Starting way back on Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971), with a detour to David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991), with a jog over to Trinity, South Carolina (in Shaun Cassidy's American Gothic [1995-1996]), right up to last year's slasher paradigm revival, set on scenic Harper's Island, it's been quite the exciting and imaginative tour.
This week, ABC introduced viewers to the latest strange destination: Haplin, or "Happy Town," Minnesota, a hotbed of intrigue, lies and dark secrets.
Directed by Gary Fleder, the first episode of Happy Town kicks off with bloody murder. In an ice shack on frozen Mack's Pond, a hooded killer murders an unpopular local by pounding a spike through his head with a mallet. This inaugural scene is assembled almost entirely out of quick cuts, but the violence is intense...and messy.
It turns out this fresh murder isn't the first major crime to occur in the normally quiet Haplin, either. Twelve years ago, a psychopath called "The Magic Man" began abducting residents; one a year for five long years. Locals now live in fear that this "Magic Man" may return, and continue his evil pastime. Some folks seem to think that he might even be of supernatural origin.
What I enjoyed about the premiere episode of Happy Town is the way the pilot episode establishes several mysteries. The first and most intriguing one involves the "eternally dashing" but highly-sinister, Luciferian figure played by Sam Neill, Mr. Merritt Grieves.
Grieves owns a movie memorabilia shop on Main Street, and discusses, in an impressive and unsettling sequence, his favorite movie from childhood: a 1921 movie called "The Blue Door," concerning a gateway "into the heart of man."
I have the feeling we'll be hearing a lot more about this fictional old film in future episodes, and hope we even get to see some clips from the production. Already, from first mention, The Blue Door got me thinking about Twin Peaks' malevolent Black Lodge.
Another mystery is even more simple, but equally interesting. In the local boarding house, new Haplin arrivee, Henley Boone (Lauren German), learns that the third floor is off-limits to all renters. We are provided a brief peek up a long, dark staircase (with an eerie blue light emanating from above...). As the first episode ends, Henley resolves to check it out, and I, for one, would like to know what's up there.
One element of the pilot I didn't care much for involved the local sheriff, played by M.C. Gainey, constantly disassociating in the middle of important police interviews and repetitively mentioning a mystery character named "Chloe." Personally, I think he's been hypnotized to do this by the sardonic Mr. Grieves, but still, some degree of subtlety in the subplot would have been a nice choice. The sheriff disassociates and mentions Chloe three times in just the first 33-minutes of the episode.
We get it.
Chloe's someone important and the episode's surprise ending revelation bears that out.
I can't say that I warmed much to many of the dramatis personae in Happy Town. At least not yet. The Conroy family, consisting of bread-factory worker and mother, Rachel (Amy Acker) and milquetoast cop Dad,Tom (Geoff Stults) didn't seem particularly interesting, impressive or intelligent. They are very white-bread indeed. Contrarily, I found the colorful widow's club at the boarding house and mysterious Mr. Grieves far more compelling. And besides, who wouldn't want to visit his movie memorabilia shop, called "The House of Ushers?" I don't want to say I'd sell my soul to get a look at the store's movie merchandise, because I feel certain Grieves would comply...
I caught CBS's Harper's Island on DVD not long ago and fell in love with that blunt, brutal, inventive show, but this season's fresh TV fare has left me cold. For the most part, it's been woefully stupid and pitched low (V, FlashForward, and The Vampire Diaries -- j'accuse!)
With a few exceptions, the pilot of Happy Town looks to be a bit smarter than those series, though I realize that's faint praise. I hope Happy Town doesn't rush to solve all of its mysteries too fast, but since the ratings for the premiere episode last Wednesday were pretty terrible, I have the feeling our visit to this unusual, but interesting town may be short-lived. I've been told, after all, that ABC stands for Already Been Canceled.