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On 'Harper's Island,' TV gore travels to a whole new place

CBS' blood-spewing series tests the waters as to how much slicing and slashing viewers can, and will, stand.

April 09, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Sometimes a television show is just a television show, and sometimes it's a canary. A slashed-open, set-on-fire and hung-upside-down-to-die canary.

The 13-episode "Harper's Island," which premieres on CBS tonight at 10, has billed itself as a television event. And it is: network television's first attempt at a by-the-book splatterfest. Agatha Christie, meet "Saw"(film%20_series) for its final-moments-of-torture-porn screams, dripping viscera and blade-meets-living-flesh sound effects. Between the beheadings, bisections, eviscerations, live burnings and hangings, the traditional gore boundaries of network TV are lost amid the blood trails and body count. If only they could have figured out how to do it in 3-D.

It may be shocking, but it isn't surprising. The popularity of the "Saw" franchise spawned the "Hostel" franchise and dragged from the grave slasher classics including "Friday the 13th," "The Last House on the Left" and "Halloween." Who wouldn't want a piece of that audience action?

Clearly CBS does. Otherwise why would director-producer Jon Turteltaub send a group of highly attractive but otherwise disparate group of wedding guests to a remote and picturesque island where, seven years before, a series of gruesome murders took place?

The murderer was caught but, wouldn't you know, from the moment the last passenger steps on the flower-bedecked ferry, the killing starts right up again: two remarkably graphic and brutal deaths in the pilot with subsequent episodes proceeding apace as the guest list and cast dwindle to, presumably, murderer and final victim. But a few episodes in, the natural question becomes not who's going to get it next, but how.

The question is: How will it all play? The gore seems almost intentionally gratuitous -- a body cut in half with lingering shots of the victim's entrails. It doesn't make the show any scarier (everyone knows it's what you don't see that makes a story truly frightening), just more shocking. And not because we haven't seen blood and guts before -- one imagines that the audience for "Harper's Island" has attended its fair share of splatter pics -- but because we haven't seen this before on network TV.

Certainly TV has been dipping its toe in the ever-widening pool of blood for years now. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime took full violent advantage of non-censor freedom from the get-go -- nowadays, death by baseball bat won't make their average viewer blink. HBO's "True Blood" currently takes vampirism to meat-hook, decapitation extremes and "Dexter," one of Showtime's hottest shows, champions a serial killer as he tortures and slays, albeit in the name of justice; his day job of analyzing crime-scene splatter patterns seems positively benign in comparison.

It's not as if the networks have an aversion to gut-wrenching fare. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in all its forms regularly features horrifyingly defaced corpses, often sexualized (a key element of the slasher ethos) and the CW's "Supernatural" should simply include Blood and Gore in the cast list. Lately, however, those arterial sprays have left wider and more vivid patterns.

Because it follows a forensic anthropologist, Fox's "Bones" gets to play with corpses that have been eaten by lions, stripped by flesh-eating bugs and microwaved to death. On NBC's "Heroes," Sylar, who previously had stolen powers with a single, albeit bloody, slash to the forehead, recently removed the cheerleader's entire upper skull, exposing her brain, while she remained conscious.

A murder victim on an early episode of "The Mentalist" was not just a child, but one whose eyes had been sewn shut (by, it turned out, his own father.) When John Locke broke his leg on "Lost," we didn't just hear a snap and him scream, we saw the jagged bone end jutting out of the torn flesh. Several times.

ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," while recently giving us a lesson in acceptance via a heart-warming face transplant episode, felt it necessary to not only show the removal of the donor face, but to lift it up and let it hang there, backlit, for several long seconds, like the handiwork of Hannibal Lecter.

Even "educational" shows like "Dark Days in Monkey City" or the History's new "Battles B.C." have adopted the sudden splash of blood on the lens, spatter made popular by video games and the movie "300."

In that context "Harper's Island," with its straight-ahead slice-and-dice setups and unapologetic scream-queen moments, was inevitable. For horror fans, the pilot shows promise, providing the crucial elements of an idyllic setting (more than reminiscent of "Twilight"); a familiar assortment of character types, including the ever-popular natives versus interlopers tension; a few "Blair Witchian" moments ("Oh, look, it's the Hangin' Tree!") and some eerie mood music.

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