If Twin Peaks was lightning in a bottle, On The Air was a lightning bug by comparison. With their first television collaboration, Mark Frost and David Lynch created a pop culture phenomenon that captured the imagination of a mass audience beyond the wildest dreams of ABC, the network that aired it. The first season of Twin Peaks was such a water-cooler hit, it propelled Lynch from cult director status to the cover of Time magazine. It’s no wonder that the network executives were eager to stay in the Lynch-Frost business and willing to green-light their next project, whatever it might be. By the time that project came to fruition, however, it was a completely different story. The Twin Peaks bubble had burst, and there was no appetite at ABC for its follow-up, an absurdist comedy that, to be fair, probably would have failed even under the best of circumstances.
Lynch conceived On The Air during a sound-mixing session for Twin Peaks, then in its second season and suffering in the ratings after an ill-conceived move to Saturday night. Usually Lynch speaks of his inspiration in ethereal terms—casting his fishing line into the great sea of creativity and so forth—but this one is pretty straightforward: the cast and crew of a television show doing their best while everything is going wrong around them. He and Frost set the series in 1957 at the fictional Zoblotnick Network as it prepares to launch a new variety series called The Lester Guy Show. The pilot episode, co-written by Frost and Lynch and directed by Lynch, was shot in March 1991, by which time Twin Peaks had been pulled from the schedule with no guarantee it would ever return. (ABC did eventually burn off the remaining episodes, but the writing was already on the wall.) The On The Air pilot tested surprisingly well with audiences, and the network ordered six additional episodes. Twin Peaks was canceled in June of 1991, but On The Air would not surface until a year later.
The production was stacked with Twin Peaks alums both in front of and behind the camera. Ian Buchanan, who played unctuous dandy Dick Tremayne in the second season of Peaks, starred as Lester Guy, the faded movie star attempting a small-screen comeback. The late Miguel Ferrer, formerly acerbic FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield, was cast as the similarly short-tempered network president Bud Budwaller. David L. Lander, who turned up as accident-prone Tim Pinkle in several of the most misbegotten subplots of Peaks’ second season, was brought on as bizarrely accented director Valdja Gochktch. Behind the scenes, ex-Peaks talent included writers Robert Engels and Scott Frost, directors Lesli Linka Glatter and Jonathan Sanger, cinematographer Ron García, editor Mary Sweeney, and composer Angelo Badalamenti.
Alas, all of this talent proved to be no guarantee that lightning would strike twice. The Lynch-directed pilot serves as both the fullest expression of On The Air’s potential and a vivid demonstration of the limits of the show’s premise. The first half of the episode is clunky and weighed down with exposition, but it effectively sets the pieces in place for what is to follow: Despite facing such challenges as an incomprehensible director, a visually impaired sound effects technician, and an untested, empty-headed ingenue in a co-starring role, the cast and crew of The Lester Guy Show manage to pull off a successful rehearsal of their premiere episode, which will air live on the Zoblotnick Network. The second half of the pilot is a mini-masterpiece of absurdist comedy, a Rube Goldberg-esque slapstick machine in which everything that can possibly go wrong during that live broadcast does so.
Comic elements have always been a part of Lynch’s palette, but the comedic is often intertwined with the unsettling (as in the famous second-season opener of Twin Peaks, in which a doddering room-service waiter fails to take notice of Agent Cooper bleeding out on the floor). Here, in one 10-minute burst, we get a concentrated dose of what Lynch finds funny: ridiculous sight gags (the man with his suspenders stuck in the drawer); visual puns (the hotline that shoots fire); off-the-wall non sequiturs (jungle tribesmen dragging a raft through a domestic scene for no apparent reason); communication breakdown (the hopeless accents of Gochktch and his uncle, network owner Mr. Zoblotnick); and general cacophony (all the sound effects going at once while Lester swings helplessly by his feet). It’s a tour de force, but not one that cries out to be replicated on a weekly basis. When it’s over, there’s really nowhere left to go.
The pilot’s twist is that The Lester Guy Show turns out to be a surprise hit thanks to ingenue Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), who wins over America with her spontaneous rendition of an insipid song called “The Bird In The Tree.” This turn of events sets up a formulaic template for the subsequent episodes, with a jealous Lester Guy and his accomplice, head of comedy Nicole Thorne (Kim McGuire), spending the first half of each episode plotting a way to get the audience back on his side, only to see it go disastrously awry in the second half. Buchanan delivers a finely calibrated light comic performance as Lester; his Dick Tremayne never really fit into the world of Twin Peaks, but the same brand of ingratiating smarm translates beautifully here. Rubinoff is basically doing a much dumber version of Peaks’ Lucy Moran, but manages to make the character endearing nonetheless. Ferrer is essentially reprising Albert Rosenfield as a network executive, while Lander’s fractured syntax initially amuses before growing tiresome over the long haul.
Not that there was much of a long haul. After consigning On The Air to the same Saturday-night dead zone that doomed Twin Peaks, ABC yanked it after airing only three of the seven completed episodes. For his part, Lynch never thought the show was given a fair shake, telling the L.A. Times on the eve of its premiere, “When I love the show, and people seem to love the show, what’s wrong when we’re not given a primo spot?” (Ferrer was even more direct, saying “Why don’t they just put a bullet in its head?”) The criticism is fair enough, but it’s hard to imagine On The Air thriving for long, even if given a lavish promotional rollout and a friendlier time slot.
All seven episodes were released on VHS in the early ’90s, but never on DVD (aside from bootlegs), and they remain unavailable on streaming services. Although Mark Frost hinted on Twitter that an official release may come to pass eventually, the series remains hard to find, although episodes occasionally turn up on YouTube. Lynch directed only the pilot, and the subsequent episodes suffer from a more conventional tone. Gags that worked as one-offs (“The Hurry Up Twins,” a conjoined pair sharing a sweater, or the visualization of Blinky the sound effect technician’s “Boazman’s Simplex,” a condition that causes him to see 25.62 times as much as we do) grow staler with each repetition, and the predictable structure wears thin after only a few iterations. Aside from the pilot, the best episode is the finale, written by Lynch and Robert Engels and directed by Lynch’s longtime friend Jack Fisk. In that final half-hour, a beatnik performer called The Woman With No Name performs an avant-garde dance while Lester and Nicole attempt to sabotage Betty with an experimental voice disruptor. The result isn’t quite the Red Room dream sequence from Twin Peaks, but by 1992, it was definitely too weird for ABC. While Peaks has had an enduring afterlife following its cancellation, to the point where it’s about to return with its first new episodes in over 25 years, On The Air remains a largely forgotten footnote. If it were revived someday, that would be stranger than anything Agent Cooper ever dreamed.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo. With David Lynch at the helm, it could hardly be anything else.