28
Apr
2010
Happy Town: Season 1, Episode 1
In This Home On Ice
Jordan
There are certain buzz words that will cause me to watch pretty much any pilot. One of those phrases that draws me inexorably to a show is "Twin Peaks-esque." If you tell me a show is striving to be the new Twin Peaks or is balancing surrealism with small town America, or is layering mystery upon mystery so that there are literally dozens of questions for the show to answer, I will definitely watch the first few episodes to see if it can pull me in. Some shows (like Lost and Desperate Housewives, both of which oddly premiered to reviews that claimed they were the new Twin Peaks and both of which lost me after about the first season as one proved to be a none too clever satire and the other stagnated in its own pacing and mythology) pull me in for long stretches, others only for a few weeks. Not a single one of them yet has captured the magic that rendered me obsessed with Twin Peaks for years (even though I discovered it over a decade after its cancellation), but I will keep trying until the end of time.

Now that I've digressed a lot on exactly what brought me to Happy Town, I'll discuss my initial thoughts. This review will focus less on the specific plot and more on what the pilot says and tries to say about the series of a whole. This show, more than any of the other imitators I have come across in my years of searching, screams Twin Peaks. It is set in a small town, centered around a mysterious murder, full of odd characters and surrealist touches. The similarities go on and on (for Peaks' saw mill, substitute Town's bread factory). What this show lacks, however, is the assured tone that David Lynch's wonderfully warped mind brought to Twin Peaks. What Lynch's flawed masterpiece did right was set up a place that felt almost real, settle you into the slightly off cadence of its daily goings on, and then pull the rug out from under you by throwing in a backwards talking dwarf with the clues to unlock it all. Happy Town plays its surreal notes a lot heavier, as if screaming at the audience "THIS SHOW IS WEIRD! EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IS WEIRD BECAUSE WE WANT YOU TO TUNE IN TO FIND OUT WHY ITS HAPPENING!"

In fact, if there's one central problem with Happy Town at the end of its pilot, its that it goes too broad with everything its trying to do. In place of exposition that allows these characters' lives to feel lived in and, you know, real we get lazy writing like the introductory scene between Amy Acker's Rachel and Geoff Stults' Tommy (incidentally, telling me Amy Acker is a cast member on a show is also enough to make me tune in to a pilot) in which he tells their daughter, who by the way is shockingly child-like for how old she looks, "Mommy and Daddy still sneak off for smoochies even though they've been married since the prom." More gratingly obvious was the scene just seconds later when he tells his daughter, "Your baby-sitter Joanie is coming by to walk you to school." Are we supposed to believe that his daughter doesn't know who her own babysitter is?

Other things about this episode grate me, including Joanie's forbidden romance with the popular bully, and heir to the town's most powerful family (or at the very least it's namesake). A story of star-crossed lovers doesn;t get any less cliched if you say, "I'm tired of this whole Romeo and Juliet thing." Guess what Happy Town? So are we.

But in spite of all this, there are things about this pilot that do work, or are at least intriguing enough that I know I'll tune in for at least the next few weeks. Sam Neill's mysterious and mildly menacing Merritt Grieves is a very fun character to watch, and his few scenes leave me wanting much more. M.C. Gainey as the town's Sherriff who seems prone to channeling random spooky sentences that theoretically tie into things is interesting, and the montage at the end after he's locked himself in the office set up another thing that will keep me coming back. This is a show with a lot of questions, and I'm at least interested enough in the answers to give it a few more chances. Plus, a show with a great cliff-hanger and a serialized nature is likely to keep me hooked for much longer than I should be, simply because each episode leaves me wondering what will happen next. True Blood kept me on the hook long enough to get good simply by ending each of its subpar early episodes with a big enough question mark that I just had to see what happened next. Tonight's ending does not qualify as "so good I have to come back," but it does set a lot of pieces in motion and keep me interested enough that I will watch in weeks to come to see if the shoe stumbled out of the gate or is just not particularly good.

Other things to get excited about: Stephen Weber as a member of the town's namesake family who owns the bread factory (shades of Peaks's Ben Horne?) and doubles as a bit of a conspiracy theorist, and the hint in the preview that Frances Conroy will be playing his mother in the coming weeks (another big draw to me ever since Six Feet Under). I have name dropped other shows in this review more than I have actually discussed Happy Town which I promise will cease in future weeks, but really, this pilot just seems to have been cobbled together from pieces of past successes. Whether it will reveal itself to be the second coming of Twin Peaks or just another pale imitator is yet to be seen (and if I was forced to lay a bet right now, it would be on the latter), and I can't necessarily recommend tonight's showing as good television for someone without my obsessions, but Happy Town has thrown a lot of pieces on the table, and what they've shown is interesting enough to warrant at least one more shot.

Grade: C

Notes:

-The villain is called "The Magic Man." A bit on the nose, but also a bit creepy.

-The third floor of the building where Henley (the series potential protagonist, who I neglected to even mention in the review proper) is staying is off limits. Pool on how many episodes before she goes up there?

-Robert Wisdom, aka Bunny from The Wire is Roger Hobbs. Another exciting addition to a cast that so far seems shockingly overqualified for this material.

-Creepy Quotes from the Sherriff that will likely foreshadow some revelation abound in this episode. The one that will stick with me longest: "When did Chloe contact you? Did you realize the glow from her mouth was the silvery moon?"

-Other things we found out in the last 30 seconds of this episode that vaguely intrigue me. Henley's real name is Chloe (twist! That's the name the Sherriff keeps saying!) and she clearly knows more about the town than she's let on. Also, she has a question mark tattoo, and that is important (because the question mark is a symbol somehow related to "The Magic Man." And also a symbol for this show being full of questions. The latter is just slightly more heavy handed).
Tags: Happy Town
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