Harper's Island
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Harper's Island

Horror and mystery are two of the most popular genres in literature, film and television. The biggest complaints most people, even die hard ones, is that these types of stories tend to be overly predictable. You pretty much can figure out in very short order who the victims will be and more importantly who the killer happens to be. This is particularly noticeable on TV where the stars are almost certain to survive while unknowns and guest stars tend to be toast. When the program is a series there is the added pressure placed on the writers to make sure the story can continue for the next season. What has always eluded the writers and producers or television mysteries is a valid migration of the classic mystery novel to the screen. No TV show has been able to get anywhere near the satisfaction of a nice, meaty who-done-it.it seemed to be an impossible task to properly portray a good old fashion murder mystery on television until recently. Ari Schlossberg had a novel idea to overcome the traditional impediments to televised mysteries and approached CBS with a new approach. The end result was ‘Harper’s Island’. On the surface this might appear like any of a dozen horror-mystery series we have all watched far too many times I was hooked after the second episode; it does take a little ramp up time to become invested in the story since there are just so many of them. Was I was fan I read the production notes discovering the amazing efforts the cast and crew went through to ensure this series present the look and feel of a novel. At times the resultant series is a bit uneven but that is inherent in a complex story that takes the proper amount of time to unfold. One thing is certain; it is never boring and it lives up to its tagline promise of killing off at least one character per episode.

The best thing about this series is the fact that it was constructed from the ground up to avoid the TV mystery pitfalls. The series was planned for only a single season of thirteen episodes. This means the writers did not have to make provisions for next year. It also means everything has to resolved and disclosed by the final episode; no season finale cliffhangers. To avoid leaks to the press and internet the scripts were treated as if they contained government secrets. The actors were not told the duration of their contracts to avoid knowing when they would shoot their last scene and the script pages were released to cast and crew only just before shooting. All the typical ‘tells’ frequent found in horror films were expertly avoided. I did not detect a single musical cue or give away piece of dialogue to point to the killer or next victim. When I watched the entire series a second time with fore knowledge of the ending I could then begin to see the subtle clues that were placed throughout the series. It is possible to uncover the secrets if you are very attentive; perfect for s true mystery story.

The most important thing in a story such as this is to lay a firm foundation that explains why all the potential victims, and of course the killer are in the same place. When introducing a large number of characters and their respective back a story there is nothing like a wedding. You get two opposing factions and an inherent setting for high drama and tension. Place the event on an off season resort island and you have the required ‘trapped with nowhere to run’ horror flick requirement very nicely filled. All that remains to build the suspense and terror by brutally picking off the guests one by one. Just for kicks each episode has an onomatopoeic sound relating to the means of death; for example; ‘Sploosh’.

The wedding between Patricia "Trish" Wellington (Katie Cassidy) and Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) should have been like a fairy tale but many felt it was a complete mismatch. The groom came from a working class family that provided labor and services to the rich summer inhabitants. The bride happen to come from one of those wealthy families and her father, Thomas (Richard Burgi) was firmly set against his new son-in-law for being beneath their social status. This sets the stage for the ever popular theme of class differences. You always need one good girl in the mix and here she is Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy). She is Henry’s best friend since childhood and is returning to the island after years away. She left after her mother was killed by the island’s original serial killer, John Wakefield. The island is no stranger to murder, mayhem and intrigue. To balance off the good girl there has to be a free spirited wild child. This position is filled by Chloe Carter (Cameron Richardson). Just to keep things interesting there is the creepy little girl, Madison (Cassandra Sawtell), the flower girl who makes Wednesday Addams seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook farms. The directorial chores were split between several individuals but the end result exhibits nothing but a uniformly excellent production. Parts are played for camp value but for the most part it is a mystery novel on television. Having 13 episodes to work with gave the writers and directors ample time to let the circumstances simmer and the right amount of exposition come out at just the right time. Unlike a movie or even a mini series there was no reason at all to rush things. Hopefully this approach will catch on. It is better to one well crafted season than a longer running show with nothing new.

Posted 08/25/09

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