Tuesday, July 7, 2009

One by One, But Sometimes Four at a Time

There was no new Harper’s Island last Saturday, I’d imagine because this day happened to be the Fourth of July and CBS chose instead to air footage of fireworks blowing up Uncle Sam or whatever else constitutes patriotic primetime fare. It doesn’t matter what CBS aired, I say, because no one should have been home watching TV so long as there were watermelon slices to be eaten and grassy hills to roll down. The final episodes of Harper’s Island will air next Saturday — and for two hours, no less. But because no freshly DVRed episode awaited me this past Sunday, I’m getting my fix by writing about the show.

Harper’s Island may not be the next V or the next first-seven-episodes-of-Twin Peaks or even the next Wild Palms, but as far as hourlong, thriller-verging-on-horror miniseries go, it’s not bad. I’m happy that someone has apparently realized my major problem with many slasher movies — that I don’t give a damn about the victims, who so often lose their heads, their lives and any hope of being in the sequel before I’ve had time to learn their names — and then taken steps to remedy the problem by restructuring the genre as a miniseries, wherein characters get actual screen time and development before they bite the big one. Harper’s Island got off to a slow start, with only nobodies and Harry Hamlin initially falling victim to the mysterious killer, but it has tightened up considerably as the final episode drew nearer and nearer. Most remarkably, the show proved it had the guts to kill off major characters. The previous episode, for example, reduced the very likable Cal the British guy and Blonde Chloe to corpses floating down a river. It was a daring move, considering that most mainstream network shows seem like they would broken traditional horror movie rules and given the couple a happy ending.

I’ve even been impressed with the series’ treatment of lesser characters, like Katherine the Unfaithful Stepmother (the amazingly named Claudette Mink, who sometimes looks like Saturday Night Live’s Casey Wilson and sometimes looks like Mulholland Drive’s Laura Elena Harring). Usually when a slasher movie B- or C-listers hover in the background, tagging along with the A-Team when they don’t really need to, they just get picked off, their deaths only being a means to shed a bit more blood while the heroes and heroines run around screaming. Katherine, whose on-the-side hanky-panky seemed like an express ticket to the boneyard, made it quite a bit farther than I would have expected, continuing to develop as a character when an analogue in a “proper” horror movie wouldn’t have lasted through the first reel. And when Katherine did meet her doom, it was a gorier death than I would have expected from the network that gives us NCIS: stabbed with gardening shears through the wicker chair she had been sitting in.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Harper’s Island hasn’t been a complete success. Its sprawling cast meant that even someone invested in the show probably didn’t care about all the characters. And I’ve quickly grown bored with two that have received the most screentime — Final Girl Abby (Elaine Cassidy) and mopey hometown boy Jimmy (C.J. Thomason), who seem to have been patterned on Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich even on a molecular level. If the final episode reveals that Jimmy, like Ulrich’s character in Scream, is responsible for the killings, I may well drop my overall grade for the show a full letter, from B+ to C+.

sidney and billy, island-bound

I hope this isn’t the case. In fact, I hope the big finale ties the killings and the killer back to the other candidate for Final Girl, Trish the Bride (Katie Cassidy, no relation to Elaine but yes relation to Partridge Family son David). The savagery with which Trish’s father and brother-in-law were dispatched, the fact that Trish and her sister and niece have so far emerged unscathed, and the absence of a Wellington family matriarch have me speculating that the family tree branches into the psychokiller gene pool.

Next Saturday’s episode — which I, along with most of the show’s fanbase, will watch on Sunday — will prove my guess right or wrong as well as settle the fates of the eight remaining characters, at which point this miniseries will probably be forgotten, excluding the chance of a spiritual sequel knocking off innocents one-by-one, week-by-week in some other remote resort location. (A ski lodge during a blizzard? A cruise ship trapped at sea? A penthouse with an out-of-service elevator… and lazy occupants who refuse to use the stairs?) Of course, I would be remiss if I wrote about my summer fling with Harper’s Island without mentioning the episode titles. As those of us with an INFO button on our remote controls realized, each title is a sound effect referring to noise heard when a victim dies. As in the fairly un-encyclopedically-written page on the show notes, these onomatopoeia of doom are, in order:
  • “Whap” (Cousin Ben’s underwater adventure)
  • “Crackle” (Bridesmaid Lucy’s impromptu barbecue)
  • “Ka-Blam” (Scorned Ex Hunter boombox surprise)
  • “Bang” (Booth lamely doing himself in and remind us of the importance of gun safety)
  • “Thwack” (Mr. Wellington teaching non-seafaring viewers what a headspade is)
  • “Sploosh” (Richard finds that a harpoon has mysteriously entered his torso)
  • “Thrack, Splat, Sizzle” (The three-step process that sent Hurley knock-off Malcolm into the furnace)
  • “Gurgle” (J.D. loses fluids)
  • “Seep” (Katherine ruins perfectly good patio chair)
  • “Snap” (Sheriff Mills suffers the wrath of a Rube Goldbergian gallows)
  • “Splash” (Chloe takes a dive)
One wonders what to make of the titles of the last two episodes, “Gasp” and “Sigh.”

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