Happy Town , ABC's new TV series set in a fictitious and ironically named Minnesota village called Haplin, immediately breaks Horror Story Rule No. 1: Don't drop your girlfriend off at midnight on an abandoned road, in a location that requires her to walk through the woods to get home. Bad things always happen in those situations, and so it does in Happy Town —though not to the teenage girl. (She'll get what's coming to her later, no doubt, because Horror Story Rule No. 2 is that teenagers who have sex must die. Horribly.)
This night, fate has someone else in its crosshairs. The girl hears screams coming from an ice-fishing shack. Inside, we see the town pervert get a railroad spike pounded into his forehead. The killer is ostensibly the "Magic Man," the town's legendary bogeyman, who has abducted and presumably killed a number of townspeople over the years, including several children. Five years have gone by since the last Magic Man incident, so the reemergence of this fiend has the whole town riled up.
Haplin is a town full of nice, overly-friendly people, many of whom work at the bread factory that fills the local air with the aroma of fresh baked goods. But where the plot of Happy Town will end up is anybody's guess. After all, it starts pretty much how Stephen King's It begins, and "it" turned out to be a giant tarantula that lived underground and periodically transformed itself into a child-abducting clown. Top that for ridiculous implausibility.
Still, the writers of Happy Town are clearly toying with time-honored horror/mystery clichés by combining them with TV clichés about small northern towns with oddball residents and certain TV shows featuring elaborate plot lines that spin off in a dozens of different directions (or misdirections) and build each episode around the revelation of a character's Dark Secret.
The sheriff, for one, knows Latin (he explains that the Magic Man is an agent of "vis major," or inevitable catastrophe), speaks in an elevated literary style—"We will get it back, the good yesterday"—and frequently goes into a bizarre trance during which he talks about someone named Chloe and says things like, "If you touch the baby Jesus, I will make you wear the cow suit!"
Happy Town is also populated with an amazing number of actors from other TV shows (M.C. Gainey ( Lost ), Goeff Stults, ( October Road ), Steve Weber ( Wings and 20 other shows), Jay Paulson ( October Road ), Abraham Benrubi ( Men in Trees ), Sam O'Neill (everything)—so watching it can be a bit disconcerting, like walking into a meeting of the Actors Guild where everyone is dressed as someone else.
Filmed in Canada, the town has the gentrified look and feel of downtown Stillwater, which is your first tip-off that it's not really a town in rural Minnesota. Made by the producers of October Road , each sequence begins with an aerial shot that looks like it was lifted from that series, which took place in a land of perpetual autumn. But the action in the Happy Town pilot episode takes place in March, before the "big thaw," when the trees would be completely bare—an inconsistency likely to infuriate the seasonally aware.
Despite its many charms, the reason Happy Town will probably be canceled is that it's so smartly written. Literary references pop up everywhere. The star-crossed teens compare themselves to Romeo and Juliet. In a nod to Edgar Allen Poe, the film memorabilia store owned by Sam Neill's character is called "The House of Ushers." And the humor is so sly and dry that many are sure to miss it. For example, when the sheriff arrives at the aforementioned murder scene, he concludes that the Magic Man is "not a well man." Why? Because, he says, "A well man doesn't put a hole through another man's head." No, he doesn't.
Likewise, the creepy innkeeper of the local boarding house, where several of the main characters reside, informs a new tenant in an eerily cheery voice that the third floor of the house is strictly off limits. "Failure to comply with these rules will result in the immediate termination of your stay," she says with a smile. And when the sheriff's deputy informs the wife of the dude who got spiked that her husband is dead, he adds, "We believe he was murdered," as if there might be some doubt about it. It's all great stuff—deadpan, low-key humor that's just twisted enough to be funny and eerie at the same time.
The more obscure clues are engaging as well. A symbol with a question mark and a halo figures in there somewhere. And in what is perhaps the most important clue of the first episode, the owner of the film memorabilia store (Sam Neill's character, Merritt Grieves) meets Henley Boone, a young woman who has just arrived to town to open a candle shop. Henley appears strangely drawn to Grieves, so he shows her the movie poster for a 1923 film called Thru the Blue Door . "This film revealed to me the secrets of the universe," he tells her, and then adds, "There is dread everywhere, even on the sunniest plains."
Cluehunters can go crazy with this kind of thing. Online, bluedoor.com is a porn movie rental site, so is this a veiled reference to the legendary porn movie, Behind the Green Door , with Marilyn Chambers? Or is it a reference to the blue doors one sees throughout Africa which are meant to keep families safe from evil spirits? Or is it a reference to some other manifestation of blue, such as the Hindu god Krishna, who is sometimes referred to as the Blue Man (blue being a symbol for infinity)? Or is it exactly what Grieves says it is, "a portal into the heart of man"?
The townspeople call the murderer the "Magic Man" because he disappears people so completely that there's no trace of their existence anymore. So far, there are about eight people in the show who appear demented enough to be a killer (which of course they're not), and a dozen more who may not be who they appear to be. Sorting it out is going to take some time—but thankfully, ABC's Lost is coming to an end, which frees up an hour a week for millions of people who don't mind being strung along from week to week by a show that raises more questions each episode than it answers.
Happy Town airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.