What do we mean by "TV failures"? There are many ways to categorize television failure, but the most common measure is economic: if a show has too few viewers to get renewed, it’s considered a failure. Longevity is often linked to this division: the longer a show stays on the air, the more successful it is.
The more we think about this division between success and failure, however, the less it makes sense. As an example of the paradoxical qualities of "TV failure," I want to consider a show judged by most critics to end in unmitigated disaster: David Lynch's and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. After the initial mystery of who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer was (sort of ) solved, the show struggled to establish another compelling central question and hemorrhaged viewers. Audiences were dissatisfied with the hazy final resolution—was the killer Laura’s father or the psychopathic evil spirit BOB? The answer, it seemed, was both.
Part of why Twin Peaks was so popular initially and why it finally lost viewers was that it balanced the demands of episodic and serialized storytelling in a new way: a long-term question with a determined ending was balanced with the ongoing narrative demands of a soap opera. Its "failure" laid the groundwork for wildly popular serialized storytelling down the line, from The X-Files to LOST. While Lynch and Frost were ultimately unable to stretch out the question of Laura’s murder for as long as they wanted, their experimentation prepared readers to wait six years to discover the secrets of LOST island.
At the same time, Twin Peaks's commercial failure allowed Lynch and Frost to take creative risks that resulted in scenes such as the one included here: without a doubt the scariest eight minutes I've ever seen on prime-time television. Since they no longer needed to worry about alienating viewers, they could include images like dead-eyed screaming Laura that might prove off-putting for mainstream prime-time audiences. Eventually, all serials end, but "refusal" finales such as that of Twin Peaks or the famously divisive end to The Sopranos stave off disappointment by refusing answers altogether.