LOS ANGELES -- You could tell who was coming for breakfast by the way the doughnuts were stacked.

There were all kinds: Doughnuts with jelly in them. Doughnuts with chocolate on them. Doughnuts with nuts in them. Some were frosted; others were powdered.

And all of them were stacked. They were in columns of three or four doughnuts each, neatly regimented in rank and file, just the way film director David Lynch had once seen them arranged, the image forever added to his repository of the eccentric, the strange and the weird.

The doughnuts, arrayed on a table outside a room where breakfast was being served, told you that the featured guests were cast members and production staff from ABC's offbeat "Twin Peaks."

The informal breakfast followed a press conference with Mark Frost who, with Lynch, is the executive producer, creator and writer of "Peaks." Some 100 television writers, gathered here for previews of fall TV shows, quizzed Frost and then mingled with 15 members of the cast over waffles, eggs and, of course, doughnuts and coffee -- damn good coffee, and hot, just the way agent Cooper likes it.

Between the conference and the coffee, it was a morning much like the series itself: full of teases, clues (many of them probably false), lush music and strange characters.

Frost provided most of the teases and clues in the press conference. While TV critics love the series -- a few days before the press conference, the series had received Best Drama and Program of the Year honors from the Television Critics Association -- there were nevertheless questions about the intent and direction of the show. Was it true, for instance, that he and Lynch were working with no real idea -- or concern -- about who killed Laura Palmer?

"No," said Frost. "We knew who it was from the very beginning, and we always planned to revel it at a certain time."

The idea that the critics, not to mention the series' audience, would need such basic assurance says a lot about how the show has become more than a mystery. With its odd collection of characters and seemingly aimless pace, the central question that informs the series -- who killed Laura Palmer, the high school homecoming queen in the Pacific Northwest hamlet of Twin Peaks? -- has almost become a side issue as FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) sort out the clues and, for Cooper's part, meditate on coffee, doughnuts and those lovely Douglas firs.

The "Twin Peaks" Log Lady, so named because she carries a log, is played by Catherine Colson, who has worked with Lynch on many of his projects. The association may be starting to take its toll. If asked for her autograph, reported someone who asked for her autograph, she produces a card with a log etched on it and signs it. The part is getting easier to play because the log, which may or may not contain clues to who killed Laura Palmer, is getting lighter. "When I first got the log, it was very heavy," said Colson. "It's drying out now and getting lighter. I have a 3 1/2-year-old daughter, and they weigh about the same."

For all of its critical acclaim, "Twin Peaks" has not been a success with the mass audience. When you hear the expression "cult favorite," you know a show is dying in the ratings. Indeed, the "Peaks" ratings generally slumped as the series went on last spring. ABC hopes to rally that audience by rerunning the series before the debut of new episodes.

In the fall, the show will run on Saturday night, the evening when television is watched least. The timeslot seems unkind, but ABC research says there's a sizable number of people who normally don't watch TV that night but who say they would return to network fare if a favorite show aired there.

"There's no rule that says people can't watch television on Saturdays," said Frost. "I think they've got in kind of a chicken-and-egg syndrome the last few years where the networks weren't really programming extremely watchable fare on a Saturday because they were conceding that night to a night out. But it wasn't that long ago that that was the night of 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'All in the Family' and 'Bob Newhart,' and that was the most-watched night of the week."

And if you've played Thursday night opposite "Cheers," how bad can Saturday be? "Twin Peaks" will test whether viewers can be lured away from cable and rented tapes.

The show has also tested viewers' patience. Many were led to expect a solution to the crime with the series' finale last season. Instead they got another mystery as agent Cooper took a bullet from an unknown assailant. So, will the mystery -- who killed Laura Palmer? -- be solved in the opening episode in the fall?

"Yeah," said Frost, "up to a point."

Coaxed, he added, "You're going to find out something that will satisfy that statement {that the mystery will be solved}. And then you'll find out some more stuff."

The maddening circularity of almost everything associated with "Peaks" may already have driven the audience away, and relentless teasing may not bring them back. Frost acknowledged that he heard some of the anger when the mystery did not end with the season finale.

"I got some of that, too," he said. "I changed my phone number."


"Well, no. I'm not serious, actually."

One of the suspects in the case is Dr. Jacoby, played by Russ Tamblyn. That he wears 3-D glasses -- each lens tinted a different color -- and has occasionally stuffed cigarettes in his ears doesn't help.

"I also wear turquoise orthopedic shoes," said Tamblyn. "I don't think you've seen them yet ... I'm a lot more scrupulous that people think," he said, perhaps offering a clue, perhaps not. "Many people suspect that Jacoby's the killer. It absolutely amazes me."

ABC has scheduled a "Twin Peaks" special on Sept. 29 that will bring up to speed viewers who've been away for the summer and maybe introduce a new element or two.

"Recap may be the wrong verb," said Frost. "We're going to do a kind of a strange introduction of a couple of new characters who will take us through some of the things that have happened, but also take us off into some odd corners of Twin Peaks. Not that you haven't seen some odd corners already, but we're still sort of working it out."

And once the series resumes with fresh episodes, Lynch, whose film work has included "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet" and "Dune," will be on hand to direct four of the first eight hours.

"He'll be around, as he was last year, to talk with me about story and look at scripts and kind of supervise our post-production," said Frost, who was a writer, story editor and executive story editor for "Hill Street Blues."

As the saga continues, Frost noted, some of the show's regulars may be killed off. But after the Laura Palmer mystery has been solved, maybe, agent Cooper will remain in Twin Peaks. "There are a lot of crimes the FBI gets involved in," said Frost. "Most of them are being committed in Twin Peaks even as we speak."

Kimmy Robertson surprises people. As Lucy Moran, the sheriff's switchboard operator, she was a fairly minor character. "She brought something to the part that surprised us," said Frost. People really responded to Lucy." There's another surprise when she speaks out of character: She sounds exactly like her character. That voice wasn't a put-on? No. She's also been signed by Hanna-Barbera to be a voice in a Saturday morning children's show. "I don't think Judy Holiday or Melanie Griffith worried about their voices," said Robertson.

She's one of the characters you hope doesn't get killed off, and she's reassuring on the subject: She said she has a contract for the next 13 episodes of the show. Robertson also expects her character, now pregnant, to be expanded a bit -- with further details, that is, about her past. So far, one of the highlights of her appearance was Lucy's was getting bumped from David Letterman's show by sportscaster Vin Scully. "David invited me the day after the pilot aired," she said, obviously interested in being reinvited.

Lucy may very well know more about Twin Peaks than her manner would suggest. "She has her finger on the pulse of the county," said Robertson. "She just acts very blonde."

"Twin Peaks'" Saturday night timeslot this fall is clearly a gamble for all concerned. Buoyed by the research that says there's an audience out there just waiting to be lured to the show, Frost was optimistic about their chances.

The series, he said, averaged a 23 share over its first run, not awful numbers in a time of dwindling network viewership. And the show was something of a communal experience: Nielsen research showed it had the highest per-screen viewership of any series, Frost said.

"I hope reruns will get viewers back on board," he said. "After we deal with Laura, I hope the story will be easier to follow. We'll start threads of new things. Maybe not quite so much will be happening at once ... We'll have fewer moving parts."

The room may divide when "Twin Peaks" is mentioned, but nearly everyone loves the show's haunting music.

"It's been bootlegged on the radio," said composer Angelo Badalamenti with the pride of a man who knows that piracy and plagiarism are the sincerest forms of flattery. He wrote the music for Lynch's "Blue Velvet," as well as "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Artists as diverse as Nancy Wilson and The Pet Shop Boys have recorded his music. Fans who combed the CD racks for Julee Cruise's taste of "Peaks" music can get a full meal next month, when a soundtrack album is released.

"I'm influenced by things that start in a conventional way and then go off center," said Badalamenti. "I look for dark beauty. Beautiful, but dark. Hypnotic, if you will."

So who killed Laura Palmer? A lot of viewers have ceased to care, either because they've given up on the series, as evidenced by the declining Nielsens, or because they have found other things in the show to appreciate. But whatever the fate of the series, that phrase has found a permanent place in pop culture.

"I always thought the murder was a great way to get to know the town," said Frost, "to introduce all the characters and involve everybody in a complicated mystery. And also to give us a chance to have a life, beyond the resolution of that mystery. So I was kind of amazed the way people responded to Laura Palmer. I can't remember a dead character ever getting that kind of response before over this long a period of time."