Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Twin Peaks casts a long shadow across the television landscape, so much so that whenever presented with a quirky small town hiding dark secrets, viewers inevitably draw comparisons to the 20-year-old series. But ABC has gone out of its way to encourage that connection in its advertising for Happy Town, which we’re repeatedly told comes “from the network that brought you Twin Peaks.” The show’s creators play their part, too, going so far as to have Henley, the new girl in town, hail from Snoqualmie, Washington, one of the filming locations for the celebrated David Lynch-Mark Frost drama.
But Happy Town‘s Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg — the team behind the short-lived American version of Life on Mars — are no Lynch and Frost, no matter how much they may try to be. So they pull from Fargo, Harper’s Island and even Pushing Daisies to create Haplin, Minnesota, a town haunted by a series of unsolved disappearances orchestrated by a mysterious figure called the Magic Man. The kidnappings inexplicably stopped five years ago, leaving most of Haplin’s residents to don fake smiles in an effort to put the tragedies behind them. Beneath the forced cheer, however, is a thinly disguised paranoia, one voiced by Donna Friddle (Wendy Lyon), whose husband, the “town weirdo,” is murdered in the opening moments of the first episode, ending an uneasy peace: “One thing you can count on is that the Magic Man is someone you passed on the street today.”
That heavy-handed pronouncement should’ve been accompanied by blaring trumpets, as it heralds The Big Mystery of Happy Town (just in case it wasn’t obvious): Who is the Magic Man? The creators populate Haplin with plenty of candidates. Is it the creepy Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill), owner of The House of Ushers (groan) Hollywood-memorabilia store who demonstrates some sort of prestidigitation ability (making him a magic … man)? Is it John Haplin (Steven Weber), dour owner of Our Daily Bread Baking and Confectioners (groan again), and father of one of the Magic Man’s victims? Or what about Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey of Lost and, more recently, Justified), the Latin-quoting sheriff prone to lapses of memory and dialogue? There are many others — we’re obviously meant to suspect everyone, from the four merry widows at the boarding house to those no-good Stiviletto brothers — but few are as interesting as that trio. Which obviously means none of them is the Magic Man.
You see, virtually everyone in Haplin has a secret, whether it’s boarding-house proprietor Dot Meadows (Lynne Griffin), whose third floor is “strictly off limits” to boarders, or babysitter Georgia Bravin (Sarah Gordon) and bread-factory heir Andrew Haplin (Ben Schnetzer), who carry on a forbidden romance — they even reference Romeo and Juliet — that’s about as forced as the dialogue they spout. (Andrew: “I love you so much, sometimes I don’t even know what day it is.” Georgia: “It’s grow-a-pair day.”)
Into this arrives newcomer Henley (played blandly by Lauren German), who brings from Snoqualmie a few secrets of her own. Chief among them is that her name isn’t Henley, but Chloe, someone mentioned by Sheriff Conroy during his less-lucid moments. It turns out she’s not simply the audience’s point-of-view character — although she and Grieves shovel plenty of exposition in one grueling scene — but a young woman on a mission to … find out what Dot Meadows is hiding behind that locked door.
A door, if you haven’t already guessed, is a metaphor, one that Grieves hammers away at in his labored conversation with Henley about an old film called The Blue Door, and reinforced by the revelation, if you can call it one, that the ice shack in which town weirdo Jerry Friddle is murdered with a railroad spike has … a blue door! Duuuude.
Happy Town is strange, and bewildering, but probably not for the reasons its creators intend.
For instance, it’s curiously dated in its music, with the first scene unfolding to Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” — a fine song, sure — followed later by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children.” When young Andrew Haplin harrasses Georgia in the school hallway, apparently trying to hide their relationship from his well-to-do friends, he mocks her meth-using father with an unlikely parody of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” called “In My Veins.” And while in a discussion with wife Rachel (the wonderful Amy Acker) about the need to shelter their young daughter, Deputy Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults) drops a Jerry Garcia reference. Either Haplin is so isolated that its only access to music is a classic-rock station, or the show’s creators are showing their ages.
There’s also the impossible-to-miss question — which, in fairness, could be answered later — of why these people remain in Haplin, where at every turn they’re reminded of what, or rather who, has been lost, and pretend that everything is wonderful. Only John Haplin seems willing to acknowledge the tragedies, almost starting a riot by hanging a banner reminding residents to “Remember To Never Forget” during preparations for the annual Thaw Fest. And only Rachel Conroy expresses interest in leaving Haplin — granted, she’s at least five years late — for which she must endure unconvincing testimony about the wonders of life in Happy Town from her husband, who presumably is serving as the voice of the entire community.
That’s not to say Happy Town is without promise. After all, its boasts Robert Wisdom (The Wire‘s Bunny Colvin) as Det. Roger Hobbs, in addition to the previously mentioned Acker, Gainey, Neill and Weber. But beyond the solid cast, there’s a sense that there’s something to the show — something to the Magic Man mystery — buried beneath the all-too-obvious influences and clumsy attempts at weirdness for weirdness’ sake. It just remains to be seen whether Happy Town‘s creators can uncover whatever that is.
Happy Town airs at 10 p.m. EST/PST Wednesdays on ABC.