The new ABC mystery drama Happy Town premieres on Wednesday, April 28, with pilot episode “In This Home on Ice”. The short promos for Happy Town running on ABC have highlighted the horror aspects, while the lengthier trailers tried to play up the Twin Peaks comparisons. The pilot itself? It’s a bit of a stew of different genres and approaches, which can work successfully in the right blend. The problem with Happy Town is that some of the actors aren’t sure which version of Happy Town they’re in. (Another problem is that the dialogue often comes from the George Lucas School of Lameness.)
The good news is that the huge cast of Happy Town characters and their intertwining storylines provide enough mystery, quirkiness, and intrigue to keep us wanting more. The pilot episode, “In This Home on Ice”, covers an ambitious amount of ground. We get introductions to most of the major players, background on the Happy Town of Haplin, a murder, hints at mysterious pasts, and even a little social maneuvering. Lost fans will also be stunned by the fact that one of the mysteries is answered–at least in part–in the very first episode.
(Minor SPOILER alert from this point forward–but the BIG secrets stay secret.)
Happy Town Murder
Happy Town begins ominously, with young Georgia Bravin (Sarah Gadon) getting dropped off by a secret boyfriend across the woods from her home. This is so she can be in an extra creepy setting when she hears male cries of distress from one of the ice fishing shacks on a nearby pond. The Happy Town horror show ensues when we get a glimpse inside that shack, where a man is tortured for information by a shadowy figure and then murdered.
Newcomer to Happy Town
In the bright light of day, we meet a newcomer to small town Haplin, Henley Boone (Lauren German). Henley gets picked up from the train by local realtor Miranda Kirby (Linda Kash), aka Miss Mary Sunshine. Miranda prattles on to Henley about how awesome the “Happy Town” of Haplin is, the fresh baked bread smell from the local factory adding an air of wholesome goodness to everything.
Henley shares that her late mother used to vacation in Haplin and loved it, so now Henley is hoping to settle here and open a candle shop. As they drive through Happy Town, Henley notices the cheerful families and charming storefronts, and the occasional spray-painted symbol of a question mark with a halo above it. Cue overdone mysterious soundtrack.
Sheriff Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey) is the intelligent, pragmatic voice of order and reason in the Happy Town of Haplin. Which makes it all the more disturbing when he starts rambling nonsensically in the middle of witness interrogations for the murder investigation. At first his adult son Tommy (Geoff Stults) is able to snap him out of it, but eventually Sheriff Conroy goes off the deep end.
Tommy has a wife, Rachel (Amy Acker), and young daughter Emma (Sophia Ewaniuk). Tommy seems to enjoy the small town life and riding on his father’s coattails at work, but we get the idea in “In This Home On Ice” that Rachel is looking for something more out of life.
We also meet John Haplin (Steven Weber), owner of the Happy Town bread factory, and father of a little girl who’s been missing for five years. His wife Carol (Natalie Brown) isn’t dealing with it well, and John butts heads with Sheriff Conroy when he tries to get the Happy Town to remember all the people that have gone missing and never been found.
Romeo & Juliet in Happy Town
Young Georgia in the woods? Turns out she’s Tommy Conroy’s babysitter, is from the wrong side of the tracks, and is secretly dating John Haplin’s son Andrew (Ben Schnetzer). Are you getting all this?
The Happy Town Boardinghouse
Happy Town newcomer Henley ends up at the boardinghouse of Mrs. Meadows (Lynne Griffin.) Mrs. Meadows seems to have two expressions, happy or ominous, and she jerks dramatically from one to the other. It’s strange that such a woman seems to have such happy guests, like the cackling widows and their resident heartthrob Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill). Mrs. Meadows tells Henley that the third floor is totally off limits, and she’ll find herself kicked out if she disobeys. Guess which expression she’s using this time.
The Magic Man
Henley gets invited into Merritt Grieves’ vintage movie memorabilia shop, where the wonderful Sam Neill turns charming creepiness into an art form. Though a relative newcomer himself, Mr. Grieves is well-versed in Happy Town lore. He tells Henley about the “Magic Man”, who spirited away a person a year, leaving no trace of his identity. Then the disappearances suddenly stopped five years ago.
Happy Town opens its mystery with lots of questions in “In This Home on Ice”. There’s the obvious question of who the murderer is, and if it’s the same Magic Man the townspeople are so afraid of. What did the victim know? There’s also the question of what’s on the third floor of the boardinghouse, and possibly a meaningful question about why Mr. Grieves never eats there. Half the characters in Happy Town look like they’re hiding something, and it turns out that Henley might not be all she seems, either.
The Verdict on Happy Town
The Happy Town pilot starts a bit ghoulishly, and also a bit stupidly. Terrified over hearing someone’s screams of agony, and strange sounds in the woods, Georgia then stares up at a sudden torrent of rain and goes, “You’ve gotta be kidding me, dude!” Then she goes home without another thought. Apparently the writers don’t have much respect for teenagers.
Of course the adults in Happy Town don’t fare much better. Sheriff Conroy gets to quote Latin, but then later has to bark out that the local festival is “about corn dogs and carousels! It ain’t about darkness!” There seems to be a slight stab in the direction of kooky Desperate Housewives caricatures and dark humor, but it’s too slight to really work. The ladies in the boardinghouse are hamming it up to the extreme, while the sheriff and his son are playing everything like serious drama. Big Dave the local bar owner (Abraham Benrubi) and Deputy Eli “Root Beer” Rogers (Jay Paulson) seem to be hovering in Barney Fife territory.
The pilot “In This Home on Ice” gets more engaging as it goes on, and though it’s uneven in tone, there’s plenty of juicy storytelling to keep us wanting more. The actors are solid enough that they usually manage to make the hokey dialogue work, including injecting enough snark into the name “Magic Man” to make it sound less ridiculous. If Happy Town can find the right balance of dark humor and drama in the next few episodes, ABC could have a hit on their hands. Like a chapter in a really good mystery book, the Happy Town premiere episode gives us a shocking reveal, a whole bunch more questions to make our minds spin, and a cliffhanger to keep us rushing to turn to the next page.
Watch Happy Town on ABC, starting Wednesday April 28, at 10/9c.