Number 6: Happy Town
Haplin, Minnesota, is a small town plagued by the memory of a series of mysterious and unsolved kidnappings from years past. When a new crime takes place, the residents of the town believe a near-mythical figure, known simply as ‘The Magic Man’, is responsible. ‘Happy Town’ follows the investigation of the local police into the crime, as well as the differing roles the various townsfolk have to play.
‘Happy Town’ was created by regular collaborators Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, alongside series scribe Scott Rosenberg. Despite the trio being more well known for their recent cinematic work – Rosenberg for ‘Con Air’ and Michael Bay’s ‘Pain and Gain’, and Appelbaum and Nemec for ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ as well as upcoming instalments in the ‘Beverley Hills Cop’ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ franchises – they also brought a wealth of experience of working with exciting genre programming on television to the project. Appelbaum and Nemec cut their teeth with late Nineties crime procedural ‘Profiler’, before moving on to work on J. J. Abrams’ ‘Alias’ and the US remake of British cop show ‘Life on Mars’. Rosenberg’s genre roots are deeper still; his first writing work was as part of the seven-year run of ‘Tales from the Crypt’ – Number Twelve on this very list. All of these influences came to bear on the world of ‘Happy Town’ – part episodic mystery, part ‘Twin Peaks’-esque lo-fi freakshow, part supernatural horror, Haplin was an interesting and unusual place. In acknowledgement of this, like the best horror, it is a world stuffed with references to genre classics from both literature and film too, and much fun is to be had picking out some of the more obscure ones; when the solution starts to ride into focus at the season’s end, it becomes obvious that the audience has been staring a huge clue in the face for its entire run, elegantly hidden in plain sight.
In essence, the series revolves around Tommy Conroy, a sheriff’s deputy, and his attempts to get to the bottom of both the grisly crimes that open the show and the truth of the ‘Magic Man’ legend; however, in truth, ‘Happy Town’ is an ensemble piece, with each inhabitant of Haplin brought to vivid life by some excellent casting. Conroy himself is played by Geoff Stults, a familiar face to US audiences, if not a big star, from his stints on family drama ‘7th Heaven’ and as Eddie in Nemec and Appelbaum’s most recent contemporary foray into television, the short-lived ‘October Road’. Whilst his performance here is a rather too wholesome stereotype, he acquits himself well in role that asks for little else. The real star power of the show is in its supporting cast: Amy Acker, as Rachel Conroy, will be instantly familiar to genre audiences either as Fred Burkle in Joss Whedon’s ‘Buffy’ spin-off ‘Angel’ or as spunky technician Wendy from the excellent ‘Cabin in the Woods’; Hollywood legend Sam Neill appears as local enigma Merritt Grieves, owner of the fan-friendly local store ‘The House of Usher’; Lauren German, victim of unspeakable horrors in both Roth sequel ‘Hostel: Part Two’ and the endlessly depressing Xavier Gens trudge ‘The Divide’, is on fine form here in a dual role; Steven Weber is characteristically charming and untrustworthy as John Haplin; and the beautiful Sarah Gadon – soon to be seen in promising Luke Evans vehicle ‘Dracula Untold’ – crops up as appealing local girl Georgia Bravin.
The conceit of ‘Happy Town’ is not an original one but it is the skill with which side plots and seemingly inconsequential narrative points are interwoven that makes it such an entertaining show. Many comparisons were made with David Lynch weird-fest ‘Twin Peaks’ and it is certainly a comparable show; the strange nature of the townsfolk, the creeping sense of something horrific simmering below a pleasant exterior, the child as victim, all appear here but what sets it apart from that show is that, even in a much shorter run, these elements are much more coherent in ‘Happy Town’. The pre-show history of the town is a star in itself; it has such a developed and deep past, all relevant to the plot machinations, that it is easy to both buy into Haplin as a real place and to attach to the characters that live there. As the episodes progress, even more diverse elements are brought into play – surprising deaths of regular characters, amnesia, corrupt officials and cover-ups all are referenced – and, unlike many shows, it embraces its episodic nature and gives the audience some very exciting cliff-hanger endings. It is when one of the key narrative pivots is unveiled that the show really crosses over into genre territory; avoiding spoilers, evidence links various crimes to a mysterious old German film Die Blaue Tur, The Blue Door, and the show begins to expand its mythology in new, surprising and interesting ways.
‘Happy Town’ premiered to low ratings that dipped further over the course of its run. ABC aired the show in the same slot as teen-friendly shows ‘Ugly Betty’ and the turgid ‘Eastwick’, and to a large extent, this decision is likely to have played some part in the show’s failure and ultimate cancellation; by airing it in slots where shows are historically marketed to younger audiences it failed to catch the attention of the more adult genre market who would have taken to it. A further poke in the eye of the ‘Happy Town’ fanbase came from the network when they decided to put the show on a fortnight’s hiatus, a hiatus that sadly did not end, meaning that final two episodes were never aired. Six weeks afterwards, in July of 2010, ABC made them available to stream directly from their website and fans discovered that, frustratingly, they posed more questions than they answered.
Without doubt the most obscure entrant on this list, ‘Happy Town’ marked a depressing nadir for genre television. Whilst there has been a seismic shift in their attitude to the horror market in very recent years, it is without argument that many excellent shows disappeared due to apathy on the part of networks that produced them. ‘Happy Town’, sadly, sits very close to the top of that pile – atmospheric, creepy, exciting, engaging, and with a very talented cast both in front of and behind the camera, it should – and could – have been a huge hit for ABC; it wasn’t, and it sank almost without trace. Now rather widely available on VOD, I hope that it finds the audience it deserves; by reading this list, you doubtless are that audience. Track it down.