Tuesday 4 August 2009

Harper's Island (TV)

The CBS show Harper's Island ended not too long ago, and I can say that it was, without a doubt, one of the biggest let-downs ever on TV. Worse even than season six of the X-Files. Billed as a murder mystery/horror series, Harper's Island completely failed in its attempt at intrigue, though it did deliver blood and guts.

Seven years ago, John Wakefield terrorized the small island community of Harper's Island during a one-day killing spree. He murdered Abby's mother and was subsequently shot by Abby's father, the Sheriff. Wakefield was presumed dead and the Sheriff sent Abby to live with her grandmother in LA. Abby has now come home to the island to attend her best friend Henry's wedding. But when wedding guests start going missing and eventually turn up dead, the wedding is called off. People prepare to leave the island, but not everyone manages to escape before the killer cuts off all access and communication to the mainland. Finally, when only a few people are left, the killer makes himself known.

In spite of its promising story, Harper's Island plumbed new depths of stupidity and managed to be one of the worst written television shows of all time. Possibly the confusion originated in its premise: a murder mystery in which the audience has to guess the next victim. Traditionally mysteries engage their audience by giving them a chance to figure out whodunnit. Harper's Island not only took no care in leaving clues to the killer's identity (who turned out to be exactly who everyone always thought it was) but the show's "pick the victim" game, in which viewers logged onto the CBS website to choose who would be next to die, was nothing more than a craps shoot. At no point was anyone, either on the show or in the audience, given any insight into the mind of the killer; most of the deaths were random, opportunistic, and motiveless.

In stark contrast to the muder mystery setup, is the show's other premise: it's really a slasher movie. There is little mystery to a slasher, or it's secondary to the main plot of people getting killed in various entertaining ways. I'm not saying it's not impossible to bring the two together, it's just that Harper's Island failed to do so. A distinct lack of dramatic irony meant that at no time was the audience better informed than the characters in the show, which had the unfortunate effect of preventing any kind of suspense from taking shape. Time and again, characters made the stupidest choices possible...

In addition to the inner termoil caused by being both a poorly realised murder mystery and a badly written slasher, Harper's Island was also subject to having to sustain it's forward momentum over 13 episodes. When the show began, one day was stretched out over a few episodes, and time was cut down to mere hours per episode. In an episodic show, this wouldn't normally be a problem, but Harper's Island is one long story; a steady pace would have forced the writers to condense the story, which might have helped keep things moving. But as it is, Harper's Island takes a long time getting to the point, with tangential sidebars that go nowhere, and only serve to make things more confusing.

To the show's credit, everything is wrapped up in the end. However, in order to get to the end, the audience is forced to watch a handful of contemptible or one-dimensional characters make increasingly stupid decisions that only lead them closer to death. And the twist, when it finally comes, is wholly unsurprising, though it is well acted. But five minutes of passable storytelling isn't enough to make up for 12+ hours of frustrating tripe.

1 comment:

Chris Hewson said...

If you want to see a show like this that actually works, watch the Argentinian series Epitafios. It's brilliant, scary, grim and totally unpredictable. It's a hidden gem.