Most efforts to create scary television shows over the years have met with mixed results at best. The most successful—like Dark Shadows, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or Supernatural—blended the horror element with other TV staples, like soapy relationship drama, humor, or procedural storytelling. The X-Files often created horror by crafting mini-movies between commercial breaks, choosing one or two acts for the scares, then delivering breathless payoff and action after a few messages from its sponsors. Today, Hannibal succeeds by pushing itself into near-operatic levels of disturbing imagery, a grand, outsized drama more gruesome than spooky. On cable, greater creative freedom and the flexibility to push the commercial interruptions has allowed for more leeway to successfully scare. But it’s a difficult balancing act: It’s awfully tough to sustain fear when the snarling, knife-wielding maniac is suddenly replaced by the smiling face of Mr. Clean.
The Walking Dead, one of the most successful horror programs in history, derives much of its tension from a sort of grisly anticipation. We know zombies are everywhere, and after proving it wasn’t going to shy away from killing off its main cast, the show became an ongoing concern of “who will live?” Each episode begins with the audience in full understanding that, by the time the hour is up, another member of their beloved post-apocalyptic crew could be ripped to pieces by the ravenous undead. This commitment to offing people stems from Robert Kirkman’s source material, but the template for killing characters off one at a time could just as easily have come from Harper’s Island.
Unlike most television efforts at horror, which employ supernatural elements, Harper’s Island played it straight: Set firmly within the real world, the show attempted to make a season-long TV series out of what’s basically a slasher movie. Closer in spirit to Masterpiece Mystery! than The X-Files, the show did its level best to scare viewers with a weekly murder, rather than a supernatural creature. Most fascinating of all, Harper’s Island was brought down not by the slipshod nature of its scares, but rather by the weakness of just about everything but the horror.
Harper’s Island premiered on CBS in the spring of 2009 to a resounding collective yawn. The epitome of serialized TV—a bunch of friends and family arrive on an island, and are slowly picked off one by one—its ratings were soft, all but guaranteeing cancellation. It numbers fell off with each successive episode (especially after being banished to Saturday nights)—there wasn’t a huge audience, it seemed, for a cross between I Know What You Did Last Summer and And Then There Were None. Also unclear was to what extent the show simply befuddled those expecting a murder mystery, who instead got a bizarre soap opera that morphed into a slasher film spread out across 13 episodes.
The series hewed close to slasher conventions, at least when it wasn’t being derailed by its sudsier elements. The pilot, filmed with workmanlike competence by director-for-hire Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Phenomenon, even Cool Runnings), sets up all the pins, then starts the ball rolling down the lane. Protagonist Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy) has returned to her hometown, Harper’s Island, for the marriage of her best friend from childhood, Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham). Ten years earlier, the community was terrorized by serial killer John Wakefield (Callum Keith Rennie), who killed Abby’s mother and was eventually brought down by Abby’s father, Sheriff Charlie Mills (Jim Beaver). Harper’s Island is populated by service workers and their families, who make their livings catering to wealthy vacationers. Henry is marrying rich girl Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy), much to the consternation of her upper-crust family—or at least Trish’s father. Having few family members outside of a ne’er-do-well brother and uncle, Henry brings a crew of rowdy groomsmen to accompany him.
But once they arrive on the island, someone begins dispatching wedding guests, with the murders resembling those of the long-dead Wakefield. Naturally, everyone has a secret, almost nobody is completely forthcoming, and as the bodies begin to drop, the audience goes on a journey—with Abby as its stand-in—to find out who’s behind the killings, and why they’ve begun again.
Marketing can do much to hinder or help a new TV show, and in the case of Harper’s Island, CBS probably thought it had a doozy of a hook for pulling in viewers. Playing up the “trapped on an island with a murderer” scenario, promotional materials advertised a “Pick The Victim” game (on the official Harper’s Island website, now sadly defunct), where viewers could compete for a cash prize. The contest played on the then-still-potent cultural fascination with shows like Survivor, where the drama came less from appealing personalities and more from the mechanics of the gameplay. But Harper’s Island wasn’t a reality competition, and by emphasizing this side of the show, the actual drama was made to feel rote and perfunctory. Audiences got excited about guessing who shot J.R. or who killed Laura Palmer because they were invested in those characters and the people around them, not because they were playing the stab-victim equivalent of the lottery.
The pilot partakes in the proud TV show tradition of claiming the biggest name on the call sheet as the first victim—in this case, Harry Hamlin, one of the only cast members who knew when his character would die. (His single-episode contract was probably a major hint.) From there on out, almost no one knew how long their character would be around, or how they would be disposed of. It likely made for a very unstable work environment—though that was a much more unusual arrangement six years ago, before The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones ushered in the current era of “anyone can die at any point” TV dramas.
In some ways, the plan to kill off at least one person an episode was needed, given the over 25 characters the audience was expected to know and at least briefly feel were human, before they got killed. (The show would often off more than one person per episode, eventually getting all the way up to five people at once in one of the final installments.) The main problem was the same one that plagues the horror movies from which the show is derived: too many characters coming across as too bland and unlikable to really connect. By the second episode, the crew of dude-bros led by dude-iest bro Sully (Matt Barr, sporting spiky blond hair, as is the rule) reads as overwhelmingly smug and self-satisfied—not a good look.
The bridal party, by comparison, is at least slightly more likable, if also more interchangeable, personality-wise. The grown-ups are the most distinct, even if they all give off the “I have a sinister secret” vibe. The show wants everyone to be a suspect, which is a commendable goal if you’re trying to hew to the conventions of an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. But it also hampers characterization in a big way, because when you insist on every character playing their cards close to the vest, there’s not much left to identify with. Abby Mills becomes the audience surrogate by default—she’s the only person on Harper’s Island who’s allowed to open up. Thank God the show didn’t try to make her a suspect as well.
This problem is best exemplified by another of Harper’s Island’s marketing choices, in which promotional materials identified each of the characters as a stock type. Abby was “The Good Girl,” bridesmaid Chloe (Cameron Richardson) was “The Flirt,” and so on. But not everyone was so easy to pin down: Other cast members received barely-there differentiations like “Danny, The College Buddy” and “Richard, The Brother-In-Law.” It’s understandable why CBS would do this: With such a large group, it helps to have a quick and easy cheat sheet for the audience, something that allows the assignation of a dominant trait that identifies and sets apart each person. Showrunner Jeffrey Bell has said the writers “started with some archetypes” and then tried to fill in the shadings as the show progressed. In practice, it resulted in an unappealing roster, where everyone felt one-note; by the time we started getting stronger characterizations, people were dying left and right, and it was too late.
Ironically, once the show abandoned its initial tumblings and got down to the business of being a non-stop “Who’s the killer?” parade of death, it got a lot better. Characters who previously came across as loathsome (paging Sully, blonde captain of the S.S. Dude-bro) were redeemed through solid acting and a newfound commitment to being respectable humans. Slasher films often backfire once the killing begins, turning seemingly normal people into insane assholes making inexplicable decisions. Harper’s Island did the opposite: People who behaved like insufferable louts were transformed into appealing and empathetic souls the moment they witnessed a death. A brutal murder in episode five finally triggers this, and everyone immediately bands together, pooling resources and helping one another in the face of tragedy. It’s a wonderfully realistic response, one that instantly humanized even the most obnoxious characters.
From this point on, the show had focus. Unfortunately, it was too late: Most of the audience had checked out, perhaps put off by feeling like the whole thing was a a 13-episode-long gimmick rather than a serious drama. That first misstep cost the show dearly. Bell said that he thought audiences would be surprised by how the show changed as it progressed, but it seems he and the network misunderstood what viewers would find interesting. All of the by-the-numbers soap-opera plot points felt stale and uninteresting because they came across like treading water—listless character beats intended to string people along until the show became a locked-room horror chase. By trying to lure the audience in with cheesy, uninspired human drama hooks, the show shot itself in the foot, chasing away all but the most dedicated fans. Those who could see past the hackneyed time-wasting of the early episodes discovered the fun and murderous whodunit that Harper’s Island should’ve been all along.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Weirdo, for confusing its worst qualities with its best.
Next time: Matt Crowley investigates the swift demise of the ideal Andy Richter vehicle, Andy Barker, P.I.