`TWIN PEAKS,'' the new ABC-TV series, surprised just about everyone - including, from all reports, its own producers - when it scored not just a hit but a full-fledged coup in the ratings. Its two-hour pilot April 8 was the most-watched TV movie of the season. Some observers quickly attributed this to advance publicity. The entertainment trade paper Variety said the show deserved ``an Emmy in hype.'' But its first hour-long segment April 12 was similarly strong, reportedly earning the highest rating of any ABC program in that time-slot in more than four years. (The show is scheduled to continue in ABC's 9-10 p.m. time-slot on Thursday evenings through May 24.)
If the series continues to captivate viewers - and succeeds in pulling them away from cable channels, a strong priority of network programmers - it will help consolidate a growing trend toward ``movie values'' in TV entertainment. Faced with competition not only from cable programming but also from the aggressive home-video market, networks are tentatively plugging into ideas and practices usually associated with theatrical films, such as more offbeat plots and distinctive visual styles.
``Twin Peaks'' is a major experiment in this area, helmed by an experienced movie director and spinning an offbeat story about corruption and violence coming to light as an FBI agent investigates the murder of a high-school Homecoming queen. If it continues to pay off in the ratings, it could result in a spate of similar TV programming.
An ironic fact about ``Twin Peaks'' is that David Lynch, its chief creator, has an uneven record in the feature-film domain where he spends most of his time. His last picture, ``Blue Velvet,'' was hailed by many critics and talked about by moviegoers everywhere, but did only moderately well at the box office. His previous film, ``Dune,'' was a financial dud. Only his motion-picture version of ``The Elephant Man,'' with an all-star cast and a well-known subject, was an unqualified hit.
The thing Mr. Lynch does best in most of his films is to express his own artistic personality - something that's hard to miss, since it's is highly distinctive and frequently weird. ``The Elephant Man'' was a solidly commercial project, for instance, but many of its images and moods came directly from Lynch's previous feature, ``Eraserhead,'' one of the most deliberately bizarre American movies ever made. The dark and dreamlike ``Blue Velvet'' followed similar patterns, and even ``Dune'' contained its share of unmistakable Lynch touches.
TV favors commercial considerations over artistic values. While theatrical movies are often shaped primarily by their directors - who supervise all aspects of photography and acting - television is controlled by producers, who oversee their productions from a more distant and ``objective'' vantage point. The essential fact about ``Twin Peaks'' is that a genuine feature-film auteur was allowed to craft the project from its beginning.
Lynch worked in tandem with a TV veteran, Mark Frost of ``Hill Street Blues'' fame, and obviously agreed to observe TV standards in many crucial areas, from timing to plotting. Sure enough, the commercials come at the proper intervals in ``Twin Peaks,'' and the narrative never strays beyond the implicit PG-13 boundaries that prime-time TV sets for itself. Yet more of Lynch's sensibility is visible than would likely have happened before ``movie values'' recently emerged as a tool for beating video outlets and movie theaters at their own game.
In terms of content, the most striking difference of ``Twin Peaks'' from other TV shows may be its melancholy air, which was most noticeable in the pilot episode. The high-school girl's death touches off not only the expected police investigation, but also a long and carefully portrayed time of mourning for her family and friends. This sets Lynch's approach apart from the usual network and Hollywood conception of mystery-story drama and from a whole tradition of action-oriented films. ``Death is not very real in American films,'' wrote Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leitis in a 1977 study of film psychology, adding that ``the dead tend either to be forgotten or not to seem very dead.'' Lynch takes a very different attitude.
Technically, the pace of ``Twin Peaks'' may be its most obvious difference from standard television. Lynch likes to create strange atmospheres that exert their effects during leisurely stretches of time. He indulged this habit brilliantly in the ``Twin Peaks'' pilot, which he directed himself, allowing the camera to linger when it was past time for the story to move on. In the same spirit is the show's music by Angelo Badalamenti, whose score is rollicking at moments, but more often has a brooding air that suits the program's imagery.
The cast of ``Twin Peaks'' is headed by Kyle MacLachlan, who looks a bit like Lynch and is clearly the director's favorite actor. Although he made little impression in ``Dune'' and actually weakened parts of ``Blue Velvet,'' his work is extraordinarily strong here, lending a touch of round-eyed innocence and enthusiasm to the FBI agent he plays - and helping to offset the show's frequently downbeat mood. Other performers effectively portray a wide range of characters, from a loony psychiatrist to a police officer who weeps bitter tears over the crimes he encounters.
Drawing on feature-film directorial talent is not entirely new for TV; it can readily be traced (as video critic Amy Taubin recently noted in the Village Voice) from ``Alfred Hitchcock Presents'' to Steven Spielberg's ill-fated ``Amazing Stories.'' What's different about ``Twin Peaks'' is that it allows Lynch to work on his own artistic terms, to the degree that his individuality and eccentricities show plainly through.
In addition to the pilot, Lynch has directed only one of the show's seven additional episodes; others are in the hands of such directors as Mr. Frost and Hollywood filmmaker Tim Hunter, whose ``River's Edge'' had its own touches of Lynch-style sardonicism.
If the ratings fall off badly between tomorrow's Episode 4 and Episode 8, the program will doubtless be cancelled in midstream, and a home-video version of the pilot will be released, with a new ending that reveals who murdered the Homecoming queen. If its popularity stays high, more episodes will go into production for next season - leaving viewers to ponder their most perplexing summertime question since the infamous, ``Who shot J.R.?''