Thursday at 10:00 p.m
2 out of 5 stars
For a network traditionally associated with parents and the elderly, CBS presents an odd dichotomy with “Harper’s Island”: It takes after the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, but keeping in line with the ever-increasing bubble of tolerable violence, the action gets bookended by generous levels of gore. Putting aside the show’s predilection for stomach-churning bloodletting, though, “Harper’s Island” doesn’t do much to distinguish itself, getting the usual tropes of the genre right without doing much else.
The show follows a bunch of people who gather to celebrate a wedding on Harper’s Island, a secluded locale off the coast of Seattle. The island is the site of a series of unsolved murders that happened years before. As people start to die one-by-one, those remaining try to solve the mystery before the killer gets them next.
Anchoring a drama around a concept as well-worn as the whodunit seems positively antiquated in an environment with shows like ABC’s “Lost” and FOX’s “24.” And “Harper’s” manages to feel as dated as its inspiration might suggest. The gore notwithstanding — it milks its 10 p.m. slot for as much blood as it can — everything about the show feels familiar.
The 25-member ensemble cast is largely filled with unknowns — Harry Hamlin (“Veronica Mars”) is one of the few recognizable names — but the show gives them little to do beyond fulfilling their story-mandated roles. CBS.com even stereotypes the characters by giving them labels such as “The Good Girl” and “The Groom.”
The show’s ham-fisted writing — complete with an obnoxiously generic orchestral score — clumsily relies on clunky exposition and paper-thin characterizations to keep the plot moving. Characters regularly spout dialogue that awkwardly reiterates their motivations, and the show’s short attention span never lets it flesh out its ensemble beyond their assorted quirks — which makes the action plod forward at an ungraceful pace.
The occasional use of cheap scares doesn’t help much either. While “Harper’s” pulls off a well-executed sequence here and there — the pilot’s cold open is equal parts tension and squeamishness — more often than not, it bypasses subtlety entirely. The scares feel all too obvious, showing dismemberment, corpses and other gore without bothering for the setup. While they might cause an easy startle or two, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done better before.
Still, even with these various faults, the show’s overarching story manages to make up for some of its larger problems. “Harper’s” manages to hit the basic beats that make the genre so appealing, doling out enough clues and red herrings to keep the show’s central mystery compelling. Even if its ensemble is, at this point, more caricature than characters, the show works well enough within the larger context of the story to keep things intriguing.
As a whole, though, that underscores the basic problem behind “Harper’s.” From top to bottom, it’s a conventional show with a conventional cast on a conventional network. Within this framework, it competently does what’s expected of it. But without much else going for it, the show’s mystery can’t help but feel like playing a game of Clue: The problem might be different, but all the pieces still look the same.