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On 'Harper's Island,' survival is the game

January 11, 2009|Mindy Farabee

Elaine Cassidy, star of CBS' new midseason murder mystery, "Harper's Island," was born and raised in Ireland, where she taped her winning audition in her Dublin living room. If she told you where she was now, CBS would have to kill you.

"Normally, I'm not this secretive," said Cassidy on the phone from an undisclosed studio. "Even just e-mailing friends and family, they have questions about what you're doing, and you can't really answer them."

To reveal Cassidy's -- or any cast member's -- current location, producers fear, would tip their hand as to how long said actor's character survived, and with "Harper's Island," such a misstep could prove fatal. The network sees its drama, which premieres on April 9, as a 13-part mystery event, a sort of romance-crime show-"Ten Little Indians" hybrid, in which each week a different head rolls. Executive producer Jon Turteltaub -- who also was behind two seasons of "Jericho" at the network -- is thinking bigger.

"I don't know whether it's a mega-series versus a miniseries or a macro-series versus a micro-series -- I don't know how to put it," he said. "It's the notion of taking something like 'Friday the 13th' and combining it with 'Survivor.'

"Reality shows really changed the way we watch television, and the dramatic programs haven't yet figured out how to capitalize on what the reality shows discovered in the audience's viewing habits."

The unscripteds, he believes, created a demand for self-contained event programming that scripted entertainment could easily fill, and networks are just beginning to understand that.

"When we pitched the show they kept asking us, 'What about Season 2, what about Season 2?' And we kept saying, 'Season 2 would be a whole new story, a whole new cast, a whole new adventure,' which is really fun for an audience. . . . And light bulbs started to go off."

It wasn't hard to see the light, according to Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.

"Jon Turteltaub is our 'treasure,' " she wrote in an e-mail. "We knew this idea developed and produced under his banner would be different and exciting, while reflecting those elements that work on our schedule." After all, CBS does have a way with crime dramas, but "there is also a strong emotional hook to the story -- Abby's return home to confront her past," Tassler continued. "Our audience responds to themes of redemption and second chances."

This much we know: Cassidy plays Abby Mills, a young writer who grew up on Harper's Island, lighting out for Los Angeles seven years ago after her mother -- along with six other people -- were murdered (meanwhile, her father, the town sheriff, had ceded his parenting skills to grief). In the pilot, Abby returns for the wedding of her best friend, Henry, only to discover the killing has begun again.

Throughout production, producers say, only one cast member -- playing the murderer -- actually knew who done it.

If it was Cassidy, she's playing innocent.

"There was a lot of discussion among ourselves as to who, what, where, why and how," she said. "For me anyway, there are certain questions I don't want to ask certain people. I don't want to ruin it. . . . . It's playing a game at work."

In one way, of course, "Harper's" approach has long been commonplace in other parts of the TV universe. British, Australian and Irish series often run short by U.S. standards, topping out at six to eight hours -- or 12 or so half-hours -- by design.

"The production of 13 episodes is what we're used to more so at home," Cassidy said. "For me, I like it, because then each episode has to say so much, because you've only got a certain amount of time to tell the story. It makes it really strong, really requires a lot more punch to it in each episode. . . . Things are less diluted then."

If "Harper's Island" is lucky enough to earn a second round of mayhem, producers are looking at amusement parks, safaris, even the high seas as possible backdrops. Shooting this particular arc, with its ambiguous supernatural undertones, on location in Vancouver was a must for Turteltaub, whose film pedigree includes producing and directing both "National Treasure" movies as well as "Disney's The Kid."

"I kind of threw my prima donna cards around and made sure the show had that big look to it," he said. "The look of the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound is so gothic and dramatic; it's sort of the West Coast equivalent to Stephen King's Maine. It always has that sort of built-in scary, ominous, gorgeous presence -- a lot of fog, a lot of jagged cliffs. It also has a very big, romantic feel that I think is going to entice particularly women viewers, who will say, 'Wow, that looks like a beautiful place to go and get killed.' "

Such island mythology and character back story are crucial to constructing the show's overall tone, which bows to tradition even as its format seeks to be innovative.

"What we didn't want was to put on an hour of dreary mess every night," said Turteltaub. "There's falling in love and breaking up and friendship and bachelor parties. In addition, the scariness of the show is part of the entertainment value. . . . There's something very playful or titillating about the murders that we try to pull off. Because as creepy as it sounds, the killing is part of the entertainment."

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calendar@latimes.com

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