Happy Town: In This Home on Ice (Pilot)

“People call it Happy Town. Because they know. They know.”

ABC’s latest attempt at replacing Lost made its first appearance last night. Part David Lynch, part Neil Gaiman, part Shirley Jackson, part Stephen King... the list could go on. This show has lots of moving parts, lots of characters, lots of mystery, lots of symbolism (this list could go on, too). The bigger question, though, is whether or not it's worth our time. At this point, all I can say is that it has potential, but it also has lots of flaws. This review doesn’t ruin any major surprises, but it does get into the episode in a lot of detail. Caveat lector.

Haplin, Minnesota is a small town with a dark past: twelve years ago, people started disappearing—one a year for seven years. The last to disappear was the young daughter of the Haplin clan, who give their name to the town and its county. Town lore dubbed the abductor the Magic Man, and no one knows what became of him or his victims.

This town is full of quirky character types, from the “full-service realtor” who also runs a boarding house filled with sex-starved, well-coiffed, perky widows, to one mysterious Merritt Grieves, played by Sam Neill (neat!). The boarding house has a mysterious third floor that is off-limits to all of the residents, including newbie Henley, whose origins and motives are just as mysterious.

The Haplin family is doyenne Peggy (Frances Conroy, from Six Feet Under), son John (Steven Weber), his wife who is still mourning their missing daughter. There’s also a Haplin son (I think maybe John’s son, or a much younger brother). They run the Our Daily Bread factory that overlooks Happy Town just like that creepy house in ‘Salem’s Lot, or like the mill in Twin Peaks, or like the shotgun on the mantle in a Chekov play. Their pervasive influence is symbolized by the fact that the whole town smells like bread, and everyone claims to be covered in flour (invisible flour, I guess). Why a small town would need so much bread—one more mystery.

The Conroy family is papa Griffin (Mr. Friendly from Lost), son Tommy, his wife Rachel (Amy Acker! Amy Acker!), and the daughter that they haven’t lost. Dad and son represent law and order, and Sheriff Griffin’s desire to just keep the darn peace often comes in conflict with the Haplins’ desire to run the town their way. The two families are, um, mirror images of each other, which is, like, symbolic of the way the town is, uh, pulled in two directions or something.

There’s also the family Stiviletto, who look so inbred that they must be evil. Plus, they yell at their angry dogs. And I think they live in a tar-paper shack, which has got to be tough during those Minnesota winters. Oh, and there’s a high schooler who baby sits for the Conroys, whose father is a meth dealer, and whose boyfriend is that Haplin son whose parentage I can’t figure out. (The Romeo and Juliet connection is worked into the dialogue, in case we couldn’t figure it out on our own.)

With the exception of Peggy Haplin, we meet every single one of these people, as well as a few supporting players, in the one-hour pilot. That means we get a lot of exposition in the dialogue. Really a lot. On top of the Magic Man backstory, there’s a current mystery: the opening scene is a man being tortured, interrogated, and killed in a rather interesting way in an ice shack on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Who killed him? Why? What does it mean for this bucolic icy town?

That’s the obvious mystery. Sam Neill’s character is the more interesting one, though: he lives in the boarding house with the super-creepy tyrannical real estate agent, he has only been in town for three months, and he’s opening a movie memorabilia shop. As if that weren’t weird enough, he has a strange effect on the people around him: not only does he throw Mr. Friendly completely off his game, his interactions with the other characters seem to shift everyone into Old Fashioned Speech. Seriously: the real estate agent offers him “bicarbonate of soda” for an upset stomach, and in talking to him, Henley uses “one” instead of “you,” which no American has done since at least the Truman administration. Is his character really so magnetic that he shifts everyone around him into slightly off-kilter versions of themselves? Is he Haplin’s Leland Gaunt? What does he know, and why isn’t he telling? Neill manages to play this character with his tongue just a little bit in his cheek, which is exactly what’s called for at this point.

So those are the characters, and that’s the plot. What about the execution? So far, it’s only so-so. It really does seem to be pulling inspiration from every delightfully addictive book or TV show that I can think of. And we can add to the kitchen sink some wacky iconography (the Magic Man is associated with a question mark topped by a halo), some religious symbolism (bread, bread, everywhere: sacrifice is death, but through death is life, etc.), and that same glossy sheen that all of ABC’s shows have now that the network is succeeding. And while the lack of Minnesota accents is a black mark in the verisimilitude book, it’s a good thing for those of us who find them both hilarious and unbearable.

Creators Josh Appelbaum, AndrĂ© Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg all worked together on Life on Mars, the American version. I only watched one episode of that show, but I’m under the impression that it was short-lived for a reason: it didn’t live up to the mythological potential, and the character interactions weren’t enough to make up for the weak attempts at mystery. Maybe they’ve learned from their mistakes, maybe not. The cast is all-star, though.

Amazingly, there’s actually a lot more that I could say, and lots of awkward quotes I could list for you. I was tempted to name-check all the references the show makes to other shows, movies, and books, but ran out of energy before I even began. (And I didn’t even mention the bird!) There was just so much stuff in this episode. This pilot probably should have been an hour and a half, so that the writers could have had more room to actually develop characters instead of just telling us about them. Or maybe we didn’t need to meet everyone right away, or get every single mystery handed to us on a silver platter. I’m worried that this show is, despite its wacky references, too by-the-book and heavy-handed: wacky ensemble cast plus mystery plus peril equals Ratings! Ratings! Ratings! But I plan to tune in next week to see if it gets better or worse.

SPOILER WARNING: We're using the comments thread to talk about episodes beyond the first one. The first eight comments are safe; after that, information on later episodes are fair game!

Two out of 10,000 lakes.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

18 comments:

Jay said...

I was willing to give this show a shot considering my love for the mystery/horror genre, but by the half way point I had tried my patience.

Considering the quality of the cast I figured it would have some serious potential but it's the writing that pulled it down for me. I understand that in pilots you have to throw in some exposition that seems out of place so I let that go. The rest of the dialogue, however, had me pulling my teeth.

Even worse though, had to be the "humor" they imposed. I didn't understand why I was supposed to laugh at a grieving widow throwing crumbs on the apparently heartless cops.

Anyhow I appreciate the review and plan to read next week's to see if this gets any better.

Patryk said...
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Patryk said...

I'm going to repeat it after TWoP, but i really hope that all that bread is in fact people. :)

Patryk said...

For now wacky ensemble cast plus mystery plus peril equals = bad ratings, 5.2 mil to be exact. Add the fact that 2nd episodes tend to lose viewvership no matter what things are not looking good.

Josie Kafka said...

Hi Patryk,

I heard that, too--I also heard that there are only eight episodes, so a chance for renewal sounds slight.

I'm not planning on reviewing the episodes unless they suddenly get fabulous (which, from what I gather, they don't). But I'll certainly watch them, and if something really awesome happens we can all (all three of us) just return to this comments thread to laugh about it.

HellBlazerRaiser said...

I think the ladies in the boarding house are a coven of witches.

Merritt Grieves reminded me of Leland Gaunt too. The whole town has a NEEDFUL THINGS/WITCHES OF EASTWICK vibe.

I doubt it will last long, but I hope it makes long enough so we get a complete story and aren't left with the major plot – the "Magic Man" – unresolved.

I'm in for the show's run.

Patryk said...

I think i read somewhere (might be tv.com) that they promised to reveal the Magic Man at the end of season one. Which would be nice and it will keep me watching till the end.

Did anyone else think the sheriff was using the communication stones from Stargate Universe when he rambled about Chloe and then acted like he didn't? :)

Billie Doux said...

Just saw this one lst night. Great review, Josie. You put your finger on what didn't work. In my favorite episode of Highlander, Methos says that the key to drama is to start slow, then build. Basically, they gave us too much exposition and a great big climax, but no build-up -- so it didn't affect the audience.

But I thought it was interesting enough to tune in for the next episode -- if only for the incredible cast and the boardinghouse. Loved the boardinghouse.

Good one, Patyk! The Chloe stuff would have been cool if he hadn't kept doing it so much that we couldn't miss it.

Patryk said...

The 2nd episode of Hapless Town got my attention more, maybe because they got all of the exposition out of the way in ep 1.

During the ep i was wondering if every episode will have a dead body so i was actually concerned with Georgia's fate, less so with Henley/Chloe (Chloenly? Chenley?) because it is a cliffhanger so like the last one of her investigating 3rd floor will be just a fake-out. She's definately just unconcious.

The scene with the drugged coffee also gave me a flashback to the wonderfull Veronica Mars episode Spit and Eggs so that's an added bonus.

I'll keep watching but America as predicted is giving up. 3.9mil viewiers for ep 2.

Josie Kafka said...

I had a completely different reaction to the second episode, Patryk--it was so bad that I almost thought about breaking my promise and reviewing it just to complain! :-)

The exposition in the opening scenes, as well as just the general aura of silliness, really bogged down the first 30 minutes for me. I actually paused the DVR to see just how long I had been watching (it felt like hours), and was shocked to see I was only half-way through.

And the inbred family? They're so very obnoxious, and so very loud. I know they're supposed to be over the top, but they hurt my brain.

I think my distaste for the first half really ruined the second half for me: I'm a big Abraham Benrubi fan, and I wish I could have enjoyed his climatic scene with C.T. more. At that point, I was checking my email and researching Chuck's ratings (not good).

I did love Frances Conroy's furry head-wrap thingy, though. And I do plan to keep watching.

By the way, I've posted a spoiler warning for the comments section at the bottom of the episode review. After the first eight comments, anything might contain info about episodes beyond the first one that have aired. (As always, we're spoiler-free for info on episodes that haven't aired yet. Although I'm not sure a Happy Town spoiler would break many hearts.)

Josie Kafka said...
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Josie Kafka said...

News Flash! (Well, really?) ABC has put Happy Town on hold: after tonight episode, we have to wait until June to find out...whatever it is we're supposed to find out.

Patryk said...

So we now know who's the Magic Man. No other then Joss Whedon. He made Amy dissapear so she could film the last eps of Dollhouse. ;)

Josie Kafka said...

Patryk, I hope you catch this comment before it slips off the front page: I haven't been able to bring myself to watch this week's episode. Is it worth it?

Patryk said...

Oh sorry for missing your comment. I'm also waiting for more before i'll watch.

Patryk said...

I've finished this series, so beware here be spoilers.



They did what they promised, we find out who is the Magic Man. More like Magic Woman... heh. Of course in the final minute of the final episode. So apart from that there is not much else answered.

Unanswered: Why did the Magic Man kidnap people? Who is Chloe apart from her being Henley? What's the significance of the Blue Door film. Why does it seem to prophecise events and feature Big Dave even though it was made in the 30s?

Best to forget that the series ever happened, but there are some positives. I liked the characters of Merrit Grieves and "Dan Farmer" (who turn out to be partners hunting for the Magic Man). Both could be creepy, charming and pretty badass.

Anyone else powered through to the end? :)

Josie Kafka said...

Patryk, I admire your fortitude. I deleted all the saved episodes from my DVR a couple of weeks ago--I felt dread when I thought about watching it.

But it sounds like you sort of liked it. Would you recommend renting it?

Patryk said...

It's not a big time commitment, but i's wish fr it to e more like Harper's Island. A closed season instead of the usual unresolvedness.