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Pilot Inspektor: An Advance Review of ABC's "Happy Town"

ABC made a bold statement at its upfront presentation the other day when it presented new midseason drama series Happy Town as hailing "from the network that brought you Twin Peaks."

The statement rubbed me the wrong way for a number of reasons. First, it's not exactly like the executives who developed Twin Peaks even still work at ABC. Second, ABC may have brought us Twin Peaks but it just as quickly canceled David Lynch's groundbreaking drama, which aired a stunning nineteen years ago. And third, Happy Town should not be making any comparisons between itself and Twin Peaks because it is certainly no Twin Peaks.

I had the opportunity the other night to watch Happy Town's 90-minute pilot and the only similarities I could find between it and Twin Peaks were that (A) they both air on ABC and (B) they are both set in small towns where the sunny exteriors belie a secret underbelly of darkness. (Happy Town itself seems to relish the comparison, even having one character hail from Snoqualmie, Washington, where many of Twin Peaks's exterior shots were filmed.)

But while David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks reveled in its supremely surreal weirdness and slow-burn mystery, Happy Town, from October Road creators Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg, tries way too hard to make itself different, throwing at the audience a kitchen sink's worth of bizarro plot twists, flatly quirky characters, supernatural goings-on, red herrings, secret identities, murders, kidnappings, druggings, mutilations, nefarious motives, blue doors, sigils, tattoos, stalkers, star-crossed lovers, forbidden boarding house third floors, and vigilante justice. (Not to mention "The Magic Man.") And that's just in the series' first episode alone.

It's a shame as Happy Town boasts a fantastic cast of well-known (and, in some cases, much beloved) actors but they are hampered by a ridiculous plot, insipid dialogue, and an overabundance of exposition that's about as subtle as an anvil. At its best, Happy Town comes off as a cheap knock off of Twin Peaks without that series' effortless wit, intelligence, or flair. At its worst, it's laughably bad and cartoonish.

The series' sprawling cast includes (but isn't limited to) Geoff Stults (October Road), Lauren German (Hostel: Part II), Amy Acker (Dollhouse), Dean Winters (Rescue Me), John Patrick Amedori (Gossip Girl), Linda Kash (Best in Show), Sarah Gadon (Being Erica), Jay Paulson (October Road), Robert Wisdom (The Wire), M.C. Gainey (Lost), Abraham Benrubi (ER), Peter Outerbridge (Fringe), and Sam Neill (The Tudors).

The effect is to create the feeling of community that such a small town would have but it means that several characters are given short shrift. Amy Acker in particular seems to have precious little to do and it's a shame to see her squander her considerable ability playing a one-dimensional bread factory tour guide and wife and mother here. (A single brief look between her and Dean Winters' character is the sole storyline her character warrants here.)

Happy Town's plot revolves around Haplin, a seemingly idyllic small town in Minnesota (nicknamed "Happy Town"), only just recovered after a slew of unexplained child abductions seven years earlier. The crimes were perpetrated by a man the town has nicknamed "The Magic Man," someone you could walk past in the street without knowing, and resulted in the disappearance of several local children who vanished without a trace. The only sign that they were taken was the positioning of their favorite toy in the spot where they were taken. After a period of seven years, Haplin is finally recovering from this series of tragedies but old wounds prove hard to heal and there is friction in the town over a banner displaying the faces of the children who disappeared at the town's annual Thaw Fest.

But this is almost incidental as Haplin itself is once again shaken to its core when another crime occurs: the murder of a local man who liked to watch women and who was rumored to be The Magic Man himself. He was killed by a railroad spike to the head and the town is baffled by the gruesome crime. It's a blow to Sheriff Griff Conroy (Gainey), who has overseen the town and presided over a community that boasted no major crimes since the end of The Magic Man's kidnapping spree. A blow that seems to have weakened his mind as the sheriff keeps mentioning a mystery woman named Chloe at odd moments. His son Tommy (Stults), a family man who serves as one of the deputy sheriffs, and Detective Roger Hobbes (Wisdom) are concerned... and even more so when the Sheriff locks himself in the office, rants about the Magic Man coming back now that blood has been spilled, and proceeds to chop off his own hand with an old Indian tribal axe that seems to have been ceremonially placed on his office wall for that very purpose.

But there are other mysteries in Haplin as well. Such as the sudden arrival of New Girl in Town Henley (German), who claims to be in Haplin after the death of her mother, who vacated there years earlier, and to open up a candle shop with her inheritance money. She's given a room at a local boarding house where the draconian owner demands absolute quiet during mealtime as well as punctuality and tells Henley in no uncertain terms that she is not to visit the third floor. (Dun-dun-dun.) Also at the boarding house, Henley encounters a group of widows and the single male resident, a British gentleman named Merritt Grieves (Neill), who has just opened a classic movie memorabilia store in town and who introduces Henley to an old film entitled The Blue Door, which seems to rip off Twin Peaks' Killer BOB/Dwarf/Giant plot about otherworldly creatures entering man's heart through a rip between worlds. Henley, of course, isn't quite whom she claims to be but many of the townsfolk, including Merritt, seem to be keeping secrets of their own.

There's also the "Romeo and Juliet" secret romance (and, yes, the two characters actually do refer to themselves as Romeo and Juliet) between teenagers Georgia Bravin (Gadon), the daughter of a ne'er-do-well meth head, and wealthy town scion Andrew Haplin (Amedori), whose parents (including Dean Winters'John Haplin) never recovered from the disappearance of his little sister. Visiting Griff at the hospital, Georgina is seemingly drugged by a Mystery Man (referred to in the script as "Handsome Sam") in the hospital cafeteria and begins a strange hallucinatory journey that includes the transformation of the elevator into the blue door, the repetitive use of Carly Simons' song "You're So Vain," and the creepy smiles of the Mystery Man as she collapses in the vacant hospital lobby. When she awakens, she finds herself in the rundown junkyard home of local outcasts the Stiviletto Brothers. How did she get there? What happened to her? Why was she deposited there? We don't know and, honestly, we really don't care.

Exhausted yet? It's just one of the omnipresent mysteries that we're meant to be invested in but none of them are particularly original, compelling, or well-executed. The real tragedy with Happy Town is that it's nowhere near as clever or engaging as it believes itself to be and the haphazard plotting, hackneyed cliches, and painfully extensive pilot storylines demonstrate a lack of narrative editing on the part of the creators. After all, Twin Peaks took a few episodes to introduce all of its surreal and terrifying subplots before paying them off.

Ultimately, it's hard to imagine just why ABC decided to greenlight this project (based on a spec script written by the trio), even if it is as a midseason replacement that could use the down time to massively retool. My advice: stick to the highway and avoid this Happy Town.

Happy Town will launch in midseason on ABC.


susie que said…
Good cast but the show looks awful. And I can't believe that ABC has the balls to promote it with the line "from the network that brought you Twin Peaks." It's just laughable since, as you said, that was years ago and the network canceled it after just a short run.

Harleypeyton said…
I think I can say with some certainty that ABC did almost everything in its power to avoid putting Twin Peaks on the air -- and they very nearly didn't -- and once it was on, they had very little idea what to do with it. It was, in its way, a happy accident. And like most, not meant to last all that long.

Also, and needless to say, despite the presence of some pretty good executive back then -- Stu Bloomberg! -- the only people who developed Twin Peaks were David Lynch and Mark Frost.
Riley said…
I saw the pilot for Happy Town and it did not make me happy. It did make me sleepy. Very, very sleepy. Tries way too hard to be cool and different and only ends up seeming unoriginal and boring. Once again, Amy Acker seems totally wasted in her role.
The CineManiac said…
After watching the preview on I was actually looking forward to this, now not so much.

I did notice the Twin Peaks thing in the preview and thought it was very weird, but clearly they want to evoke that show since they want you to think this is in the same vein, especially now that Twin Peaks is a cult classic.

Maybe they will take the extra time they have to tweak the show to reveal some of these mysteries over time. Especially as I don't see them airing a 90 min pilot at mid-season. I bet they parse it down some and try and use some of the pilot over time.

But I'm going to at least check out the first 2 or 3 episodes once it finally hits the air.
Mazza said…
Sounds awful!!!!! Poor Amy Acker.

Maybe ABC will reconsider and just ax it now? B/C it seems like they will after 1-3 eps. Just wow. Bad.
Anonymous said…
Twin Peaks started off well, but went pretty off the rails in the second season. Frankly, I think shows like this are pretty much impossible to sustain over any sort of long period. Desperate Housewives has a mystery every year, but the mystery is only one small part of the show, which is why it works.

ABC has been looking for another Twin Peaks for a long time, though. First there was Lynch's Mullholland Drive (which they passed on only to see it become a successful movie,) Push, Nevada (which was a huge flop), and a couple of years ago they had a pilot called Secrets of a Small Town. I saw that pilot and, while it wasn't amazing, it was certainly intriguing and sounds a lot better than Happy Town.
B said…
I read the script and agree that it was sloppy--trying to introduce too many characters (most of them one-dimensional and idiotic) and storylines. I didn't feel connected to any of its mysteries, and some parts were beyond weird (i.e. the aforementioned "Handsome Sam" act).

When it started to put me to sleep, I renamed it "Nappy Town"
Neena said…
MMm...not a good preview is it? Judging from this looks boring. But i'll still watch...

BTW i miss Twin Peaks...
Anonymous said…
Has anyone actually seen the whole 90 minute pilot?...are the kids singing "Saturday in the Park" in the movie...they were the coolest and most adorable kids in the movie!!I saw them singing, they were awesome - all 8 of them!! ABC should definitely include them again!!!

Is this downloadable in any way?
Worked on the Pilot said…
I worked on it and thought that is was bad then. Derivative drivel from a producer that produces derivatives (Life on Mars).
seniordroolcup said…
fuck this shit, bring back twin peaks, idc if cast members died since it stopped airing.
Kelley said…
I am not sure how I made it to the end of this 90 minute pilot. Nothing about it was good. It felt like 4 shows mushed together complete with 4 shows worth of characters, storylines, concepts, and cliches. The worst is that the show plays off like it is a regular old small town drama until about 1/3 of the way though and when it suddenly turns sci-fi/genre/Twin Peaks wannabe it is incredibly jarring.

I've heard the producers are lovely guys and that they have a great relationship with ABC. They must because "October Road" was a crime in bad writing and yet that lead to "Life on Mars" which somehow led to this. These guys just keep working. And they keep taking great actors down with them! I know "Dollhouse" has been uneven but Amy Acker has never been better than she is on that show and I hate to see her chained to this crap. At least Dr. Saunders/Whiskey was an interesting character for her to sink her teeth into. Here she is flat as a boring old pancake.

They canceled "The Unusuals" for this? Hopefully it won't last...
Anonymous said…
All you people with your hypotheticals, and your comparisons. I worked on the 8 show run, I will tell you this that the scripts are fantastic, the actors are incredible, and as far as comparisons are concerned I believe that this show will stand up to all hype. Twin Peaks was a great show cutting edge for it's time, but guess what the show has been off the air for 19 years, time to start watching something new.
Anonymous said…
I didn't watch Twin Peaks so the comparison means little to me. I do say that the trailer intriged me and I hope it survives. It seems like the most compelling non-scifi drama to come out of ABC in a good 5 years.

From the initial trailer, it strikes me to be a kind of darker Picket Fences. My guess is that the Magic Man plot is a short term one that will end and be replaced with new stories. I also imagine there will be other storylines.

Sure, this could very well suck, but I am giving it a shot. I think it could be really good.
Anonymous said…
I feel it is a great show with a great cast. It was a excellent script and the Pilot turned out great. People need to stop living in the past. Twin Peaks is dead. Happy Tow will thrive and the audience base will grow mark my words.

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