Once upon a time there was a show called ‘Twin Peaks’ about the strange goings-on in a strange town. The early 90s soap opera/mystery hybrid created by movie director David Lynch is still one of the weirdest shows to ever air on network television. For the uninitiated, it started with a straight arrow FBI agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) who comes to a logging town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. It ended with dream sequences about midgets who talked backwards and Cooper possessed by the spirit of a killer named Bob. (Fancast happens to have every single episode of the show, if you’ve got a weekend to kill.)
The show was an immediate hit, but ratings fell as it veered farther away from realism and resolved its initial murder mystery. ABC canceled it after two seasons. To put ‘Twin Peaks’ in context, the most popular drama of 1991 was ‘Murder She Wrote.’ HBO had yet to venture into original dramas. The show was way, way ahead of its time.
Though it did not last long, ‘Twin Peaks’ pushed television forward, influencing everything from the supernatural mysteries of ‘The X Files,’ the complex mythology of ‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives‘ satire of suburbia, and every series set in a quirky small town. But no recent series has attempted to duplicate the show’s blend of mystery, soap opera, and self-conscious quirk as much as ABC’s new drama ‘Happy Town,’ which premieres Wednesday at 10PM.
The small town of Haplin, Minnesota — which is suspiciously sunny despite the ice on the ground — is seemingly tranquil. The biggest employer is a bread factory that makes the air smell good. The sheriff’s deputy, Tommy Conroy, (Geoff Stults) likes working in a crime-free town because it gives him a license to be lazy. There’s a boarding house full of widows, a perky newcomer (Lauren German), a dashing movie memorabilia shop owner (Sam Neill).
But from the opening scene, which involves a gruesome murder, it is clear that Haplin is no Mayberry. The town is haunted by the disappearance of five of its residents who were all kidnapped by a mysterious figure known as the Magic Man. The sheriff (M.C. Gainey) is suffering from some sort of dementia that appears to be linked to the disappearances. There’s also a starcrossed teen romance, and about 300 other subplots.
In the current television landscape, there is nothing groundbreaking about ‘Happy Town.’ Every element seems like a reference to something else. There’s a trio of bumbling brothers that reminded me of a darker version of Larry, Daryl and Daryl from ‘Newhart.’ The bumbling small town sheriff’s department is ‘Picket Fences.’ The bird from the pilot of ‘Vampire Diaries‘ even makes an appearance. But, after watching the first three episodes, I was surprised at how well it worked. The cast is strong with Steven Weber as Josh Haplin, heir to the bread factory and Frances Conroy as his mother, as standouts along with Neill. Other familiar faces include ‘Angel’s Amy Acker and ‘ER‘s Abraham Benrubi. There were twists that surprised me, as well as true cliffhangers at the end of each episode.
The pilot is the weakest episode, with a lot of awkward exposition. With a huge cast whose connections are not readily apparent, and numerous storylines, I found myself confused in several places. But stick with it. Episodes two and three are both easier to follow and more interesting. Though the narrative is highly serialized, the story moves quickly. One major plot point is resolved in episode two – only to spin out in an unexpected direction that would be implausible in a show that was aiming for realism.
The tone may be jarring for some viewers. Some scenes and characters are farcical, including Tommy, who is arguably the closest thing to a lead in this ensemble show. The conceit of the world’s least qualified law enforcement official investigating a complex crime is clever, but writing him as so ignorant that he does not know how to notify the relative of a murder victim defies credibility, especially given that the town has been rocked by a series of kidnappings. Other scenes aim for genuine scares. The teen romance is played completely straight. Pulling it all together is a delicate balancing act.
I am thrilled that ABC is attempting such an ambitious series at a time when network television seems scared to attempt anything other than procedurals. Airing it so late in the season is not exactly a vote of confidence. Scheduling it for Wednesday at 10 PM, ABC’s suicide time period that has already killed ‘Eastwick’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ this season does not bode well for its longterm survival. Since the premise is not easily summed up, it’s a tough show to market. Some of ABC’s promos capture the quirky tone, while others make it look like more of a straightforward murder mystery. The premise has more long term potential than ‘FlashForward‘ and the humor should appeal to people who like ABC’s Wednesday night comedies. I hope the show defies the odds and attracts a following. There are plenty of series about murder. There should be room for one that is also about bread.