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Let’s get one thing straight before talking about “Happy Town”: it’s far from a happy place. Of course, the dozens of commercials that air before and after every show on ABC have made that abundantly clear, but for a show labeled “Happy Town,” the show starts off on a dark and macabre note and doesn’t let up for the next hour. Comparisons between this show, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” and Lynch’s feature film “Blue Velvet” will likely arise as the show goes on, mostly because they all revolve around the idea of a quaint, innocent town with a gritty underworld filled with secrets that nobody knows about. However, “Happy Town” struggles a little bit out of the gate, and with only eight episodes to attract an audience, the show will have to work double time to make up for its errors.
Take a deep breath, because explaining the premise of this show is somewhat of a doozy. The show takes place in a town called Haplin. It’s a quiet yet bustling community filled with the constant smell of freshly baked bread and is considered a happy place to live. So happy, in fact, that some citizens call it “Happy Town.” However, twelve years earlier, a man only known as “The Magic Man” came to Haplin and kidnapped one person a year for eight years until he simply disappeared one day. Ever since he left, there’s never been a murder or a major crime. However, in the opening scene, a man is found murdered; a hole in his head from where a man cloaked in black drove a railroad spike through his skull with a hammer. Oh, and don’t forget about Sheriff Conroy (M.C Gainey), an older man who frequently slips in and out of consciousness, constantly talking about a girl named “Chloe” and how she “burnt the can.” There’s also a mysterious new tourist named Henley (Lauren Graham) who’s staying at a hotel run by widows that creepily lurk behind corners.. OH, and in this hotel, the fourth floor is off limits. No matter what. And if this isn’t enough, there’s a strange man named Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill, speaking in a very slow English accent) who’s opening up a movie memorabilia shop in town and seems to know more about the “Magic Man” then he lets on. That’s just bits and pieces; there’s still twenty-five minutes worth of material to talk about here.
If that seems like a lot of information to absorb in one episode, that’s because it’s too much information. Successful serial dramas tend to slowly reveal information over time, not shove your face in plot development until you’re suffocating. “Lost” and “Damages” were great at this when they first started, but in recent years, shows have struggled to achieve the same success that these two shows did. “V” and “Flashforward” are two shows with great ideas for a plot, but the execution of them have been less then stellar. Too much information early in the show can lead to the first couple of episodes being great, but the rest that follow hollow and boring. Unfortunately, as interesting as “Happy Town” seems, it seems that ABC is using the same blueprint that they’ve been using for the last couple of years. It also doesn’t help that the creators of the show are Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, the producers responsible for other ABC duds such as “October Road” and “Life on Mars.” (Don’t worry, if you’ve never heard of these two shows, you’re not the only one; I didn’t know of them until I researched about “Happy Town.”)
The problem with the show doesn’t just lay with the abundance of plot development; the writing also has a few kinks that need working out. It’s one thing when a drama tries to include quirky and dark humor into the show, but it’s whole other thing when the humor falls flat on its face. When it finally gets back to its feet, it’s hard to take it seriously again. You’ll always be waiting for the awkward dialogue and phrases, and instead of taking the lines seriously, you’ll just find yourself laughing over and over and waiting for it trip and fall on its face again. Honestly, how can you take a show seriously when they include the phrases, “cuter than a mouse’s pocketbook,” and “eating hornets for breakfast” within five minutes of each other? With the exception of the scenes between the Conway family (played by Geoff Stults and Amy Acker), dialogue between characters was painfully stiff. With so much plot development occurring in one episode, the writing had to be top-notch in order to understand what was going on. However, there was very little scenes that actually gave us any idea what was happening. In fact, the ending of the episode was so poorly executed that I had to go back and re-watch it a few times so I could figure out exactly what was happening.
It’s a shame the pilot was put together so poorly, because I’m a sucker for a good mystery. “Lost” has held my attention for six years, and even if there were moments were I doubted the writers ability to tell the story, they would prove to have some control over the story, even as I grew more confused. “Happy Town” has nearly lost my attention one episode in. Thankfully, the premise of the show is intriguing enough to make me stick around. The show gave us some great visual images, some haunting scenes (the scene where Sheriff Conroy chops his own hand off was cringe-worthy, in a good way) and a mystery that will likely remain until the very end: Who is the Magic Man? Who is this mysterious Henley woman and what is her purpose in Haplin? There’s dozens more questions that could use answering, but for now, it gives me less of a headache to focus my attention on those two.
“Happy Town” has an uphill battle ahead of it. A long one. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it lost its momentum halfway through it’s short eight episode season. The show introduced far too many mysteries and questions in its first episode, making it impossible for eight simple episodes to answer anything in a satisfying manner. However, anybody looking for a way to waste their Wednesday nights from 10:00 to 11:00 PM could do a lot worse. But don’t worry: I won’t blame any viewers who would rather watch their “Twin Peaks” DVD’s instead. If the show doesn’t improve its writing and its pacing, I may be doing the same thing.