Haplin, known as Happy Town, seems the perfect little town. The bread factory that employs a notable chunk of the population exudes wafts of fresh bread smell across the town and everyone seems aggressively pleasant. But dig a little and a mystery is revealed, years ago people started disappearing. Then just as mysteriously as they started, the disappearances stopped, leaving holes in the community where seven men, women and children used to be. But with the arrival of a couple of new strangers and a violent murder, everyone is on edge again.
The show is being advertised as a modern Twin Peaks, but I have to slightly embarrassingly admit that I’ve never actually seen Twin Peaks. Maybe this is a good thing for Happy Town though, many reviewers seem to be getting hung up on that similarity and only judge it in comparison to that show, or even more dauntingly, to the memory of the classic that aired twenty years ago. I’m guilty enough of doing that with other shows, so can’t really criticise the reviewers, but as I’ve never seen Twin Peaks I can at least rise above it on this occasion.
I was looking forward to the show, partly because of the cast which features some personal favourites, but mostly because I’m a big fan of this sort of contrasting show. Taking a setting that is so normal it’s almost abnormal in itself, and then adding a layer of dark weirdness over the top. Happy Town gets off to a good start – opening with a classic horror film scene, right down to the use of blue lighting, screeching birds and a murderer who’s always in silhouette. Then the next scene is classic of any show set in a small-ish US town – there’s the overly perky real estate seller introducing the new girl to the town.
But the problem I had was that each bit was either happy or creepy, there wasn’t really any interweaving of the two. It’s not like Pushing Daisies or even Fargo which were carefully written so that the humour running through seemed either black when overlaid on the happy, or perky when overlaid on the creepy; simultaneously giving consistency and contrast. Without the good and evil interweaving, Happy Town wasn’t unsettling, just schizophrenic.
The writers were definitely struggling. There was a lot of characters, locations and plots to introduce in 45 minutes and they did this with some exceptionally painful chunks of characters reciting exposition. The other problem is that a lot of those characters and plot threads were so laden down with cliché that they really didn’t need much explanation anyway. There’s a Romeo and Juliet relationship, a couple of mysterious strangers, a gaggle of gossiping widows, a few slightly bumbling police officers and a group of yokel bullies living on a scrap yard. I’m optimistic the characters can be dragged out of their stereotypes, because the cast is full of names that I’ve respected for quite a while – Sam Neill (Jurassic Park is probably the most recognisable, but to me Amy Acker (Angel), Abraham Benrubi (ER) and Steven Weber (Studio 60) are all good draws too.
While I think the show has some pitch issues, it does have all the building blocks and foundations that it could sort itself out later, when it’s not trying to squash so much into a single episode. The plot elements and mysteries are certainly intriguing, if not riveting. I didn’t come away from it feeling excited or desperate to find out more like Lost or even FlashForward did, but then neither of those really delivered on their initial promise (imho). Instead I came away from Happy Town feeling quietly intrigued but not overly enthused, enough that I’ll keep an eye on it, but nowhere near enough that I’d recommend everyone rush out to watch it.