In this thirteen part limited run TV series, a bunch of out-of-towners with a history with the place descend on small Harper’s Island for the wedding of rich girl Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) and poor boy Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham), because everyone involved had such a beautiful time there once. The fun mostly happened before a brutal series of murders committed by one John Wakefield on the island seven years ago, mind you.
The memories of these murders make the return for former local and our
designated heroine Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy) particularly difficult, since one
of the victims Wakefield hung from what I must assume was his favourite tree was
her mother. Still, Abby might just find the opportunity to hook up with her old
love Jimmy (C.J. Thomason) and rebuild the relationship with her Dad Charlie
(Jim Beaver) who is also the local sheriff and the guy who shot Wakefield and
let him drop off a cliff. Well, she’ll do that, and try to survive the ensuing
madness when people start to disappear (or, as we the audience know, get
violently killed by a mysterious assailant and fan of death traps).
The CBS (but looking, feeling and featuring a cast that makes it look like a
CW project) series Harper’s Island – with the sometimes excellent
Jeffrey Bell as show runner - is the ungodly mixture of soap opera, “Ten Little
Whatever” style whodunit and slasher you didn’t know you needed in your life.
It’s not the ironic kind of slasher most TV attempts at the slasher form are
either: while there’s a perfectly appropriate macabre sense of humour running
through the show that’s best exemplified by episode titles like “Whap” or my
personal favourite “Thrack, Splat, Sizzle” which do indeed onomatopoetically
hint at (some of the) murders occurring in the episode, the show is playing
things without the safety of ironic distance, so the slasher parts are indeed
slasher parts and not parts about the slasher genre or the series’
assumed superiority over it.
Harper’s Island is also clever enough to realize that you can’t blow
up the slasher format to a TV show without adding extra genre ingredients to it,
so we get the Agatha Christie style whodunit – though one unable to construct
red herrings that’ll confuse anyone but its literally terminally stupid
characters – and the soap operatics. The last bit turns out to be a bit of a
challenge in the first five episodes or so, at least for me, who really does not
care about the plotline explaining how Rich Girl’s Dad (Richard Burgi) doesn’t
want her to marry her fiancée and has taken his dear time to do anything about
it, as well as other subplots I vaguely remember from Dallas.
Particularly since the cast isn’t exactly full of interesting and likeable
characters, for rather a lot of them are your standard soap opera types, and the
melodramatic parts of the writing mostly work well only in the episodes Bell
writes. On the plus side, if there’s a character you’re annoyed by, there’s more
than just a good chance you’ll see him or her find a gruesome end, for even if
the show is only marginally gory, the body count is insanely high and the death
methods are created with a loving sense for detail and – probably evil – fun.
And, hey, at least the victims aren’t slasher stereotypes.
Once the show gets going, and despite its heavy reliance on standard clichés,
it becomes rather a lot of fun, showing the appropriate ruthlessness towards
most of its characters, and really pulls off so many twists and fun little set
pieces I can’t imagine anyone who likes even one of the genres involved won’t
have fun with it.