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Lynch's mob is history

It was the "whodunit" of 1990, and the "who cares?" of 1991. Those mischievous mavens at Twin Peaks promised an answer to "Who killed Laura Palmer?" but lingered long past the fun of the tease.

Twin Peaks has lost all but its small core of loyal advocates, and ABC will drop the curtain on television's most risk-taking adventure tonight.

An ABC spokesperson says this isn't a conclusion, though, and the series ends in a cliff-hanger. But that means zip because the Pacific Northwest soap always has stressed subtext more than solutions.

And even though the ratings this season were dismal, there was hope that the network would move Twin Peaks from its Saturday night spot and into an evening where audiences could regularly tune in to TV's kinkiest drama.

So instead of being a polished farewell, Monday night's segment is actually two separate episodes, glued together for a two-hour TV movie collage. The first hour is directed by Tim Hunter; the second by David Lynch, the highly regarded filmmaker (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet) who brought his bizarre visions for two erratic seasons to the small screen.

In all, there were 30 episodes from Lynch and his partner Mark Frost, and such a heavily promoted debut that 35-million viewers (a third of the nation's TV watchers) were drawn to the opener of the eerie soap opera.

But fans fell off fast. If recent ratings hold true, about 95 percent of America won't watch the finale. On April 18, the last regular episode, about 8-million viewers tuned in. Where to place the blame for the lack of sustained fame?

ABC didn't help much, scheduling the series originally on Thursdays opposite TV's No. 1 show, Cheers. After a five-week absence last winter, ABC moved Twin Peaks to Saturdays where, except for the episode when Laura's killer was revealed on Nov. 10, low ratings prevailed.

Lynch and Frost also were widely blamed (by the media and around the office water cooler) for stringing out the story line about prom queen Laura's death and for the maze of subplots.

But murders are rarely solved easily, and Twin Peaks _ from the first moody chord struck by Angelo Badalamenti's theme music _ was always a town infested with secrets.

The show's three-dozen-plus characters and their tangled relationships were so difficult to follow that magazines printed charts. Quirky dialogue and situations, such as Lucy laying out the doughnuts and Cooper compulsively recording his thoughts, have been logged into TV's cult memory bank.

But the idiosyncratic fare aside, the excellent ensemble cast and the willingness to challenge TV conventions were Twin Peaks' undisputed accomplishments.

Most everyone, except Laura Palmer (played by Sherilyn Fenn) and the dancing midget (remember the third episode about Coop's dream?) are back for the Monday goodbye. Starring are Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S. Truman, and the town's assortment of "normal" characters, including Peggy Lipton as the diner's Norma Jennings, Kimmy Robertson as the TPPD receptionist Lucy Moran and Dana Ashbrook as bad-boy Bobby Briggs.

All the oddballs will be on hand as well _ Wendy Robie as Nadine Hurley, Big Ed's eye-patch-wearing wife who gets amnesia and relives her high school years; Catherine E. Coulson as the Log Lady, who converses with a chunk of timber; Carel Struycken as the Giant; Hank Worden as the elderly waiter who discovers the wounded Coop; and even Frank Silva as Bob, the man who possessed Laura's dad to the point of murder.

Audrey's sexy saddle shoes and cherry-stem-twisting tongue have become symbols of how daring prime-time dramas can be. Last season's finale _ where the mill went up in flames and so did (we thought) some of the pivotal characters, and where Coop was shot three times (he was saved by a bulletproof vest) _ set a new standard for cliff-hangers.

But will Twin Peaks inspire the networks to seek other innovative fare? Not likely, any more so than small-town diners would consider dropping the cherry pie and damn fine cups of coffee from their menus.

Fall 1990 held some interesting items, but none were around long enough to settle in (notably the musical cop show, Cop Rock). And in 1991, the networks are playing it safe. As the Variety headline proclaims, "Fall Skeds Trade Class For Mass."

CBS did sneak in Northern Exposure, which grew on folks last summer. The series, set in Alaska, has garnered many favorable reviews. Sure, it's had some weird moments. In the season finale, for instance, the satellite-struck body of Maggie's boyfriend Rick was wheeled into the memorial service with the casket looking like a pin cushion.

But nothing due north or south of Twin Peaks could ever leave viewers asking themselves more often: What the hell is going on here?