics. Television features Ebert and Siskel and Shalit and Siegel — movie guys, all. TV pays lots of attention to the movies, and none to itself. TV gets no respect, even on TV.

If Twin Peaks had failed — that is, flopped in the ratings — the TV audience would have been derided: We are not smart enough, it would have been said, to watch smart TV. If, on the other hand, Peaks continues to draw good ratings as it did on its first night, then it also will draw copycats — but they probably will copy the wrong things about the series, giving us shows made by movie guys, shows in backwoods towns, shows with weird and eerie music, shows with continuing murder mysteries, shows with bikers.

What should be copied is courage, ABC’s courage to let someone — movie guy or TV guy — create his or her own strong vision. That is always — always — where the best in entertainment comes from, in movies, TV, music, or books. Good TV can attract an audience — a good audience (which, in these demographic days, is defined as smart and well-to-do, not necessarily huge). Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, thirtysomething all did just that. Twin Peaks may be the next to do so. But if Twin Peaks doesn’t attract and keep such an audience, another show will try. At any one time, there are a few good TV shows with good audiences.

And that’s the pity: Great, smart TV is a token effort, or that’s how we — critics, viewers, and networks — look at it. We act honored when a movie guy, a David Lynch or a Dustin Hoffman, deigns to make a TV show. Well, we shouldn’t. TV is huge. TV talks to more people more often than any other form of entertainment. It’s just a box, nothing wrong with that; nothing makes what appears on that box necessarily dumber or tackier than what appears on a movie screen.

Only when TV starts to show pride in itself — and we in it — will the David Lynches of the world, the smart and daring and creative visionaries of entertainment, dream of being known as TV guys, not necessarily movie guys. So we shouldn’t treat Twin Peaks with such extreme and shocked reverence. We should treat it as just what it is: a damned good television show, just the kind of show we deserve.