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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2009-2010 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on either a cut screened to us privately or a copy supplied by a third party NOT a screener provided by the network in question. All were received or screened prior to the networks' official mailings that went out in mid-June.]
HAPPY TOWN (ABC)
(TBA at midseason; TRT: 1:21:53)
The network's description: "Haplin, Minnesota, "Happy Town," is approaching almost a decade of peace after being riddled for years by unsolved kidnappings. But in the wake of this small town's first crime in seven years, some dark truths are being revealed about some familiar faces. They say every town has its secrets that doesn't even begin to describe Happy Town."
What did they leave out? In addition to its nine regulars, the show has over a dozen recurring roles - most notably "Six Feet Under's" Frances Conroy as Peggy Haplin, the town's mayor; "ER's" Abraham Benrubi as Big Dave, a pizza shop owner; and "Lost's" M.C. Gainey as Griffin Conroy, the town's sheriff.
The plot in a nutshell: Small town life agrees with Tommy "T.C." Conroy ("October Road's" Geoff Stults). Happily married to his high school sweetheart Rachel (Amy Acker) and proud father to Emma (Sophia Ewaniuk), T.C. spends his days as the laid back deputy to his folksy sheriff father (M.C. Gainey) in Haplin, Minnesota - a town with no crime. Well, at least for the past seven years. You see, while some of the locals refer to Haplin as "Happy Town," seven years ago it was the site of the famed "Magic Man" kidnappings. The still-at-large figure took seven children - including the daughter of John Haplin (Dean Winters), the owner of Haplin's largest employer: Our Daily Baking & Confectionary (a.k.a. "The Bready") - with such ease it was almost, well, magic. Said event still haunts the town, from the tags seen on various buildings (a question mark with a halo above it) to a bitter debate with nearby Cook's Ridge over whether to keep a banner commemorating the missing kids at the annual Thaw Fest.
Tangentially, Haplin is also the new home to Henley (Lauren German), a Snoqualmie, Washington native whose late mother (a la "Everwood") spoke highly of visiting the town when she was younger. Henley in turn is using her inheritance to open a candle shop there. And thus she's given a tour of Haplin by realtor Miranda Kirby (Linda Kash) where we meet everyone from Big Dave (Abraham Benrubi), owner of Big Dave's Pizza Barn (Home of the Mega Monster!); to Eli "Root Beer" Rogers (fellow "Road" alum Jay Paulson), a hapless deputy ("It's a small town," he quips. "Everyone gets a nickname."); to Andrew Haplin (John Patrick Amedori), John's handsome teenage son; to Dot Little (Lynne Griffin), who runs a boarding house populated by mostly chatty widows; to Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill), a fellow boarder who's opening a movie memorabilia store ("The House of Ushers"). They subsequently have their own set of storylines, including Andrew's secret courting of Georgia Bravin (Sarah Gadon), Emma's babysitter from the wrong side of the tracks.
All of their foibles however take a backseat when Jerry Friddle (Boyd Banks), the town's resident pervert, is found brutally murdered in his fishing house. The sheriff - who's been slowly cracking as of late, making odd references to a girl named Chloe - seems to think it's an omen of the dark days ahead, namely the return of the Magic Man. And after his breakdown puts him in the hospital, it's T.C. who's tasked by Haplin's mayor (Frances Conroy, who in case you weren't keeping score is John's mother and Andrew's grandmother) with taking over, much to the chagrin of veteran detective Roger Hobbes (Robert Wisdom) - and his investigation turns up some surprising secrets.
What works: Co-creators Andre Nemec, Josh Applebaum and Scott Rosenberg established an unabashed love for small town life in "October Road" and it's once again in full force here: characters use words like "magungle"; mention old school concepts like "vis major"; and give each other and their things monikers like "Root Beer" and "Dallas Alice." I've always enjoyed how the guys play with how people talk, going back to how "What's up?" was replaced by "What goes on?" in "October Road." In "Happy Town," Stults's T.C. has been tapped as the ambassador of the greatness of all such things and his almost zealous need to protect that for himself and his family drives the show. They've also populated Haplin with a seemingly neverending carnival of residents - ranging from the quirky to the mysterious to the dangerous - as there's definitely a sense this is a living, breathing world.
What doesn't: Conversely, the murder mystery aspects of the show never quite click. All of said elements are either softballed in (the friendly Dot turns grim when mentioning that boarders aren't allowed on the top floor) or painfully predictable (oh, overly friendly stranger played by Peter Outerbridge, I wonder who you will turn out to be?). Not helping matters is the leisurely pace upon which the story unfolds. Multiple 10-minute spans go by with nary a mention of the aforementioned mystery, making the pilot's 82-minute running time feel excessive to say the least.
While I get there's a lot of ground to cover - there's even a few more peripheral characters beyond what's mentioned above - I'd gladly trade an act's work of folksiness or a subplot's worth of "Romeo & Juliet" silliness to get to the meat faster as the bulk of its world building between courses is tangential at best. I say this because the end result is lots of fits and starts as no real momentum is ever built. And when your meat is far-too-obvious clues, it just makes the breaks between them all the more frustrating. All in all, I really want to like Haplin and it residents but getting to know them should be part of the plot, not an impediment to it.
The bottom line: Haplin might turn out to be nice place to visit, but the initial stay isn't exactly memorable.