Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Look Back at TV: Harper's Island

Perhaps due to the lack of new Masterpiece Classic on TV, I decided to rewatch episodes of Harper's Island and then elaborate on the experience it provided.

In 2009, CBS tried something different. They ordered and aired a 13-episode horror serial show. Harper's Island was a classic example of genre--it was part horror, part thriller, part mystery.

The set-up was timeless, if not terribly original. A wedding is set to take place on an isolated island with a dark past. A Final Girl comes home to confront bad memories after several years. A perversely ingenious serial killer is picking off the guests one by one. The cast is young and pretty, the setting is gorgeous but secluded enough to be unsettling, and the twists and murders are consistent yet surprising, twisted yet believable. So why didn't it work?

CBS took a gamble, and tried something new--not exactly what the network is known for. They got some big names involved, like Jeffrey Bell and John Turtletaub. The found quality actors, like the expressive and endearing Irish actress Elaine Cassidy, and the handsome, nuanced Christopher Gorham (now on Covert Affairs.) They created a story both simple and complex, with many overlapping mysteries, red herrings, and straight up action/horror scenes. They played with tropes from the various genres they were living in, and not just the Final Girl mythos.

Many of the killings had a morality to them, such as the inevitable demise of the greedy, lying fat guy, or the uninhibited adulterers. In the end, two killers were revealed, one of several echoes of the modern classic Scream (Abbie and her life at the center of mystery, a considerably amount of humor particularly in the first 7 episodes, strange phone calls with a static-y Ave Maria, haunted past returning, etc.) A hermit in the woods, a noble but doomed Sheriff, the tensions of class envy forgotten in the face of gruesome homicide, the list goes on. Hell, they even have a creepy little girl who says ominous things and has a surprising amount of information.

The problem is, all these references and inclusions to well known horror elements were just that; references. Little was done with any of these things that was surprising or original, let alone subversive. Granted it was only occasionally boring and rarely tedious, but it was only an homage. That can be lovely, and I like a good solid reminder of what came before, and what worked in the past. And clearly CBS wanted to create a concentrated story that had consisted of everything that had ever worked before in the genre. They did in fact take a risk making the series, but they played it safe when it came to the content.

These days the successful horror flicks, aside from torture porn which hopefully won't be making it to TV anytime soon, are the ones with some originality. A familiar premise that has been tweaked, an infusion of humor, an attempt at something new. Harper's Island was a celebration of all things in the past. True, it was not billed or marketed as anything else, and there was no reason to believe that a classic one-by-one deserted island mystery wouldn't work, until the ratings came out. The ratings dropped considerably with each episode, until the show was moved to Saturdays and barely broke the 2 million viewer mark (perhaps that would have made it a hit on a cable channel.)

In my opinion, it was a good show. Elaine Cassidy and Christopher Gorham are pitch perfect. Several other characters were well-developed, and their personal stories' climax was often surprisingly affecting and emotional (particularly Cal and Chloe, who had the best relationship and the most original, poignant deaths.) The tension is well-maintained, especially in the latter episodes, in part because Callum Keith Rennie of Battlestar Galactica fame does a great creepy killer, and the reveal of the second killer was done with a maximum amount of shock and distress.

Which is not to say it was flawless. I think the main reason for Harper's Islands failure (if we define 'failure' as plummeting ratings and no second season/installment/project commissioned...as I imagine most people would) it is the length. 13 episodes was far too long to string us along and expect all the viewers to stick around. Horror movies have trouble maintaining tension and interest in 90minute films, so imagine how exponentially difficult it is to draw out a serial killer's rampage for 13 hours, or even the last 6 hours when all characters are finally conscious of the danger they're in.

With that many installments to get through before the big reveal and final showdown, the amount of red herrings becomes almost insulting. A minimum of one death an episode is not enough to maintain momentum, considering the first few are entirely uninteresting characters and at one point even an accidental death with no bearing on the plot. Once things heat up, and the danger is entirely revealed, it moves at a better clip. But still, it continues to be dragged down by subplots or extraneous characters. And while almost all of these are well-written, well-acted and well-filmed, the horror genre invariably benefits concise developments, numerous surprises, and a fast pace.

For all its weaknesses, and creative timidity (or perhaps I should say 'creative traditionalism') Harper's Island was a well made and entertaining show. Its very existence was novel. My main regret about the entire project is that it did so badly in the ratings, because it all but guarantees that no major network will attempt another foray into strict horror, which I believe to be an untapped genre in the medium of television. Just look at what kind of audience The Walking Dead can bring in.

So I appeal to the executives in charge of these things: Try it again. Maintain the level of writing and acting, put some money in it, and keep it short and sweet. (Also, keep hiring Cassidy and Gorham.) Give us the parts of the genre that we love, but try a little boldness. There's a goldmine here.

1 comment:

  1. I'm watching chiller's marathon of Harper's Island right now. I agree about the acting, and it was shot beautifully as well. I was excited when the show was on, but agree it was hard to keep up suspense over the course of 13 weeks. Plus even with the two killers covering the "but he was in full public view when this murder happened" issues, there were still plenty of unanswered questions.
    I agree they should try this again.