“Harper’s Island”: A bittersweet (mostly bitter) review
Posted by therebelprince on July 12, 2009
WARNING: This post contains significant references to the end of “Harper’s Island”. If you haven’t watched it yet, this is not somewhere you want to be!!
It’s a real pity that the producers and network executives of “Harper’s Island” couldn’t find a way to advertise this more fittingly (read: more realistically!) because – while it was never going to be worthy of HBO – it was a good way to pass a bored 45 minutes each week.
(Above) The bucks: Sully (Matt Barr), Henry (Chris Gorham), Danny (Brandon Jay McLaren) and Malcolm (Chris Gauthier)
The series began back in April, as a group of slightly stupid but primarily attractive 20-somethings headed to the quiet town on Harper’s Island for the wedding of heiress Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy, who thankfully was very talented at crying) and local boy Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham). For the first few weeks of the series (days in show time), not much happens. A few of the extraneous characters – various locals, and cleverly placed members of the wedding party – are killed off in a variety of inventive ways, but due to circumstances, no one at the wedding actually notices. So of course, this alienated a good part of the audience who had been promised an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, and instead got a lot of scenes of hot people partying.
It isn’t until the sixth episode, when father-of-the-bride Thomas Wellington (Richard Burgi) is taken out with a head spade in front of the entire wedding party, that things take a turn. The remainder of the series becomes an extended gorefest in the manner of all the great slasher movies. Various groups band together but somehow keep splitting up, all methods of transport off of the Island are mysteriously foiled, and people manage to be killed by someone who seems to have a Marauder’s Map or psychic powers, since he clearly knows where EVERYONE is on the island at any time.
Scattered through all of this is an overplayed storyline about a previous serial killer on the island, John Wakefield, who is assumed dead. (Somehow, when this pyscho – already played in newspaper photos by Battlestar Galactica‘s Callum Keith Rennie – showed up alive, some fans were actually surprised by this twist.)
So, what went wrong?
1. From the start, the producers and the network were clearly on a different page. Promoted as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, with each of the 25 “suspects” given a moniker like The Groom, The Hustler, etc., it soon became very clear that the producers had been thinking from the other angle: not “Who is the killer?” but “Who’s gonna die this week?” This was a slasher flick with an obligatory twist, not a complex collection of clues and red herrings. The producers’ idea of a red herring? Someone walking around a corner and running into a guy with a raised gardening implement… who turns out to be the gardener.
( One for the “pro” column: This great blog post deals with a strange sidenote to the show. Despite 9 episodes being sent to critics, most appear to have only watched the first few – since most all reviews criticised the show for remaining oblivious to the killings, even though this happened before the mid-point.)
2. As the various deaths became more and more inventive (giant harpoons to the heart, and rigged cases of money containing guns), it was clear that most suspects – the lighter women, and anyone who had been seen with others close to the time of a crime – had either been proven innocent, or were victims of a larger crime: poor editing and minimal care as to clever plotting. Despite producer Karim Zreik‘s assertions in his blog and his twitter page that anyone remained a suspect, it was hard to see how. So, when Wakefield showed up and proved that there were two people killing, it threw all of those alibis out the window.
(Above): One more method of egress down: Wakefield takes out the boat.
3. Fans were really stupid. [Until Wakefield’s arrival] As the suspects were one by one given alibis, fans drew back into ridiculous theories to support their belief in the show: Booth (Sean Rogerson), dead in an early episode and subsequently buried, had somehow faked his death and was the killer; Cousin Ben, seen gratuitously tied to a boat propeller in the show’s opening scene, would turn out to be the one behind it all; Abby (Elaine Cassidy), the show’s nominal protagonist and an author, would turn out to be imagining the whole thing as she wrote a novel… Admittedly, the producers didn’t help: they scattered two, maybe three, legitimate clues into the entire thirteen-episode run. In the end, to their credit, they went with one of the (if not the) most likely suspects, in the form of groom-to-be Henry. Although the clues planted weren’t actually subtle, with excessive references to Henry’s disconnection from his parents pilfering through the final episodes, Gorham gave a great (as always) performance both before and after he turned menacing, and turned out to be the one character who in retrospect could actually have committed most of the murders. (And he’s hot, so that was a bonus).
4. Unfortunately, Henry’s motivation? Kinda stupid. Gorham sold the twist very well but basically, he was the son of Wakefield and Sarah Mills, mother of Abby and beloved wife of Sheriff Mills (the marvellous Jim Beaver, who brought a nice touch of subtlety to the show). When, years after his adoptive parents and his birth mother had died, Wakefield showed up to tell him this – it left Henry feeling overwhelmingly hurt and betrayed. Okay, that’s understandable. But instead of killing the one person left alive (Wakefield) who had been in on this secret, he decides to wait 7 years and then slaughter an entire wedding party including all of his best friends, and the alleged girl of his dreams?
Yes, the murders had nothing to do with the fact that Trish and her extended family were heirs to a vast fortune after Thomas’ untimely death. The murders had nothing to do with the mysterious bag of money brought on to the Island by Henry’s ill-fated Uncle Marty (a delightful cameo by Harry Hamlin), and which was explained away flippantly in the final reel. And the show never tried to explain why Wakefield took such pains to kidnap young Madison (the creepy Cassandra Sawtell), nor who sent chilling “Ave Maria” phone calls to Abby’s phone on a few occasions. It seems that Henry just really wanted to kill some stuff, and the best way to do this was an elaborate plan involving tunnels and head spades with an endgame of convincing Abby to join him and love him (after seeing 20-something people taken to slaughter. Well, points for optimism!)
5. And, in retrospect, several of the deaths seem really stupid. Katherine Wellington (the underused Claudette Mink) was somehow stabbed in the back by Henry while sitting down in a small room with the boorish but caring Shane (Ben Cotton), and he doesn’t notice? Beth “Scenes Deleted” Barrington (Amber Borycki) is chopped up and scattered throughout the tunnels for the delight and terror of her friends… even though the tunnels were supposed to be Wakefield’s secret. How did Henry know about Booth’s death, which occurred accidentally in sight of only Malcolm (Chris Gauthier), who we know never told anyone? And how, when all was said and done, did Henry manage to make it look like he and Abby had also perished in the fire, just thanks to some “blood samples”? This guy really was full of hidden talents. All these questions and more… never to be answered!
I guess I should close by saying: don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this show for its mindless entertainment value and its surprisingly resounding performances: notably from Beaver, Gorham and the moving pair of Cameron Richardson and Adam Campbell as the show’s couple-to-root for Chloe and Cal, but also from supporting actors like Borycki, Gauthier and my new celebrity crush Matt Barr. In its final episodes, the show really did develop an atmosphere of terror and there were a couple of really moving deaths – again primarily Chloe and Cal, in a scene shamelessly but beautifully ripped from “The Last of the Mohicans“.
(Above) Chloe (Cameron Richardson) and Cal (Adam Campbell) face their fate in the show’s most moving scene.
But the show was poorly-paced, featured primarily cardboard cut-outs of characters, played fast-and-loose (to be kind) with its timeline, and saw clues (true or false) as afterthoughts. It’s just a genuine pity that this already ill-defined show was marketed as something it wasn’t: leading to a lack of the viewers who should’ve watched, and disappointment in those who did. The producers had talked about continuing the show, with each season focussing on a different “murder mystery”. That would’ve been a great idea, and I suspect their plotting skills would have matured with each season. But alas, it is not to be. “Harper’s Island” – like so many before it – will go down in history as a blip on the radar. A footnote alongside the other Summer 2009 failures (such as “Kings“, which will be the subject of my next – slightly more positive – review). Here’s hoping that Chris Gorham can continue shirking the “Sweet nerd” casting he was inflicted with until this, and that Jim Beaver continues to light up our television screens… and then at least it won’t have been a total loss.
But if there’s one lesson learned, it is this: NEVER, under any circumstances, leave a serial killer alone once you have captured him and tied him up in a jail cell. Even if you think the guy with the key is trustworthy, just remember that this guy has faked his death before and also has a marvellous sixth sense. And, come on guys, it was like 4 hours until the arrival of the Coast Guard! You really couldn’t have just sat in a room together and waited?
Postscript: After writing this review, it was pointed out to me that I was perhaps to harsh in calling some fans “really stupid”, and for this I do apologise. My aim was not to poke fun at fans who tried to enjoy the show as a mystery, but only to point out that many chose to look for unlikely theories rather than accept the more likely option: the poor plotting wasn’t deliberate, but merely a result of the writers’ limitations. My apologies.
Also starring but not mentioned here: Victor Webster, Dean Chekvala, Gina Holden, David Lewis, Sarah Smyth, Ana Mae Routledge, Ali Liebert and Beverly Elliott
And some post-Harper’s Island finale thoughts from:
- A great review from Topazbean
- Thoughts from Popwatch
- And a blog taking the opposite approach to my appreciation of Henry, promoting Jimmy as a better option for killer.
- And, for good measure, this great post before the finale: Who Gives a Rat’s Ass Whodunnit?