It’s a minor miracle that Harper’s Island is still on the air at all. After only a few episodes that pulled in steadily-declining ratings, CBS’s “whodunit” slasher series was pulled from its prime Thursday night/10pm slot in early May and dumped into the tumbleweed-swirling cesspool that is Saturdays at 9pm. Rather than show some metaphorical testicles and let the show’s stalked-and-killed Henry/Trish wedding party breathe, CBS bitched out and washed their hands of the 13-episode investment. Does anybody under the age of 35 actually watch television at that time? Why aren’t they out galavanting or sipping on something? Being social? Wasting money and inching toward the next morning when they’ll wish they had stayed home to watch the tube?
This is one case where DVR and TiVo have acted like superheroes, swooping in to save a program that’d otherwise be left for dead. Harper’s Island has consistently scored well with those recording devices, obviously because the show’s target demo (teenagers to 30-somethings) have better, more productive things to do than be home to watch, and set their DVRs accordingly so they can catch up with who’s been killed this week as their hangovers subside on Sunday morning.
Considering the repetitive mediocrity that Saturday nights can become, you’d actually be better off staying in and secondhand-visiting Harper’s Island on its first runs. It’s the most original, shamelessly lurid, and genuinely unpredictable television series that I’ve seen in ages, and deserves a much larger audience than CBS has directly positioned it with with the Saturday night shift. Typically, I can spot “who the killer is” with ease when a film or show teases and asks me to do so; call it a product of reading way too many murder mysteries as a kid, or watching every movie of this ilk that I can. With the rare exception of sleepers such as James Mangold’s wicked and forgotten Identity, I’m more seasoned detective than gumshoe.
Which is exactly why Harper’s Island is so damn special. With only a few episodes left, I’m absolutely clueless. Every time I feel like I have the case pinned, my suspicions are subverted and I’m left scratching my temples. And reeling as my fondness for the show grows with each passing week/episode. [Continued after the jump]
The show’s creator, Ari Schlossberg, and his writing team have managed to pull off the thankless impossible: constructing a show that has featured 25 primary characters in which no character has felt completely disposable. Not all are especially strong, but each one serves a plot-moving purpose at one point or another. My favorite of the show is “Henry,” surprisingly; surprising in the sense that he’s nothing but a reliable, downhome do-gooder who only wanted to marry to his longtime love and have the storybook wedding. Played by rookie Christopher Gorham, his is a role that could’ve devolved into the painful “sympathetic lead,” the middle-class underdog marrying into the millionare family led by a snobby father who disapproves. Yet watching him go from soft to resilient has been seamless. If and when Henry buys the farm, it’ll be a legitimately tragic moment.
At the rate that Harper’s Island is moving, it wouldn’t be an utter shock to see Henry take a machete to the gut next episode. The show’s writers have done a commendable job at keeping the next victims’ identities pretty unclear. This tone was set at the end of the pilot episode—-Harry Hamlin, a cheesy C-lister who also just happened to be the show’s biggest star, went from a vibrant supporting player to a cut-in-half corpse. It’s not exactly Janet Leigh in Psycho, but, in the context of Harper’s Island, it was a total “Oh shit, they killed Harry Hamlin like that, so soon???”
Speaking of Hamlin’s Rhodes-in-Day-of-the-Dead-like death, Harper’s Island‘s kill scenes have been unexpectedly gruesome. A huge plus, naturally. We’ve seen a man tied up on the bottom of a boat and Ginsu-ed by the propeller, a sleazebag take a megaton shotgun buckshot to the skull that split his wig into bits, and a central character randomly have his skull cut into two in the middle of a wedding rehearsal. The gore is subdued, this being CBS in primetime, but they’re certainly pushing the visuals to the limits here.
I could go deep into the show’s layers of mystery, or how sexy the two female leads (Katie “Trish” Cassidy and Elaine “Abby” Cassidy, no relation) are, but neither is my main point. Though the latter is undeniable—-Kate Cassidy is morphing into my new Olivia Thirlby. But I’m getting off topic, so enough of that. The most important thing about Harper’s Island that needs to be stressed is the show’s originality, particularly glaring in light of TV’s irritating and, frankly, lazy-as-fuck dependence on the trinity of uninspired programing: reality shows, or procedurals on either cops or doctors. Yes, writing original characters in the midst of mundane hospitial or precinct settings helps to distinguish some from others, but overall TV’s landscape is a bunch of interchangeable bullshit. So when a show such as Harper’s Island comes along and connects on all cylinders while never succumbing to standard practice, it should be applauded and made successful, not ignored and pushed away.
If I’m not mistaken, Schlossberg’s original idea was to devise a new elaborate “whodunit” every season, relocating the bodycount to new locations and introducing new rosters every season. That is, if this inaugural Harper’s Island run had been a triumph. If all was right, Harper’s Island would receive the same goodwill treatment that Fox gave Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, awarding a second season simply off of positive buzz and a devoted, if small, following. Only, Harper’s Island doesn’t have a devoted-enough base, at least not that I can see or hear. A few humble lovers hear and there, but that’s all.
I’m pretty sure I know who the show’s “killer” is now, with only a few episodes left. It’s not Abby’s stepdad, the town’s sheriff…..or Abby’s scorned ex-boyfriend. And it’s not the little girl, Madison, although that’d be badass if it was.
It’s the show’s own ballsiness that’s to blame for the (show’s) destruction. Schlossberg and (initially) CBS rolled the dice and counted on TV-watchers to support something from left field. Filled it with pretty faces straight of The CW’s glory days, except these attractive performers can act better than anticipated. Went the extra mile to appease horror fans with nifty kills, sadly neglecting the fact that horror’s “die-hards” are the biggest hyprocrites on the Earth’s face—-watch them complain and bitch about the lack of originality, then scowl as they ignore the few fresh ideas that do materialize.
Had more hospitals been in sight, or if the “one by one” murder sequence had been scrapped for a “Blind Date meets Survivor” setup, Harper’s Island would be a smash. Katie Cassidy would be this year’s Blake Lively, and Schlossberg would have gained some of that J.J. Abrams clout. Instead, the show will lie helpless as history’s shovel pours dirt on its stillborn self, with Showtime’s Masters of Horror rotting away in the adjacent cemetary plot.