Director David Lynch says, ''The thing is about secrets.'' The ''thing'' is Twin Peaks, the wingdingiest thing to make it onto network television in many a full moon. In an already overquoted quote about his ominous, enthralling new prime-time soap opera, Lynch has called Twin Peaks ''Peyton Place meets Blue Velvet.'' It's that and more: It's Mayberry R.F.D. Goes Psycho; Pee-wee's Playhouse Has a Nervous Breakdown; and the first you-really-can't-miss-this show of the '90s.
At the start of Twin Peaks, the body of a young woman, wrapped in plastic, washes ashore in a small Northwestern mill village. The girl's blue-veined, death-frosted skin is in startling contrast to the lush, warm greens and blues of this verdant land.
There's a stately beauty to the way Lynch shoots the discovery of the corpse of Laura Palmer, a popular local girl, but even as you're becoming absorbed in the mystery of who killed her, Lynch and cowriter Mark Frost begin toying with their story's tone and rhythm.
The local police chief is improbably named Harry S. Truman, and he's played by Michael Ontkean, 16 years ago a rookie on The Rookies. Sheriff Truman is a pretty standard strong, silent type, but he has a gangling, neurotic deputy who collapses into racked sobbing upon seeing Laura's body. ''Come on,'' Truman hisses disgustedly, ''is this gonna happen every damn time?''
Very quickly, subplots surface: a power play for the ownership of the town's chief employer, Packard Sawmill, featuring Piper Laurie and The Last Emperor's Joan Chen; the unhappy marriage of Ed (Everett McGill), owner of Ed's Gas Farm, and his eye-patched wife; the romances and rivalries among the town's bored, looking-for-trouble teens. These are time-warped hoods who sneer, ''Hey, it's happy hour in France'' and swig whiskey from a flask at 8 in the morning. Lynch makes an erotic fetish out of close-ups of the saddle shoes worn by a sloe-eyed bad girl played by Sherilyn Fenn.
Meanwhile, Angelo Badalamenti's beautifully tense, overwrought music fills the soundtrack, and vaguely familiar faces loom up here and there: The Mod Squad's Peggy Lipton as a sassy coffee-shop owner; West Side Story's Russ Tamblyn as a randy ody ooat of a psychiatrist.
Best of all, there's Kyle MacLachlan, looking like a young, demented Robert Vaughn, as FBI agent Dale Cooper. MacLachlan, who was in Lynch's Blue Velvet, here does a witty variation on the zombie-alien cop he played in the neglected 1987 B-movie The Hidden.
MacLachlan's Cooper seems like a goofball at first, walking around dictating his most banal thoughts into a tape recorder. (''Had a piece of cherry pie that was incredible!'')
But then we see what Sheriff Truman sees: that Cooper's distracted dopiness is a cover for a brain working furiously, taking in every piece of information the world offers him and using it to solve his cases. MacLachlan has to deliver some of Lynch and Frost's most parodic, TV-spoofing dialogue, but he pulls it off with a devilish earnestness.
Will Twin Peaks be a hit? Not a chance in hell. (Well, maybe in hell.) Soaked corpses, sobbing deputies, and muttering G-men it's all very unsettling, as is Lynch's refusal to signal the emotion he wants the viewer to feel in any given scene.
But strong emotions are very close to the surface in Twin Peaks, and that may also make viewers uncomfortable. When Laura's mother learns her daughter is dead, she doesn't whimper and sniffle the way most prime-time grievers do; she emits a gut-wrenching moan and then wails so loudly the walls of her home seem to shake. It's a shocking moment, moving and repellent at the same time.
Much as I enjoyed being unsettled thrown for Lynch's loop I also recognize that that's not what most people watch TV for, and I'm guessing that a hefty percentage of the millions who'll tune in out of curiosity won't make it past Peaks' grim first 15 minutes. Groans of ''Honey, we're missing Married With Children for this?'' will resound throughout this great land, as remote-control trigger-fingers get itchy.
Cynical, anti-art NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff has phrased it perfectly: ''I probably would want to live in a country where something like (Twin Peaks) could work,'' he told The Washington Post, ''but I suspect it will be a tough road for them.'',p>A show like this also invites all the standard philistine complaints ''It's boring''; ''It's pretentious''; ''Who wants to think when you're watching television?'' some of which I fully expect to hear from TV critics trying to break away from the pack.
But Twin Peaks is different from most other shows that have striven to be innovative, from Larry Gelbart's United States to Jay Tarses' The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. For one thing, Peaks is good engrossing and funny; for another, it doesn't carry those shows' stink of smugness.
David Lynch isn't condescending to television. While Twin Peaks shares with his feature films an eerie airiness and sinister non sequiturs, it has its own video style. Lynch has crafted the two-hour pilot around its commercial breaks, making what he has called ''little movies,'' segments that build and climax before an ad dispels the mood. Twin Peaks makes you aware of just how slapped together most TV entertainment is; its calm, deliberate eccentricity is a virtue in itself.
ABC continues to be the only network taking bold chances. Elvis may or may not be dead, but, for seven more hour-long episodes starting April 12, the bodies and the non sequiturs will pile up, eccentricities will deepen into dementia, and Twin Peaks will live. Be there. A+