by Josie Kafka
“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-coifed, 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, André 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.
(Season One, Episode One)