For weeks now, ABC has been hyping its new horror/mystery series Happy Town, and I can't say I blame them. With the clock rapidly ticking down on Lost, I'm sure that network executives have been just as stymied as to how to fill the void left by that franchise as its many fans have been.
For the network, the answer to that question seems to have come by way of tapping into the weirdness of another noteworthy cult classic. So, in the same way that Lost plays like what Gilligan's Island might be like if it took place in The Twilight Zone, Happy Town has been hyped as sort of a modern take on Twin Peaks.
This has of course been tried before. Anybody remember Eerie, Indiana? How about Push, Nevada? Didn't think so.
In its attempt to out-Peak David Lynch, Happy Town works on some levels, and doesn't on others. There's plenty of weirdness here, some of which is genuinely intriguing. A sheriff played by M.C. Gainey (who Lost fans will recognize as that fake-beard guy from "The Others") goes into a trance every so-often and starts muttering about someone named "Chloe" while interrogating suspects. Sam O'Neill also does a nice job of making you go "hmmm" as a mysterious shop owner who could have walked right out of the script for Stephen King's Needful Things.
At other times however, things border on being cliché. There's a nasty bird that seems to hover around whenever bad things are about to happen (think of the owls from Twin Peaks or the crow from another King small-screen adaptation for The Stand). There's also kind of a glut of distracting oddball characters — from the boarding house full of spinster widows to the town drunk/tweaker, to the inbred redneck brothers who run the town landfill.
I'm assuming that at some point all of these characters will figure into some kind of larger significance to the overall plot. That's the hope, anyway.
But for now, it just seems to be a case of trying to cram too much quirkiness into a single hour. One of the things which gave Twin Peaks its allure, was the way Lynch drew you into its hallucinatory mysteries. For now at least, Happy Town seems to be more about clobbering you over the head with it.
Another thing which was key to the Twin Peaks mystique was the way it so expertly established its mood. From the towering peaks of its Pacific Northwest location, to the decadent sleaze of its dimly lit smoky bars, everything about Peaks just oozed erotic danger. The topper was the amazing music provided by Angelo Badalamenti's haunting soundtrack (featuring Julee Cruise's equally haunted vocals).
Happy Town also makes interesting use of music — at first anyway. The show opens to a pair of lovers parked in the woods as Elvis Costello's "Watching The Detectives" plays menacingly in the background — immediately tipping off the viewer something is about to happen that isn't good. Later on, the "happy" small town vibe is provided by some vintage Crosby, Stills & Nash. Following that initial promise however, the mood is broken by the worst type of canned sounding TV drama music.
So, the basic plot of Happy Town is your textbook vision of weird small town America. Plenty of happy, shiny people living a Mayberry sense of false security that just happens to fall under the shadow of a mysterious presumed serial killer called the "Magic Man."
Nobody wants to talk about this guy for fear of bursting the bubble of their idyllic, if falsely placed crime-free small town existence. Yet, everybody from the powerful Haplin family (who the town is named after) to the gumshoes at the local cop-shop do so anyway. Not the least of which, are the local oddballs who, judging by this episode, make up about 99% of this small community. There's apparently a bigger weirdo population in Hapville, Minnesota than in San Francisco or New York City.
Unlike some of this show's harsher critics out there, I'm willing to give this Happy Town a few episodes to let the story play out — provided we get some plot development in the weeks ahead anyway. While we're at it, maybe if we could discover some of these characters and their many idiosyncrasies a few episodes at a time rather than trying to cram an entire town's worth of quirky oddballs into the first episode?
Let the mystery begin…