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Television review: ‘Happy Town’

In the new ABC series, something creepy is happening in Minnesota, but nothing that would surprise fans of David Lynch and Stephen King.

April 28, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

And it was written that the tribes of television should, at regular intervals, unite to resurrect those shows that had once fed their people and caused much wonder throughout the land. Shows like "Friends," "Sex and the City" and "ER." And so, at the appointed time, the scribes gathered at ABC with much reverence and a pretty darn good cast to re-create the cultural phenomenon that was "Twin Peaks." And this new reincarnation was called "Happy Town" and even as it strove to give glory on Wednesday nights, it became a late mid-season replacement and seems doomed to languish in its own insurmountable imperfection.

I wanted to like "Happy Town"; heck, I wanted to love "Happy Town." As any survivor of small-town life will tell you, there's nothing better than a show that sets out to explore the dark side of a preternaturally pretty place like Haplin, Minn., a burg so seemingly pure of heart its major employer is a deliciously fragrant bakery on the hill. Add a cast that includes Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under") playing the town's Medea-like matriarch, and Sam Neill (in a waistcoat!) as the creepy owner of a Hollywood memorabilia shop, and I'm in. Both feet. Because I will watch anything, any time, that stars Conroy and/or Neill, especially when Neill's wearing a waistcoat.

Things start out promisingly enough: On her way through the woods after an illicit tryst, a young girl (Sarah Gadon) hears screams coming from the ice-fishing huts that dot the local pond. Not surprisingly, the idyllic morning being enjoyed hours later by deputy sheriff Tommy Conroy (a well-cast and able Geoff Stults) and his lovely family is quickly interrupted by the appearance of his father, Sheriff Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey). Because there's been murder done out there on the pond.

Meanwhile, there's a new gal in town — Henley Boone (Lauren German) — here, or so she says, because her dead mother spoke so highly of the place and Henley wants to open a candle shop. (In case you are wondering, even for a moment, this isn't the real reason.) She is staying at a local boarding house (boarding house!) where the guests include a group of widows and Neill, as the dapper Merritt Graves.

I started to lose it with the widows (how many widows does it take to make a coven anyway?) and things devolve from there. Turns out people have a habit of disappearing from Happy Town and some of the local citizenry, led by John Haplin (Steven Weber), blame "the magic man."

The magic man. Good heavens.

So, not content with cannibalizing David Lynch, executive producers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg had to drag in poor old Stephen King. As if overcoming a cocaine addiction and being hit by a truck weren't enough.

Meanwhile, Henley, and the viewer, can't go two steps without bumping into one colorful (and possibly sinister) character or another — there's the affable pizza place owner Big Dave (Abraham Benrubi) and Georgia (Gadon), fresh-faced babysitter to the Conroy family and the daughter of the local drunk, who lives, as these people so often do, in a shack in the woods. Then there are the Stiviletto brothers, scripted, and dressed, out of "Deliverance" but still bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Larry, Darryl and Darryl from "Newhart."

Presiding over them all is Peggy Haplin (Conroy), which frankly is enough to break a person's heart.

There are legitimately chilling, funny and suspenseful moments in the early episodes of "Happy Town," but the many fine performances are battered to death by a welter of plot twists and cheesy revelations that come speeding out of the sky like those murderous crows in "The Birds." And, in case you were wondering, there is a sinister bird stalking Haplin.

Whether it's channeling Hitchcock or "The Omen" is hard to tell, but between the magic man, the widows, the Stiviletto brothers and the bird, "Happy Town" quickly becomes more Mad magazine than "Twin Peaks."

Which is quite unfortunate because, as it stars Sam Neill and Frances Conroy, I am bound by love and devotion to watch it until the bitter end.

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