It’s best when watching a pilot to keep an open mind. Luckily for ABC’s Happy Town, I went in with my mind wide open. Led by an all-star cast, (Sam Neill, Steven Weber, Frances Conroy, M.C. Gainey) this less-than-stellar Twin Peaks wannabe focuses on the eccentric townsfolk of a small hamlet, beset by mystery, magic, and murder. The story is derivative, the tension is overwrought, and the writing is atrocious, but my snickers of disdain eventually gave way to a genuinely piqued curiosity. By the end of it, I was transfixed, mesmerized by ABC’s ability to pull an intriguing and mysterious drama out of its mid-season bag of tricks. Damnit! How do I keep getting hooked on these shows?!
Welcome to Happy Town. Population: Needs more viewers!
The premise of Happy Town treads dangerously close on familiar territory, borrowing heavily from such shows as Picket Fences, American Gothic, and Harper’s Island, to name a few. Henley Boone moves to the quaint town of Haplin, Minnesota, aka Happy Town, just as a grisly murder breaks the town’s five-year stretch of being crime free. Deputy Tommy Conroy and his father, the Sheriff, try to maintain order as the murder sends shockwaves through the town’s residents, conjuring up memories of a series of unsolved kidnappings by an elusive figure known only as “The Magic Man.”
The show aims for a moody atmosphere to rival The X-Files, but barely passes muster with The Vampire Diaries. Everything is rendered ominous: The full moon! Shadows! A crow! Rain! Even Haplin’s bread-winner, quite literally a bread factory which sits atop the town, is meant to come across as sinister. The show picks up steam, however, when Henley discovers a recurring symbol of a question mark with a halo over it, and is forbidden from exploring the third floor of the boarding house where she resides. But it is Sam Neill who is the show’s secret weapon. As mysterious memorabilia shop owner, Merritt Grieves, he ignites every scene with such fear and ferocity, it is impossible to know what exactly he is hiding. He alone gives Happy Town its credibility, and it is on his shoulders that the show has any hope of scaring up an audience.
A couple is making out in a car on an icy, deserted road. The skank gets out, walks around the car, and kisses her mysterious, faceless boyfriend goodbye before trudging home through the snowy woods. Why the secrecy? Why the unnecessary peril? This chick is stupid and deserves to get killed. She hears a scream coming from an ice fishing shack on the frozen lake. There’s a noise behind her! Chh chh chh ahh ahh ahh! She sees shadows in the shack, then more screams and yelling. Suddenly there’s a crow behind her! Then, gasp! Rain! “You gotta be kidding me, dude!” she moans. Sorry, Michelle Tanner. You shoulda had your loser boyfriend drop you off at home!
Georgia is being stalked … by cliches and bad writing.
Inside the ice fishing shack, a toothless country bumpkin is being tortured by a mysterious assailant. His teeth are knocked out, he’s drowned, and then tied up. The assailant points a gun to his head. Begging for his life, he whispers something crucial to shadowy figure. Then, as a reward, he gets a giant nail hammered through his head.
The Magic Man asks a few loaded questions.
Cut to a train station. Wait, who travels by train anymore?! A girl in a shearling coat steps off the train with a lone suitcase and a guitar. What a cliché! Henley is greeted by Miranda Kirby, her “full service realtor” who looks like Harvey Fierstein in a red wig, and continually invades Henley’s personal space. She grabs Henley’s guitar case, gives her some candy, and lures her into her van. Miranda asks what brings Henley to Haplin. Henley explains that her mother used to vacation in Haplin, and she spoke fondly of this place before she died. The line is equal parts backstory and buzzkill.
If Joy Behar had a drunk hookup with a Who from Whoville, Miranda Kirby would be their love child.
Geoff Stults chuga-choo-choo’s into the kitchen and kisses his wife, played by Amy Acker. How are these two old enough to have a 10-year old daughter? Stults plops his daughter into his lap and literally introduces each of them outloud: He is the son of the sheriff in a town with no crime. Mommy has an important job at the bread factory. And daughter Emma needs to see an orthodontist, stat! This is exposition at its worst.
Even daughter Emma is embarrassed by Geoff Stults’ acting.
Back in Miranda’s rapemobile, Henley is explaining that she wants to open up a candle shop in town with her inheritance. LOL. Miranda then points out the Our Daily bread factory, or “Breadie” as the locals call it. Ain’t nothing wrong with a town that smells like pastries! Better yet, how about a town that smells like bacon?! Henley frowns when they pass a church where someone has spray painted a question mark with a halo over it.
A question mark, wrapped in an enigma.
Over at Big Dave’s Pizza Barn, Miranda is introducing Henley to the yokels. I mean, locals. There’s Abraham Benrubi as Big Dave, and Eli, a doofus ginger cop named ‘Root Beer.’ “It’s a small town,” he explains. “Eveeryone gets a nickname!” Ok, then Miranda’s nickname is Miss Piggy. Root Beer has a little extra foam on the head when he spots Henley. But then he, too, is summoned over the walkie by the sheriff.
Meet Deputy Dewey, part duh.
The sheriff finds Steven Weber in the middle of a “fracas.” Nice SAT word, grandpa. Weber is a rich mucky-muck who’s met with opposition by the flannel-clad townsfolk when he tries to hang a memorial banner in the middle of town. The banner reads: ‘Remember to Never Forget.’ There’s the question mark with the halo again, as well as pictures of The Magic Man’s seven victims, including that of Weber’s daughter, Abigail Haplin. A brawl erupts, and Doltz gets clocked. The sheriff bans the banner.
Is this a memorial? Or is the circus in town?
Doltz and the sheriff are called to Mac’s Pond. The sheriff lectures his son on how to command presence. Then he waxes poetic about the inevitability of a natural and unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the natural course of events. (Think Spencer joining the cast of The Hills.)
“I’d tell that to Chloe if ever I saw her again,” muses the sheriff.
“Who?” asks Doltz.
“What?” The sheriff looks blankly at his son.
“Who’s Chloe?” Doltz asks.
“Who?” the sheriff asks back, genuinely confused.
Who cares about Chloe? I want to know who is writing this crap! Inside the ice fishing shack, they find a dead body with a hole drilled clean through his head. It’s here that I’m reminded of the first episode of Picket Fences, when Tom Skerritt, playing the sheriff of an idyllic, peaceful Midwestern town found a dead body in a dishwasher, and some wise ass cracked, “Murder has come to Rome, Wisconsin!”
Is it just my head, or is it a little drafty in here?
Miss Piggy takes Henley by the hand to a quaint boarding house until she can find her “something a little more permanent.” Ever heard of a Holiday Inn? The house mother, Dot Meadows, introduces her to the widows who live there: Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sofia. Rose thinks Henley is cuter than a mouse’s pocketbook! I love me some old-fashioned speak, but what the hell is a mouse’s pocketbook?! That sounds like a bunch of hooey and malarkey! Irene comments that she used to look like Henley when she was younger. CLUE! I smell a long-lost grandma! Irene says she has the picture to prove it, and one of the old hens laughs that they didn’t have cameras in the 1400′s. Ugh. Groan!
Henley interrupts a meeting of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Dot introduces Mr. Grieves, played by Sam Neill, and for the first time in this show, I am finally scared. Sam Neill has starred in some seriously scary shit! Event Horizon? In The Mouth of Madness? The Piano?! Mr. Grieves moved here 3 months ago to open a movie memorabilia store. Oh, and the third floor is strictly off limits. Henley thinks this is funny. “We’re not joking,” Mrs. Meadows says solemnly. Nice. You can tell they were aiming for Rebecca, but it comes off like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Amy Acker is giving a class a tour of the bread factory. This is her important job?! She’s a docent?! Steven Weber, apparently the boss, watches from on high, then calls his distraught wife, Carol, who is moping around in Abigail’s bedroom.
Dayum! Steven Weber has not been aging well!
Root Beer and Tommy show up to tell Donna Friddle, the widow, that her husband is dead. “We think he was murdered,” Root Beer says with all the sensitivity of an anvil. His words hit her like a nail being hammered into her head, and she freaks out in front of the kids’ tour group, throwing flour at Doltz like a crazy woman. Worst “I’ve just been informed my husband is dead” acting I’ve ever seen.
This lady should be working in a canned ham factory.
At school, Georgia is taunted by class bully Andrew Haplin for being from the wrong side of the tracks and for having a meth-addled father.
Stults is reprimanded for bringing the widow to the police station instead of taking her home. He then blabs to Big Dave (why is he there?!) that there was a murder.
Georgia confronts her bully – who is secretly her boyfriend! They can’t tell anyone about their rendezvous at Mac’s Pond the night of the murder, because their families hate each other and their forbidden love would be exposed! Groan! Even Georgia says she is tired of this Romeo & Juliet dreck.
Happy Town just got a whole lot happier.
Donna says her pervy husband had a rep for being a skulker, but her never touched anyone. And he wasn’t the Magic Man! Calm down, lady! No one thinks he was smart enough to pull off seven kidnappings! She then says he was always being harassed by the Stiviletto brothers. The sheriff suddenly snaps into a trance and asks, “At what point did Chloe contact you? Did you realize the glow from her mouth was the silvery moon?” The sheriff snaps back and asks about the Stivilettos. Everyone in the room is dumbfounded, but no one asks him what that was all about. WTF?!
The sheriff and his son, Opie, question the Stiviletto brothers, 4 dimwit backwoods brothers who run a dump. They look like extras from Daigon Alley. “Does Chloe know you’re here?” the sheriff asks. Ok, this Chloe thing is getting ridicks.
Wow. How is it possible that these trash titans are still single?
Henley pops into Merritt Grieves’ movie memorabilia shop, The House of Ushers, and comments that his merch might not be high on the list of priorities to Haplin’s residents. Um, rude! Is hawking candles any better?! He tells her about a film that inspired him, called “The Blue Door.” It was a gateway, a portal into the heart of man and revealed the secrets of the universe. If anyone else said this, I would die laughing, but Sam Neill turns it into an uber creepfest. Totally reminds me of American Gothic‘s tagline, “Someone’s at the door.”
Henley asks about the Magic Man. Grieves says he had an ability to make people disappear so completely it bordered on the mystical. Someone vanished every year for seven years, and then it stopped. Did he die? Did he move away? Did he lose interest? Did he return? Or did he slip quietly through the blue door…? Freaky!
Sam Neill and his creepy movie poster sent shivers up my spine.
Henley takes a shower, then walks curiously past the stairs to the third floor. Dot Meadows startles her and insists she come down for supper – cabbage soup. Barf!
Doltz asks again who Chloe is, but the sheriff claims he has no idea. Doltz wants him to see the town doctor.
At the dinner table, Rose pries into Henley’s business. They then tell her about the “unfortunate” murder of the town weirdo. The women all bristle when Merritt stop by on his way out for the night. Everyone has a giggle at what a trollop Rose is, and frigid Dot Meadows calls everyone back to their soup. Party pooper!
Dot tries to corral the libidos of the horny old goats at her table.
The sheriff is at Big Dave’s, having a laugh. But he freaks out when he sees Merritt. “I thought after our talk last week you would have left my county by now,” he growls. Merritt stands his ground, then tells the sheriff he dropped his wedding band. The sheriff looks at his hand as if the ring disappeared by magic, then snatches it back from Merritt’s hand. They so badly want us to think he is the Magic Man, and Neill sells it hardcore with his evil smile and menacing eyebrows.
One ring to fool them all.
Amy Acker is yapping about the upcoming Thaw Fest. Georgia can’t believe the town is going through with it in light of the murder. I can’t believe the babysitter is staying over for dinner! The phone rings. Tommy answers. There’s trouble at the station!
Doltz rushes into the police station where his father has locked himself in his office and is shouting gibberish. “Open the door, pop!” he pleads. “If you touch the baby Jesus, I’ll make you wear the cow suit!” the sheriff shouts back. WTF?! “Chloe burned the can!”
Ruh roh! Someone’s gone crazy!
Henley whips out a flashlight and leaves a message on her phone. “Hi, ma, it’s me.” Her mother is alive?! Nice twist! I was just about to give up on this crapfest. “I’m going up. I’ll call you if I find anything.” Up to the third floor?! Ok, this is getting delicious!
“Hello?” says the voice at the other end. “Oh, you’re there,” Henley breathes. “It’s me. Chloe.” Whoa! TWIST! The camera zooms in on her shoulder, to reveal a tattoo of a question mark with a halo! MEGA TWIST!!
I don’t think that tattoo was a drunken decision. This chick is dark and twisted!
Back to the sheriff’s ramblings. “Blood has been spilled again. Everything will unravel! He’ll be back. Man’s capacity for evil. He’ll thrive in the shadows. You can’t stop him! We never could. He’s a magic man.”
Merritt grins ghoulishly as Henley / Chloe ascends the staircase to the third floor and puts her hand on a doorknob. Dun dun dun!
You better watch your back, girl!
The sheriff takes an axe off the wall and cuts off his left hand! Sick! (But cool!)
Was he possessed by the ring?! I woulda given that thing to Goodwill!
A crack in the ice travels across Mac’s Pond to the empty ice fishing shack. Suddenly, a mysterious figure appears inside! David Copperfield?! A gloved hand pulls the door tightly shut! Ok, so … not the best pilot I’ve ever seen. But I’m curious to see where it goes from here. More next week!
Thank god for Sam Neill!