I don’t know about you—but with “BSG” dead and gone, only three episodes of “Lost” remaining, “V” still waffling around for a tone and “Heroes” just begging for a burlap sack and a swift river—I’m desperately searching for the next TV obsession. ABC has kindly offered up “Happy Town,” a serialized drama that seems to want to combine elements of “Twin Peaks” and Fargo. So far, I’m mildly intrigued but unconvinced it’s going to be worth my weekly investment.
TV has a spotty track record these days on serialized drama. Cable outlets HBO (“The Sopranos,” “True Blood”), AMC (“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad”) and FX (“Rescue Me,” “Damages”) have all shown an ability to do limited-run series well. But network TV invariably screws it up. (Remember the intriguing concept that was the first season of FOX’s “Prison Break” ... and the ridiculous add-ons that were the next three seasons? Or the vast difference in quality between BBC’s “Life on Mars” ... and ABC’s “Life on Mars”?)
Perhaps the biggest problem is network TV’s business plan. Well-performing series are stretched a season or two (or three) too long. Conversely, underperforming series are yanked before their logical conclusion. Given TV’s recent history with shows that aren’t stupid sitcoms (anyone remember “Day Break,” “Journeyman,” “Defying Gravity,” “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Harper’s Island,” “Dollhouse”?), I’m willing to bet “Happy Town” will be canceled long before its plot begins to makes sense.
The show takes place in the tiny Minnesota town of Haplin. The narrative kicks off by introducing us to new-gal-in-town Henley (Lauren German, Hostel: Part II), who has allegedly arrived to open a candle shop with money from her dead mother’s will. Haplin is one of those fictional towns where everyone acts all creepy and mysterious, like they’ve got some dark secret to hide—which I’m assuming they do. Years ago, the town was stalked by a serial killer known as “The Magic Man” for his ability to make his victims vanish—seemingly into thin air. Nowadays, nobody wants to talk about it. Unfortunately, a fresh corpse out on a frozen lake rips open old wounds.
While “Happy Town” isn’t nearly as surreal as “Twin Peaks,” it does have a heaping helping of symbolism—from birds to blue doors to fresh-baked bread. (No idea what any of it means.) By the end of the first episode, the show dumps a major load of freakiness as well: The town sheriff (Hey, it’s Mr. Friendly from “Lost”!) starts lapsing into fugue states and spouting cryptic poetry, and our main gal Henley is revealed as one of the Magic Man’s (allegedly) dead victims. Huh?
The current flaw with “Happy Town” is that it’s impossible to tell what kind of show it’s supposed to be. A supernatural horror series? A whodunit murder mystery? A blackly comic soap opera? I’m confused. Perhaps I should give credit to the creators for giving us something complex. But I’m pretty sure audiences (and network executives) aren’t going to stick with it long enough to make a difference.