After twenty-five years, Twin Peaks is back, so maybe we can now finally get over the hate for the underrated Season 2. The general reaction to the first few hours of Season 3 (or The Revival, as it's being dubbed) has been incredibly positive, with Peaks Freaks relishing finally learning to what happened to Cooper in the Black Lodge and getting to experience fresh horror-weirdness from the mind of David Lynch.
That the fanbase's response is pretty harmonious is surprising given how, over the past weeks, there's been a lot of internet ink spent dissecting the original run of Twin Peaks and prequel movie Fire Walk With Me. In all that, nobody seems able to agree what exactly Twin Peaks is; is it a genuine murder mystery, an exploration of Americana, a soap opera pastiche, a dissection of television as a medium or a melodramatic horror? The answer seems to be all of that and none of it. The only thing people can agree on is that Season 2 was a major let down.
But, the thing is, it actually isn't. Yes, it's not as good as Season 1; from the start it's needlessly weird (explanation of that begins and ends with Piper Laurie in yellowface) and as it wears on its flaws become increasingly obvious, yet it still has in its first half the show's best run of episodes and a knock-out finale, as well as a lot of fun along the way. Besides, in a turn that's fitting of the strange show, qualitative concerns aren't really the reason why it's regarded as it is.
The Ratings Drop Wasn't Directly Related To Quality
The first season, consisting of a double-length pilot and seven regular episodes, was a rightful phenomenon, with its mix of familiarity and weirdness pitched perfectly, the appeal of serialized primetime television irresistible and the powering mystery of who murdered high school Prom Queen Laura Palmer enrapturing a nation. The opener brought in 34.6 million viewers and even at its lowest the season was still drawing upwards of 15 million, numbers that today would send even the producers of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones running for the Dom Perignon.
Season 2 picked up that baton with gusto and actually introduced many of the show's defining elements; when Homer watches the show in The Simpsons episode "Lisa's Sax" and remarks "Brilliant, I have absolutely no idea what's going on" he's reacting to the pale horse and the Giant, two "characters" only introduced in this second year. However, as it ran through its vastly increased episode run (up from eight to a standard twenty-two) those viewing figures fell - at their lowest, the show was barely making 7 million, a fifth of that first episode. By the time it came to a close, the show's producers knew cancellation was all but definite.
These facts alone are a big reason why the second season isn't well regarded. In the pre-internet age, viewing figures were the only collated metric of a series' success, and with only three main channels (Fox was only just on the rise with The Simpsons at this point) a drop had to mean something was seriously wrong. When Twin Peaks wasn't renewed, it was taken as a direct reflection of its quality, with other concerns not even being considered. And, of course, as many people had dropped off, there were fewer to say "wait, no, there's some good stuff here" and so the presumption of being poor propagated. But, really the viewership drop is a symptom of something else, rather than a sign of poor quality.
So what happened in Twin Peaks Season 2 that led to such a turn, then? A big part of it is that the network moved it from Sunday night to Saturday, a difficult shift for any narrative show, especially one that required weekly investment - in the days before catch-up that was suicide. And when it came down to the decision between staying in and going out, Peaks eventually nullified itself; they answered the key question.