Academics' Report Card On `Twin Peaks'

THE TV series everyone's talking about? Yes. The show that will change TV? Hold on. Interviews with teachers of university courses in television, the media, and mass communication reveal several of them are taking a closer-than-usual look at ``Twin Peaks,'' ABC's new dramatic series about murder in a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest.

But those observers write a different report card than the publicists and many of the critics: ``A''s and ``B''s for acting, visuals, overall quality, idiosyncracy; but only a ``C-plus'' for innovation.

The series is perhaps evolutionary, they say - pushing the boundaries of tried-and-true formulas. But it is not revolutionary. Working against innovation, they point out, is the creative straitjacket inherent in commercial TV.

``Nobody is better than [director] David Lynch at contrasting the image of small-town America, as Bedford Falls with Donna Reed, [with] the seventh circle of Dante's inferno,'' says Fred Exoo, a professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who teaches a course in the politics of prime-time television. ``The question is: Will he have enough creative freedom on TV to show us his vision?''

Before the series premi`ered, the critics were effusive: ``[`Twin Peaks'] may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for TV ..., something of a miracle,'' said Time magazine. ``Idiosyncratically brilliant,'' commented Newsweek. ``The series that will change TV,'' predicted Connoisseur.

But despite the series' innovative look and high initial ratings, the academics contacted by the Monitor question whether the interest can be sustained.

``The people who generate Nielsen and Arbitron ratings aren't normally attuned to the details that make one TV show different from another or that make TV different from film,'' says Sari Thomas, a professor at Philadelphia's Temple University. ``This new dialogue is challenging them to do so.''

Her opinion of ``Twin Peaks''?

``The show has lots of visual quirks and eccentricities - abnormally held long shots, bizarre camera angles, pans to seemingly innocuous details,'' Thomas says. ``But the first rule of production is that you don't use technology as a finger exercise. There has to be some conceptual import for them, which I have not found yet.''

Brian Stonehill, a professor at Pomona College here in California, who teaches a course in visual literacy, says, ``Visually `Twin Peaks' is very distinctive, and that's not easy to achieve. ... The golden-brown palette differentiates it in the same way the use of pastels did for `Miami Vice.' But that is not revolutionary.''

Prof. Stonehill says the series' plot structure and characterizations fit standard TV notions of serial melodrama. ``There is no real sense of exploring personality or motivation,'' he says. As symbolized by its title, he adds, ``Twin Peaks'' has a divided goal to serve both ``poetry and commerce. ... You have this supposedly daringly innovative piece of drama that must, nonetheless, be shot and cut to deliver commercials for toothpaste and Ninja Turtles. How revolutionary is that?''

Jonathan Tankel, an associate professor at New York's Ithica College, sees innovation in the way ``Twin Peaks'' is ambiance-driven. He notes a special unity in the haunting electronically produced music and the mysterious visuals - long camera pans on such objects as telephone lines. This separates the series from ``Dallas'' and ``Dynasty,'' he says, which are character- and plot-driven. ``[Lynch] generates the feeling that the unexpected is to be expected. It will be interesting to see if the series can sustain viewer interest on such ambiance over time, without going flat.''

``Television has a way of taming even the fiercest critical visions,'' observes St. Lawrence's Professor Exoo, who plans to contrast ``Twin Peaks'' in his classes with Lynch's other movies. ``I suspect it will be able to tame Lynch as well.''

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