Happy Town debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. EDT.
There's just no way around this. I am going to watch every episode of Happy Town. I am going to eagerly slurp up every hour the network shows. I am going to watch this show before programs I like more, before programs that deserve far more respect, and before programs that are not nearly as ridiculously strange and goofy as it. If The AV Club would let me recap this every week, I would, not because I think the show is terrific but because there are few things I've had more fun doing this television season than watching the first three hours of the series. It was a hoot and a half.
But here's the thing: Happy Town hits me exactly in my guilty pleasure blind spot. It's a show about a creepy, spooky small town where nothing is as it seems, and there are dark secrets afoot. It's very obviously an attempt to redo Twin Peaks or create a TV series based on some of the more labyrinthine Stephen King Castle Rock novels. And yet, tonally, it gets almost everything it's going for wrong. It's not that everything is completely off. You're going to recognize what the show is going for, and you're more or less going to be able to see where it could have done these things better, but if you enjoy shows like this, and if you enjoy shows that are grandly campy and/or so-bad-they're-good, well, have I got a show for you!
Happy Town takes place in Haplin, Minnesota, which is called … well … look at the title. The town is home to a loving family at the show's center, a giant bread factory, an improbable movie memorabilia store on Main Street, and oodles and oodles of mysteries (as if you even had to ask). Happy Town wants to be many things. It wants to be a dark horror show, it wants to be a kinda silly small town show, it wants to be a dramatic tale of a family trying to hold itself together, and it wants to be a show that brings in a ton of mysteries and makes you wonder what the answers to all of them are. Now, if you had a J.J. Abrams at the helm of this show, these tones might all work together, and you might get a grandly goofy good time. Unfortunately, the people behind the show are Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg.
Appelbaum, Nemec, and Rosenberg were the dudes who came up with both October Road and the American remake of Life on Mars. October Road was just too full of treacle to be enjoyable, while Life on Mars had its moments but buried them all under its COMPLETELY INSANE series finale. Appelbaum, Nemec, and Rosenberg want SO BADLY to be Abrams, but they can just never make it work out for them. (And, yeah, there's a sideways universe where these three have Abrams' status, and he's struggling to get little dime-store remakes of Dr. Kildare on the air, and everyone in that universe is sad.)
Happy Town, then, is an attempt to play to the weird strengths of the best Life on Mars episodes. It even adds in some of the utter, batshit nuts, "What the hell?" attitude of that finale. I mean, any show that has an insane killer bird, a town full of people that refuse to acknowledge that they lost several townspeople to a presumed supernatural entity called "the magic man" a few years ago, and a series of scenes where clues to solve a murder might as well be written on the bottom of the screen by the lead character in permanent marker and then underlined can't be ALL bad, right?
I mean, yes and no. For most people, Happy Town is going to be a very strange slog. It's a very strange slog that's somehow recruited a top-flight class, mind, (including Steven Weber, Sam Neill and Frances Conroy!) but it's still a show that is trying very frantically to be a lot of things that it's not. Let's be honest. The reason Twin Peaks was Twin Peaks was because no one on that show actively tried to make Twin Peaks what it is today. Sure, the series' creators wanted it to be very weird, but the actors in the show and the characters in the world didn't ever act like they were in a world of strange happenings, for the most part. Everyone involved with Twin Peaks acted as if this were the secret order of the universe, as if even the most mundane of lives would turn into this if you tipped it 15 degrees to the left. By contrast, pretty much everyone on Happy Town just runs around all of the time as though every line of dialogue they have consists of, "THIS IS HAPPY TOWN, THE WEIRDEST FUCKING TOWN IN THE UNIVERSE! WOOP WOOP WOOP!"
These tonal problems run rampant in the three episodes screened. Any time the show wants to turn menacing, it instead turns goofy, and attempts to create a pseudo-Lynchian sense of the normal spilling over into the abnormal are thwarted by the fact that everyone involved is very consciously setting out to make Twin Peaks. You can only do Lynchian stuff if you set out to make it as normal as possible, letting the weirdness gradually seep in. Happy Town basically just heads straight for weird from frame one, and it's always, aggressively letting you know just how strange and hip and cool it is.
But that said, there is going to be a group of people who just love the shit out of this show and get really into the mysteries and all of that. Some of them (hi!) are going to do so with a fine appreciation for the fact that television rarely does something this watchably stupid all that often. And make no mistake. This show is GLORIOUSLY dumb, in that way where you can't stop watching it, like a big bag of Oreos - no, Chewy Chips Ahoy - you can't keep your hands off. But there are going to be people who just think this show is the bee's knees. For the most part, they're not going to have seen Peaks, and they're going to see this as - finally! - their Lost successor.
What Happy Town has in common with Lost is that it has a bunch of characters who are basically types running around a setting that's full of mystery and curiously isolated from the world. In short, it's full of instantly identifiable people, and it's just far enough away from where we live for it to seem believable (as opposed to, say, FlashForward). And Appelbaum, Nemec and Rosenberg never met a story problem they couldn't ladle a solution onto. You like mysterious men who seem to hide dark secrets? Happy Town has, like, 15 of them. You like strange and mysterious symbols that seem to have nothing to do with anything? Happy Town went to the big garage sale Lost held and bought 75. And on and on like that. This is basically a show that will be canceled quickly, but people will still keep bugging you about and how you should watch it for at least ten years.
But it's kind of hard to explain just why I think you should watch Happy Town. I'm not giving it a terribly good grade, because I recognize that for a lot of people, this is going to be a D or even an F. I'm not immediately sure that the show's creative personnel are actually trying to create something that's ironically enjoyable, particularly if you like this genre. It sure seems like they're taking this all mostly seriously, and that, sadly, prevents me from hailing it as some sort of misunderstood work of near-genius. But what is there is weirdly entertaining, nonetheless. I can see a world where this becomes a lot of people's favorite show. I can't say that I can see a world where it becomes my favorite show, but I can definitely see a world where I can't wait to see what bit of insanity it's pulling out of its ass every Wednesday night.