Premieres tonight on CBS, 10 p.m. ET
Hold onto your dentures, CBS faithful! Your standard-issue Agatha Christie-style mystery serial just got a whole lot stabbier.
Scheduled to roll out in a 13-episode run from now until July 2nd, Harper’s Island represents a mostly down-the-middle twist on Christie’s famed 10 Little Indians, with the same basic premise of people congregating on an island and getting picked off one by one. That the network is touting it less as a Christie redux than “Scream meets Survivor” goes a long way towards explaining the marked uptick in bloody eviscerations and near-nudity, as well the reality-show gimmickry attached to the whodunit aspect of the show. Viewers are invited to play the “Pick The Victim” game on the official website, where they can compete for a $1000 grand prize. To me, that’s about as close to a blanket admission to the arbitrariness of the whole ghoulish enterprise, but then again, whodunits are known for their arbitrariness. Doesn’t make it any less fun to play along at home.
Harper’s Island follows a yachtload of family and friends to a secluded island off the coast of Seattle for a wedding. Both parties have connections to the island, though they come from different walks of life: The groom (Christopher Gorham) used to work summers there on the docks, and one of his tasks was to tend to the boat of his future bride’s father (a deliciously nasty Richard Burgi), a real estate mogul who barely hides his disapproval over his daughter (Katie Cassidy) marrying trash. (In the first episode, he works overtime to rope her former lover—a fatuous super-hunk played by Victor Webster—back into the picture.) Among the many people coming together for the occasion are the groom’s closest female friend (Elaine Cassidy), who has a dark history on the island; a rowdy bunch of groomsmen (you know they’re into partying because one of them has spiky hair and another has crazy sideburns); various black sheep like a boozing “Uncle Marty” (played by hammy Harry Hamlin); and assorted locals, family members, and hangers-on. The cast of characters numbers a robust 25, so even with a new victim every week, there will still be half a cast of suspects left to guess who’s responsible.
Since CBS understandably wants to keep a lid on the victims’ identities, only the first episode was sent out for review, which is a shame, because there’s so much heavy-lifting to be done to push this unwieldy ship out to sea. Not only do we have to know the basics about most of the major characters—a problem the writers solve by simply having them blurt out reams of exposition—but various tensions and secrets have to be established, and the stakes have to be raised. Hanging over everyone’s heads is the memory of seven victims slaughtered by a serial killer seven years earlier, including Cassidy’s mother. The man is supposedly dead, but his spirit is very much alive. (I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Homer and the gang, placed into a witness protection program to evade Sideshow Bob, are offered residence at Cape Fear, Terror Lake, New Horrorfield, and Screamville.)
What’s striking (and a little unseemly) about Harper’s Island is how much its musty Christie conventions are infused with the shock tactics of modern-day slasher movies. One woman tells the spooky story of the island’s famed serial killer and—BAM!—a seagull comes crashing through the canopy. A panicked Englishman searches frantically for his skinny-dipping girlfriend in the sea and—DUNK!—someone (her, of course) drags him into the water. At the same time, the show indulges in some old-fashioned, back-stabbing, bed-hopping soap opera, with betrayals past, present, and future all burbling up to the surface. By the end, everyone will no doubt have a plausible enough motivation to be the killer.
Despite the surprising amount of graphic violence and near-nudity in Harper’s Island—the first killing must be seen to be believed—there’s nothing terribly exciting about the show, which isn’t out to reinvent the wheel. Truth be told, the combination of juicy melodrama and whodunit guessing-games isn’t easy to resist, especially in the knowledge that it’ll all be wrapped up in 12 more episodes. But resist I shall.
Stray observations: None.