We don’t see a lot of the horror genre on television. Maybe it’s because TV has its roots in family-friendly programming, or because thrillers need a large budget to incite screams. Whatever the reason, horror TV has been mostly limited to cheesy reality shows like “Ghost Hunters,” while dozens of thrillers hit the big screen each year. ABC makes a small step toward correcting this imbalance with the only scripted TV thriller so far this year, “Happy Town.”
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Haplin, Minnesota is so perfect and cheery that folks call it “Happy Town,” according to a perky real estate agent who shows the town’s newest resident, Henley (Lauren German, “Hostel: Part II”), the idyllic community. But things aren’t happy for long when the police find a brutally murdered body, stirring up memories of the town’s dark past. Haplin has a history of unsolved kidnapping cases and an elusive criminal called the “Magic Man.” After five years of crime-free bliss, the town is on edge about a potential return to chaos.
All the characters express great shock at how something so awful could happen in such a wonderful place, yet it’s hard to believe that precious Haplin was ever the great place it supposedly was. With a murder, allusions to a meth lab and a riot over a banner memorializing the kidnapping victims, it’s simply impossible to believe Haplin’s peaceful reputation. Moreover, the friendly small-town image is completely uprooted by the vast number of creepy townspeople. Almost every character takes dramatic pauses in the middle of seemingly unimportant sentences and stares menacingly while the camera lingers for just a moment too long.
The producers probably just wanted to jump right in to the juicy stuff — but in doing so, they resigned exposition to a couple lines of surprise and really lost an essential dimension of believability. And in actuality, the premiere wasn’t all that juicy.
The hour-long episode weaved in and out of loosely-related character’s stories, serving mainly to introduce us to the heavily cast show. Our heroes have been established, as well as a healthy amount of suspects, but this pilot seemed more like the annoying prerequisite we have to sit through before the show gets really good.
“Happy Town” does have the premise of a good show. The last five minutes of the premiere and scenes from future episodes were legitimately suspenseful and revealing and piqued some curiosity. The show will likely triumph if it doesn’t keep saving its best stuff for the end of the episode. This isn’t “Lost” — “Happy Town” doesn’t have millions of devoted fans willing to sit through a truthfully boring hour for the five-minute treat at the end.
It’s a shame the premiere failed both at setting up a realistic narrative and creating a compelling hour of television. Because of the lack of TV horror, “Happy Town” does have potential to be successful and thrilling, but the pilot was stale and unlikely to attract a loyal following to the show from its first episode. Five minutes of awesome can’t remedy 55 minutes of boring, no matter how kick-ass those five minutes are.