On the grounds that CBS should occasionally be encouraged to do shows that aren’t close-ended procedurals, I’m inclined to root for “Harper’s Island,” the network’s new murder mystery serial, which premieres on Thursday, April 9 in the time slot previously occupied by the desultory gloom of “Eleventh Hour.”
Any enthusiasm, though, must be tempered by the frustrating reality that “Harper’s Island” is a show in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis.
[Full review after the break and after I decide how much I’m allowed to spoil about the show. Don’t worry. It won’t spoil much.]
Blue collar boy-next-door Henry (Christopher Gorham) is marrying heiress Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy). They’ve invited all of their friends and loved ones to a destination wedding on Harper’s Island, 27 miles off the coast of Seattle. Harper’s Island is a lovely tourist getaway and summer haven with a blue collar backbone. It’s also an island with a shocking history: Seven years ago, John Wakefield murdered seven people, including the wife of the town sheriff and mother to Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), the island’s prodigal daughter and best friend to the groom.
The guests are all coming for days of fun and merriment, but they’re going to get nights of murder and dismemberment, because a new killer is on the loose and at least one of the guests will be leaving in a body bag every episode.
I watched the “Harper’s Island” pilot, directed by Jon Turteltaub, back before the start of the Television Critics Association press tour in January.
My instantly reaction was that “Harper’s Island” was a deranged, wacky slasher movie parody. Attractive young white folks — other than tokenism, CBS is only barely aware that minorities exist outside of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” — go to a secluded resort to drink, have sex and get killed? Sounds like the latest evolution from Mario Bava to “Friday the 13th” to network television. I didn’t love it, but I laughed a lot and thought that I was in on a joke.
Then the “Harper’s Island” team showed up at press tour and tried emphasizing that the show is actually supposed to be a riff on Agatha Christie, less “Halloween,” more “Ten Little Indians.” They also made it pretty clear that while “Harper’s Island” is meant to be fun, it isn’t meant to be self-referential and parodic. It’s meant to be scary and mysterious.
And I sat there and went, “Ooops.”
What’s on the screen isn’t actually dark and mysterious at all. In fact, it has all of the subtlety of having your face rammed into the propellor of a cruise ship, which happens to a character within the show’s first 15 minutes. It’s all about scare cuts, cheeseball music and gore. The location shooting helps some, but the show lacks the polish and artistry to stand on its own as a pure pleasure. Best case scenario, it’s a guilty pleasure, but if that’s not its intent, then I’m just laughing at a show, not with it. And if that’s the case, it’s no better than “One Tree Hill.” Are viewers who watch “CSI” really ready to stick around for a guilty pleasure, anyway?
That brings me to what’s probably the biggest identity crisis for “Harper’s Island.” It’s probably to expensive to be a CW show, but it isn’t a CBS show. It doesn’t feel like a CBS show. It isn’t being promoted as a CBS show. It doesn’t look like a CBS show. And it isn’t cast like a CBS show.
Your leads are Jake 2.0 and Cassidy, whose role in the new “Melrose Place” on The CW seems appropriate. Among the sexy supporting players, the most familiar faces are Cameron Richardson, a FOX favorite, and Matt Barr, who terrorized Peyton on “One Tree Hill,” which means you know he can pull off “psycho,” if he turns out to be the killer. You also have Richard Burgi, doing the latest in a long string of hammy villains as The Bride’s disapproving pop. And Harry Hamlin pops up obviously having a tremendous time as The Groom’s wacky uncle. This just isn’t the way CBS casts.
The cast’s immediate stand-out is Elaine Cassidy, an Irish actor who I admired in “Felicia’s Journey” and “Disco Pigs.” She’s got huge, dark shark’s eyes and she’s one of those actors who can flip a switch and go from plausibly plain to unexpectedly beautiful. Her American accent comes and goes, but with the increasingly erratic performances of the deeper, less recognizable, pieces of the supporting cast, I can forgive those lapses.
I rewatched the “Harper’s Island” pilot and I still can’t figure the show out and attempts to get attentional episodes from CBS didn’t pan out. A show that doesn’t know what it wants to be as a pilot, especially a show that was entirely recast and reconceived out of its original brief presentation, can find itself as it goes. I didn’t think the “Harper’s Island” pilot was good, but I thought it was fun and I may watch t see the less interesting cast members killed off, even if I can’t imagine getting invested in the who’s doing the killing.
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