TV Review: ABC's 'Happy Town'
Comparisons to 'Twin Peaks' and Stephen King do this self-consciously quirky drama no favors
Stephen King has taught me many things over the years. He taught me that if I'm suffering from serious obesity, the best diet plan is provoking an old gypsy woman. He warned me that no teenage girl likes having her prom interrupted with a pig-blood shower. He contributed the healthy reminder that the clown who lives in the sewer probably isn't friendly and I don't want to take his balloons, whether they float or not.
But if there's any lesson that Stephen King felt the desire to teach over and over again, and a lesson that I've taken to heart, it's this one: If a cultured, European man moves into your small town and opens a shop specializing in the sort of top-end merchandise nobody in your town would ever normally purchase, he's most likely either a vampire or Satan. And in either case, you may want to start investigating property values in a neighboring town.
I can't tell if Merritt Grieves, the character played by Sam Neill in ABC's new dramedy "Happy Town," will turn out to be more like Richard Straker from "Salem's Lot" or Leland Gaunt from "Needful Things," but I know that his arrival means that bad things are coming to the small town of Haplin, Minnesota.
But you *know* bad things are coming to Haplin because, not content with premiering a show with an ironic title, ABC has been advertising "Happy Town" with the 100 percent redundant tag line "Don't let the name fool you."
I'd say that you also don't want to let ABC's advertising fool you. Just because teasers make "Happy Town" look like another "Twin Peaks," it's not. It's just another show that looks like "Twin Peaks." I'm not even sure it's another "Push, Nevada" (somewhere, a shiver just went down Ben Affleck's spine).
Full review of "Happy Town" after the break...
Neill's Merritt Grieves, opening an emporium of vintage cinematic memorabilia for reasons limited to artistic pretentiousness, isn't the only new arrival in Haplin.
Henley Boone (Lauren German) has just landed in town, on the surface, she's there to open a candle store and to get over the recent death of her mother. But there are secrets lurking. She's come to Haplin for darker reasons, not the least of which is providing the opportunity for series creators Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg to introduce a lot of exposition in a short period of time.
Haplin is a bread town, with its industry dominated by the Our Daily factory the looms on the hilltop. The town is controlled by the Haplin family, with matriarch Peggy Haplin (Frances Conroy) and her son John (Steven Weber).
With the exception of a rash of disappearances several years earlier, attributed to The Magic Man, things are going smoothly in Haplin, until a body turns up on a frozen pond, the first murder in years. This causes trouble for deputy Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults), who lives an idyllic life with wife Rachel (Amy Acker) and his daughter, content to live in the shadow of his sheriff father (M.C. Gainey). Is the Magic Man back? Did he ever leave? And how many different Haplin citizens are suspects?
In Haplin, everybody has secrets, from the landed aristocracy, to the old biddies running the boarding house, to the inbred hillbillies and crystal meth cookers who live on the outskirts of town. Another thing Stephen King has taught me is that in small towns where everybody has secrets, those secrets are sure to be exposed en masse, with the results being total upheaval.
Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg were also behind ABC's short-lived "October Road" and ABC's shorter-lived "We're All On a Rocket to Mars" (calling it "Life on Mars" feels like an insult to the BBC original). And with that pedigree comes certain expectations. You can anticipate sometimes amusing, sometimes excruciating affected dialogue, often driven by antiquated slang suggesting that every character, regardless of age or background, is actually a 75-year-old man trapped in an alternate body. You can also expect a soundtrack with an over-reliance on classic rock chestnuts that explain exactly what's happening in the text of the scene (not even subtext), but have no real relationship to anything any of the characters on screen might plausibly be listening to or influenced by ["You're So Vain" is the star of the second episode for reasons that are totally arbitrary.].
And you can expect the quirkiness to be spread on with a trowel. There are macabre birds, boarding house floors that should never be entered and lines of dialogue delivered so slowly and deliberately that you know you're supposed to file the snippets away for future reference.
The combination of quirk, mystery and small town atmosphere -- and whatever problems I might have with "Happy Town," it does a decent job of making a corner of Toronto look like an American small town -- make the "Twin Peaks" comparisons both easy and lazy, especially since the Stephen King comparisons are both easier and more apt. Either way, it's almost distracting how long a laundry list you can make of genre influences fueling "Happy Town."
The "Happy Town" team would love for viewers to feel like the influences are so affectionate and adoring that their show is part of the club, but "Happy Town" is no more "Twin Peaks" than a 12-year-old in a Los Angeles Lakers replica t-shirt is Kobe Bryant. Even if it's an official NBA-endorsed shirt and cost the kid hundreds of dollars, I'm still not going to put the kid on the floor at the Staples Center to take the last shot.
The "October Road" guys suffer from being simultaneously over-whimsical and over-literal, which is a desperately bad combination. Things either are genuinely quirky and mystical and possibly supernatural ("Twin Peaks"), or else things are constantly over-indicating to you that they're trying to be quirky and mystical and possibly supernatural ("Happy Town"). Putting "Twin Peaks" next to "Happy Town" isn't like comparing a diamond to cubit zirconia, it's like comparing a diamond to paste costume jewelry. The zircon is designed to fool you even at close inspection, but the costume jewelry is only supposed to look like the real thing from a distance and doesn't bear up to close inspection. "Happy Town" delivers an exhausting amount of ersatz quirkiness but nothing real.
That inauthenticity becomes more overbearing as it goes along, but you eventually realize that ersatz quirkiness is all "Happy Town" has to offer. The third episode features no drug-filled hallucinations, no shocking acts of violence and the mythology is limited to a few portentous lines of dialogue and, as a result, the third episode is an utter bore. "Happy Town" is bad, but at least the first two episodes are silly and absurd.
And it's clear that a number of very fine actors are drawn to the silly and the absurd, because the cast of "Happy Town" is pretty tremendous and some of the performances are quite fine.
Stults makes for a likable anchor, especially when he shares scenes with the always appealing Acker. I try to avoid being critical of child actors, but the actress playing their daughter is fairly irksome, for reasons mostly relating to the writing of the character.
The truth depth is on the older side of the cast, where Neill is reliably Euro-charming and reptilian, Weber is reliably entitled and unlikable, Conroy is reliably cold and patrician, Robert Wisdom is reliably assertive and M.C. Gainey is reliably M.C. Gainey. Peter Outerbridge joins the cast in the second episode, while Stephen McHattie comes in by the third. I found myself amazed by how many actors were having great fun on a show I was finding so tiresome.
On Twitter, a number of people have asked me to compare "Happy Town" to "Harper's Island," a similarly derivative show that CBS dumped in April last year and eventually burnt off on Saturday nights. "Harper's Island" was an Agatha Christie story masquerading as a conventional slasher movie, but eventually I developed a little affection for the loopy storytelling and for several of the performances. It remains to be seen if "Happy Town" will evolve the same way, though early signs aren't good. I'll stick around for a while out of perverse curiosity, but I'll be approaching "Happy Town" as a mockable guilty pleasure and expecting anything more would be folly.
"Happy Town" premieres on Wednesday, April 28 at 10 p.m. on ABC. And check out my interview with Geoff Stults.