A whole lot of plates get spinning really quickly in ABC’s new mystery “Happy Town.” There’s murder, political intrigue, betrayal, forbidden love, family drama and enough oddball characters to populate four or five small-town TV shows.
Three episodes in, though, viewers are left with almost no clue as to what all the effort is for. It’s not because “Happy Town” is so complex that it requires repeat viewing to catch every nuance. It’s because the show is so overstuffed and dancing so fast in its effort to achieve cultdom that it forgets some basic things, like making us care about the characters in the middle of this whole mess or drawing some clear stakes for what happens.
That’s the biggest flaw in the series: Heaps and heaps of plot exposition come at us, but the story is happening to characters — and it is happening to them, rather than them making it happen — that are thinly drawn. And even though several of them are played by very strong actors (the cast includes Sam Neill, Amy Acker, Robert Wisdom of “The Wire,” Steven Weber and Frances Conroy), they’re not able to elevate the material enough to elicit more than a shrug about what is going on.
Briefly, what’s going on is this: Haplin, Minn., is one of those charmingly picturesque small towns that exist mostly on TV, particularly since it has a Dark Secret. It’s named for and presided over by the owners of a bread factory (Conroy and Weber, who plays her son) and a sheriff (M.C. Gainey of “Lost”) who hasn’t had to deal with a major crime in five years. But the last time he did, it was a doozy: A faceless criminal known around town as the Magic Man abducted eight people, none of whom were ever seen again.
When a local “skulker” is killed, all the old fears are reawakened. The sheriff starts going off beam, confusing and frustrating his son and deputy, Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults, “October Road”). Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious new arrival in town (Lauren German) who has secrets of her own.
If that were all there was, “Happy Town” might be onto something (and what we hoped the series might be when a trailer released in December piqued our interest). But we also get a Romeo-and-Juliet story involving Weber’s son (Ben Schnetzer) and the daughter of a town outcast (Sarah Gadon), who also happens to be like family to Tommy and his wife, Rachel (Acker). And a rivalry between Tommy and Weber’s John Haplin. And four no-account brothers who have it in for Tommy. And Neill’s character, who has for some reason — not because the business climate is so ripe — decided to move to town and open a movie-memorabilia shop.
We’ll grant that we went into “Happy Town” with something of a jaundiced eye. Creators Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg teamed up for “Life on Mars” last season, and dashed a significant amount of goodwill from their adaptation of the BBC show with a series-negating finale that left us feeling like we’d wasted time watching the 16 previous episodes. They’d have to go a long way to re-earn our trust.
So far with “Happy Town,” that hasn’t happened. In addition to being so very setup-heavy, the show is also overwritten; characters occasionally speak in a sort of sub-“Deadwood” style of flowery speech, which Appelbaum, Nemec and Rosenberg also employed on “Life on Mars.” It worked all right on that show because Sam Tyler’s reality wasn’t supposed to be real, but here, in a place that’s supposed to be dripping Americana, it just rings false.
ABC has been looking for an heir to “Lost” almost since the show premiered. “Happy Town,” like pretty much every other sci-fi/supernatural/mystery show that’s come along post-“Lost” isn’t it. And now that “Lost” is only a few weeks away from ending, maybe ABC should stop looking.
“Happy Town” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday (April 28) on ABC.
Photo credit: ABC