I watched both these pilots on the same night, and as they’re kind of two sides of the same coin I decided to review them together. The shows are both centred around eponymous towns, that aren’t nearly as idyllic as they appear and are actually home to a random selection of supernatural types.
The structure of the pilots are quite similar. Each features the arrival of a new law enforcement officer. For Haven it’s a female FBI agent sent to a small town in Maine, tracking an escaped prisoner, who soon turns up corpsified in a strange manner. The Gates meanwhile has a new sheriff and his family arrive in the ultra secure gated community only to immediately encounter a missing person case, caused by a hungry vampire who lives next door.
From there the two shows diverge. The Gates, being a drama on ABC takes the melodramatic approach. How does the town work? What are the power struggles? How do people/vampires/werewolves/witches cope with their half secret existences? How will the new sheriff upset the balance? It’s all about the secrets, the traumas and the inevitable shouting and crying.
Haven takes a slightly more relaxed approach to things. The plot is nothing special and to be honest is pretty clunky, often introduced on the front of a sledgehammer, but it’s enough to keep things ticking over. What makes the show work is that the characters are interesting and entertaining. The happy-to-believe female FBI agent is bright and confident, contrasting with the deputy sheriff (and son of sheriff) who is moody and cynical. They fall into an easy, sarcasm lead partnership that’s fun to watch. The rest of the town seems to be populated by the kind of low-level eccentrics who you expect to find in a small town on a TV show.
Outside of the differing genres and budgets, the biggest difference is in how they address their weirdness. Shows like this have to be very aware of their predecessors, it’s very easy for the audience to roll their eyes and point out that it’s all a bit X-Files. But if the characters themselves roll their eyes and reference The X-Files, the audience laughs and immediately settles in. SyFy channel excels in making that kind of show, it’s a feature in everything from Farscape, to Warehouse 13 – characters pointing out how ridiculous their situations are.
The other option, having them take it all entirely serious, makes it a lot trickier for an audience to engage. I watched The Gates constantly making comparisons to Twilight, but the characters didn’t spot it. It makes you wonder whether Twilight exists in their world. This is particularly frustrating given that the teenage love triangle involving a werewolf (but no vampires yet) is so painfully familiar it’s boring as soon as it appears. I wish they’d stuck to just focussing on the adult characters – there are plenty of shows/films/books out there about teenagers dealing with these supernatural things, not so many with adults.
Both shows were interesting, with strong concepts, good casts and engaging story lines. Haven is an easier show to enjoy, and therefore almost certain to go on to my schedule – it’s one to watch over dinner with the housemates. The Gates is harder to get into, but with more opportunity to look at things in more depth. They were trying to cram a lot into the pilot, so I’m willing to give them a little bit of leeway on the more clumsily handled aspects. I’ll add it to my “keep an eye out” list.