For anyone inclined to check out ABC’s midseason series Happy Town, the best place to start is with the second episode. The pilot is plagued with hammy acting, sledgehammer irony, and some of the lamest expository dialogue ever uttered on the small screen. Worse, nothing much happens. There’s a gruesome murder, natch, followed by belabored introductions to the show’s main characters, including Henley (Lauren German), a new arrival in town with a mysterious connection to the town’s murderous history, and Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults), the all-American deputy son of the town’s gruff sheriff (M. C. Gainey). Sam Neill shows up as a resident at Henley’s boarding house (yes, this town has a boarding house); he plays Merritt Grieves, the owner of a newly opened movie memorabilia store who manages to act more sinister than anyone else in town (no easy task).
It’s all pretty terrible, but then a funny thing starts to happen in the next few episodes. The show doesn’t exactly get better, but it starts to get interesting. The dialogue is so overwritten that its looniness starts to feel inspired. Why does the sheriff sound like he’s speaking in iambic pentameter? Why does Peggy Haplin, the town’s rich matriarch played by Frances Conroy, use the colloquialism, “mooches the stem”? Is that even a real expression? And the plot twists, absent in the pilot, start coming fast and furious in the subsequent episodes, some of them even surprising.
Happy Town‘s central conceit is a series of bizarre kidnappings, much like the ones that plagued the town years earlier. These crimes all seem linked to a criminal known as the Magic Man, a mysterious symbol (a question mark with a halo over it), plus a Lynchian portal into an alternate world (through a blue door, not to be confused with a red room) and a bird with wings of flame. All of this is somehow tied together by the lyrics from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” a song that pops up frequently on both the soundtrack and in dialogue. Is there a method to the badness? It’s unclear, but the show’s willingness to not only plumb the depths of the bizarre, but to also begin revealing some of its secrets, makes for some entertaining viewing.
Happy Town‘s similarities to Twin Peaks are neither coincidental nor flattering. It doesn’t help that ABC is selling this show as “From the network that brought you Twin Peaks.” Never mind that any executive that greenlighted (then subsequently cancelled) David Lynch’s masterpiece is probably long gone from the network, the comparison only serves to highlight the ways in which Happy Town attempts to ape its predecessor (a small town harboring evil secrets, otherworldly elements, cutesy slang) and ultimately comes up short. But while it’s nowhere close to brilliant, Happy Town‘s unpredictability makes it watchable—at least for now. It’s like that town weirdo that you keep an eye on just so you don’t miss out on the next strange thing they do.