Happy Town TV Review

ABC‘s Happy Town has managed to generate a decent amount of buzz already, and whether it’s because the TV spots show a guy with a hole in his head, or because an awful lot of people say “Twin Peaks” in connection with it, the hype might be somewhat misleading. Twin Peaks-esque, I’m sorry, this is not.

It would really be wonderful if I could assume that you watched Harper’s Island, because it would render me able to trim down a lot of the overall effort. I could just start with, “It’s in that ballpark,” and we’d be on pretty solid ground. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of thing you can assume.

Happy Town takes us to the small town of Haplin, Minnesota, where the people are yokel-ish, and the town’s major industry, a bread factory, makes everything smell wonderful all the live-long day. Most people have a smile on their face, whether they have a reason to or not, but things are not as completely cheery as they may appear. We soon learn that Haplin was the center of a string of disappearances a few years ago, and the unknown culprit is known as The Magic Man.

Though these disappearances ended a fair while back, their unsolved status leaves a certain shadow over the town, and when Happy Town suddenly finds itself with a murderer in its midst, old wounds open, and people start to get rather scared.

It wouldn’t amount to much in the big picture, if not for the fact that people act a little odd in any case. I’ll leave the situational summary to the official synopsis below, but the show draws much of the tension it manages from the curious connections of small town life, and the fact that, since everyone acts a little odd, it’s hard to put your finger on who is and isn’t hiding something.

Except, of course, for deputy Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults), who acts as our focal point. Largely in the law enforcement game because his father, Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey) has been the Sheriff for quite some time, Tommy plays as the normalcy we can latch onto, the lone non-eccentric. He’s the person who is “in it with us,” trying to make sense of the town’s bizarre events.

Somewhere between nonsensically goofy, marginal fun (like the aforementioned Harper’s Island) and legitimate guilty pleasure (maybe along the lines of Picket Fences on acid), Happy Town has some good things going for it, but through the first three episodes, many viewers may find themselves being equally sucked in and spat out.

Stults leads things well, and Sam Neill is wonderful in adding to the mysterious air of things, but other elements of the show are a bit overdone. The Stiviletto brothers, who appear far too frequently for the show’s own good, are the ne’er-do-well rednecks of the town, and their drunken, ignorant attempts at hazing don’t fit well with the overall effort. They aren’t mysterious. They aren’t creepy. They’re just a weak excuse at conflict, when we don’t need it.

Though more interesting and legitimate, the “feud” between the Sheriff and the Haplins, the power family, obviously, of Haplin, is overblown. John Haplin (Steven Weber) lost his daughter to The Magic Man, and he isn’t pleased with the town’s theory of moving on now that the danger seems to have passed. The idea that the family that more or less owns the town might clash with the law isn’t outrageous by any means, but John is unnecessarily dramatic in their confrontations, and it detracts from the show’s intended effect.

To some extent a silly show by design, Happy Town is basically a televised ghost story, if an incredibly complex one, and it needs to be judged accordingly. Where it focuses on being odd and mysterious, it’s rather entertaining really. The questions are endless, and that even in the face of the show telling you a lot of answers, which is a neat spin.

On the other hand, you will by this point have either thought to yourself, “Ooo… that sounds like it could be fun,” or you will find it completely unwatchable. There’s no middle ground.

It’s the kind of attempt you like to see, and despite that it is at best slightly better than average, I’d prefer to see it do well just to validate efforts that are out of the ordinary. Still, it feels at times like odd just for odd’s sake, and without that little spark of brilliance you find with such gems of quirk as Eureka or PSYCH, or, closer in genre, Twin Peaks.

I have a feeling people are going to find this a little too close to things like Witches of Eastwick, and treat it similarly, but it’s worth giving a chance.

Happy Town premieres April 28th at 10:01/9:01c.

Below you can get a rundown on the connections, catch a few clips and interviews, and even watch the first 14 minutes if you’re up for it.

Haplin, Minnesota, “Happy Town,” has enjoyed an uneasy peace for five years, but all that is about to change. Still haunted by a number of unsolved kidnappings, the small town now faces a dark new crime that brings all its unresolved fears to the surface. Has the elusive “Magic Man” – who many believe is responsible for the bizarre abductions — returned to claim another victim? As Haplin’s mysteries are revealed, many of its prominent citizens’ motives come under scrutiny as their own secrets and personalities are peeled back one layer at a time.

Dragged away from his idyllic family life to investigate the new spate of crimes, Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults), a small town deputy under the wing of his dad, long-time popular Sheriff Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey), has never had to take charge of Haplin’s law enforcement. His comfortable lifestyle is suddenly turned upside down by a bizarre set of circumstances and he must learn to pool his smarts – without the necessary training and tools – to rally the residents, as well as to keep his wife, Rachel (Amy Acker), daughter Emma (Sophia Ewaniuk) and the rest of Haplin safe.

On the other side of town, the long shadow of the Haplin founding family, represented by mysterious matriarch Peggy Haplin (Frances Conroy) and her son, John (Steven Weber), who runs the local bread factory, “Our Daily” Bakery and Confectionery, try to maintain control. John’s daughter was one of the “Magic Man’s” victims, and he has not given up hope of finding her and seeing justice done. Little does he know that his son, Andrew (Ben Schnetzer), has been carrying on a hot, secret romance with the Conroys’ babysitter, Georgia Bravin (Sarah Gadon), who is definitely from the other side of the tracks.

When Henley Boone (Lauren German) drops in on Haplin, she is struck by the purple mountain majesty of this sun-splashed town, tempered by a recurring bit of curious graffiti — a halo with a question mark under it. Henley’s mother used to spend time vacationing here, and while looking to uncover information about her family’s past, Henley finds herself drawn into a web of romance and intrigue she never could have foreseen. What’s she really here for, and can she be trusted?

But Henley isn’t the only outsider to make a home in Haplin. From his charming but irrelevant film memorabilia shop, The House of Ushers, to his way with the lively widows residing at the Meadows Boarding House with him, the ever-dapper Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill) seems strangely sinister… or is he? What does he have to hide?

Haplin is full of colorful characters, including Big Dave Duncan (Abraham Benrubi) and the nefarious Stiviletto brothers, but many in this small town in middle America have skeletons in their closets. Who will step up and help unearth the secrets that have festered under Haplin’s cheery exterior? How will its citizens deal with the revelations? And who is the “Magic Man”? Does he really exist, and can he be stopped?

“Happy Town” stars Geoff Stults as Tommy Conroy, Sam Neill as Merritt Grieves, Lauren German as Henley Boone, Steven Weber as John Haplin, Amy Acker as Rachel Conroy, Sarah Gadon as Georgia Bravin, Robert Wisdom as Roger Hobbs, Jay Paulson as Eli “Root Beer” Rogers and Ben Schnetzer as Andrew Haplin.

Recurring stars include Frances Conroy as Peggy Haplin, Abraham Benrubi as Big Dave Duncan, M.C. Gainey as Sheriff Griffin Conroy, Peter Outerbridge as Handsome Dan, Warren Christie as Greggy Stiviletto and Sophia Ewaniuk as Emma Conroy.

Josh Appelbaum (“Life on Mars,” “Alias,” “October Road”), AndrĂ© Nemec (“Life on Mars,” “Alias,” “October Road”) and Scott Rosenberg (“Life on Mars,” “October Road”) are executive producers. “Happy Town” is produced by ABC Studios.

 

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Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.