Well nigh a year ago, unveiling its 2009-10 schedule at Upfronts Week, ABC stressed that its spooky new drama Happy Town (Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET) was "from the network that brought you Twin Peaks." Thus does Happy Town come to us, further, from a network that doesn't know how to manage expectations. Is there anything in the show's first three episodes to rival even the first half-hour of the Mark Frost/David Lynch classic? Why am I asking silly questions? A list of Happy Town's several dubious elements might begin with the performance of star Lauren German, which is to some extent hampered by the fact that she is not a very good actress.
Nonetheless, the show delivers on the boast by presenting a literate and well-constructed knockoff of Frost/Lynch's patented Twin Peaks atmosphere but with its own freaky-folksy voice. Here we have dark doings in a picturesque, hermetically sealed town where petty bits of sleaze link up with grand primordial evils. All the good citizens, black sheep, and village idiots are joined in a soap-operatic web. Naturally, Happy Town is excessively sudsy in its soap-opera aspect, just as its atmosphere is a bit too atmospheric. Fog in the trees, florid demonic possessions, purple-hazy hallucinations—if they weren't working the irony angle for a title, they could have called the show Mysterioso, MN.
Happy Town is Haplin, Minn., where German's character, a newcomer named Henley, makes the scene with a story about trying to recenter herself after her mother's death. A bread factory sits atop Haplin's tallest hill, providing the town with its defining industry and Steven Weber—in the role of the heir to a leavened fortune—an opportunity to play up his superior side and narrow his face into a mask of contempt. A while back, over a period of seven years, seven Haplinites * went missing. Local lore has it that their kidnapper—and, presumably, murderer—was an unknown bad guy, "The Magic Man." One of the missing persons was the muffin man's daughter. Early on, he gets into a beef with the town sheriff: Haplin is gearing up for its spring festival, and Johnny Law objects to Weber's character's decorating Main Street with a banner honoring the victims: "Remember to never forget." I side with the bread scion on that one, not least because I support anyone who knows how philistine it is to strongly insist that it's incorrect to split an infinitive.
That silly grammar convention is back-formed from Latin, by the way, a language the sheriff has some familiarity with. On his way to the scene of a shockingly ghastly murder, in an icy scene partially cribbed from Fargo, he tells his son/deputy about "the inevitability of the vis major ... the unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the natural course of things." You don't need a Classics degree to feel that this line is rather too heavy. Ixnay on the ilosophyphay.
Meanwhile, Henley, who harbors a big, juicy secret of some sort, moves into a boarding house. Her fellow tenants include a claque of bridge-playing old biddies and a dashing European film buff (Sam Neill), whose manner, aspect, and situation will put you in the mind of James Mason's Humbert Humbert. Henley's landlady has a kind soft face with small eyes that turn sinister and icy in a blink. Giving Henley the grand tour, she stresses that "the third floor is off limits." What do you think is up there? Rochester's wife? Zed's gimp? Asbestos?
I'm not supposed to tell you. The Happy Town episodes I screened were prefaced with an admonishment: "As always, we kindly ask that you not reveal major plot points to your readers." But it is the essence of the show's nature that you cannot tell which plot points are major and which are minor. All the details seem essential, so we at least feel teased by the promise of a gripping mystery ... but given ABC's recent approach to series such as this, it is perfectly natural to be wary that Happy Town will turn into a five-pound bucket of red herrings. Treading the line between artful confusion and total nonsense has been ABC's thing in recent years. Consider the triple-agent escapades of later seasons of Alias, the stumbling time trips of Day Break and FlashForward, and whatever the hell it is that happens on Lost. Has the network learned from its mistakes? Will Happy Town realize its potential? It's a mystery to me.
Correction, April 28, 2010: This sentence originally misspelled the name of the town of Haplin. (Return to the corrected sentence.)