Saturday, May 01, 2010

TV REVIEW: Happy Town: "In This Home on Ice"

Terror television boasts a long and noble history of escorting audiences to dark, mysterious burbs in out-of-the-way corners of America.

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.


  1. So far it's a mixed bag, but I'm curious to see where it goes. I did like the lead girl and I think she'll be interesting, and I adored Sam Neill, who I think will be the most fun character to watch...

    Let's see how this plays out...

  2. I'm going to have try and catch this initial episode. You've also reminded me that I need to get into the AMERICAN GOTHIC series DVD I got from a good friend of mine (that and HARPER'S ISLAND). Thanks for this, John.

  3. I'm not quite sold on this show yet. As you point out, it seems to be cribbing heavily from both TWIN PEAKS and AMERICAN GOTHIC. With the exception of Sam Neill's character (which seems like a delicious riff on James Mason's Mr. Barlow in SALEM'S LOT), none of the characters really grab me or make me care about them. I'm still willing to give it a chance but if the ratings are any indication, it's not going to last long.

  4. MrEvil2:11 PM

    I've realized that it's really difficult to judge genre tv shows based on their first seasons. I cannot think of many sci-fi/fantasy shows that didn't have terribly formulaic first seasons - I wouldn't be fan of "Farscape" or "Supernatural" if those shows ended after their first seasons. I've heard "Fringe" had some amazing episodes lately and even heard people praising "Vampire diaries", (they say that it got really entertaining later in the season). I've noticed that this happens usually with shows that start with series of MOTW episodes, terrible arc-based shows don't get better or get cancelled. Seems like "Happy town" won't last town, but I urge you to revisit "Supernatural" - that's really an example of show that "grew the beard". While the plotting is often uneven and even nonsensical, the great characterisation and chemistry between two leads gives it surprising depth. It's the second most enjoyable sci-fi/fantasy show at the moment (the first is of course "Doctor Who" - by the way, what do you think of Matt Smith episodes?). The problem with it that while it advertised itself as horror show, it isn't very scary. However, it works great as dark fantasy mixed with family great.

  5. Hey Mr. Evil,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. In some cases, I agree with you: it's hard to judge a series by its first season (or worse, just by its first episode). I have heard good things about Supenatural over the years, and have started to hear rumblings about Vampire Diaries too. And this makes me wonder: are the shows actually improving, or are audiences just getting "used to" the mediocrity? I don't have an answer for that by the way, I'm just wondering. I would certainly be willing to go back and give Supernatural another try.

    Honesty in blogging: I hated Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the first season and half of the second season. If I hadn't been implored by my wife to sit down and pay attention, and BE PATIENT, I wouldn't have seen how great that show was. So I'm not perfect.

    But, I also have personal experience with shows that people say "got better" (Babylon 5 for example), and after watching season after season, I just didn't see the improvement. Hence my comment about just getting into the groove of the particular mediocrity offered by the show at hand.

    I am very behind on Doctor Who! I still have not seen the last two Tennant seasons; and have seen no Matt Smith shows.

    I'm promising to catch up on SGU, Legend of the Seeker, and Caprica in the months ahead! I should probably add Dr. Who to the list.

    I recently dropped V, because it just seemed to be on a monumentally uninteresting path.

    Currently, I'm watching the fourth season of the non-sci-fier, Weeds.


  6. Mr.Evil8:26 AM

    I don't think it's matter of people getting used to mediocrity, it's more about getting used to some of the more superficial aspects of the shows. Supernatural seems like a rather shallow show. Who would that a show about two great-looking young guys hunting demons could evolve into a moving family drama? Even we start enjoying that kind of show, we often think 'oh God, this show has such a ridiculous premise, I shouldn't be enjoying that!'. Of course we, genre fans, are used to ridicilous premises, but show which is seems to be a copy of more popular and acclaimed shows (in this case Buffy and X-Files) will obviously be looked upon as something not worth watching, at least in the beginning.
    Supernatural is rather unique in that it focuses on relationships, but doesn't have much romance. Also, it focuces almost solely on two characters (first season almost doesn't have background cast!), which is good, because we get to know and care about them really well. And, while the plot does get convoluted in later seasons, the focus is still on characters. It doesn't hurt that the acting really improved. So even when some story elements did not work, I was very invested because I REALLY cared about characters. It doesn't hurt that acting really improved. It seems that about halfway in first season both actors and writers figured out how to make their characters more than just one-note stereotypes.
    About Babylon 5 - this is a show of unrealized potential. It needs to be remade someday, because story-wise it may have been actually the best show ever, but some terrible acting and low production values killed a lot of enjoyment for me. The first season, while weaker than all of the others, is actually quite indicative of the quality of the show, because it has all the bad and good elements of the show, but the good elements are not fully visible.

    It may get frustrating for genre fans, but I love the feeling when show I didn't think could be interesting surprises me with its depth. However, I have easy solution for this problem - I usually ignore shows that don't seem interesting to me and catch up with them if I hear some praise about them. I don't live in USA so rating don't depend on me, but you are a critic and you have to rate what you see. You can't praise first episodes of shows, just because those shows may get better sometime later. So, I fully understand you.

    I'm surprised that you thought my comment was thoughtful - I made some terrible language mistakes. English is not my primary language and I write quickly, so my comments often look as if they were written by 8-year old.

  7. I was a fan of AMERICAN GOTHIC and TWIN PEAKS is pretty much my favorite thing ever. This I've got to check out, but I'm coming to it late. Hopefully I'll either find it on Demand here in Canada, or I'll have to wait for a DVD release. Really sounds like some fun.

  8. Everyone who can should catch up watching the episodes online at and then Tues nite at 10e/7pac watch episode 3 and join us on twitter @HappyTownTV . You will find the chat VERY interesting since we will have SURPRISE guests from the show answering a few questions
    Click below for details