“Harper’s Island is 37 miles off the coast of Seattle. 7 years ago, 6 people were murdered here, presumably by a man named John Wakefield. They were the first ever recorded murders in the history of the island. They will not be the last.”
Whap, Gurgle, Snap. No, that’s not the sound of the latest craze in breakfast cereals. It’s three episode titles to the limited run series, Harper’s Island. This is one of those one season high concept shows that crop up from time to time. With television spots that at first made it look like another in the reality TV wave, it didn’t get quite the buzz I’m sure was hoped for. We were promised a murder every week, and we got it. The episode titles represent sounds we might imagine each murder producing. Where the show just couldn’t make a killing was in the ratings. It was never intended for anything but one season, which was good, because it didn’t stand a chance of getting renewed.
Engaged couple Trish Wellington (Cassidy) and Henry Dunn (Gorham) have planned quite an exotic wedding. Both grew up in an island community off the coast of Washington state. They have decided to return to this remote location with their entire wedding party for a week of celebration activities culminating with the wedding itself. One of the wedding party members is Henry’s childhood friend, Abby Mills (Cassidy). Her mother was one of the victims of John Wakefield 7 years earlier. Her father is the island Sheriff (Beaver) who sent her away after her mother’s death. This is the first time she’s returned, and she has some serious reservations as she must face these past horrors. That’s not going to be easy, however. Someone is killing again. Members of the wedding party begin disappearing and/or dying one by one. John Wakefield is supposed to be long dead, shot down by Sheriff Mills. Is he still alive? Is someone in the group killing off their friends, perhaps to derail the wedding? Or could someone else be behind the brutal slayings?
The show took on an interesting production style. The actors were only given scripts one week at a time. They did not know when or if their character was going to get killed. They also did not know who the murderer was. Even the person playing the killer did not know they were doing the murders until the episode with the big reveal. The idea was to help protect from leaks so that the ending would have some shock value. The other reason was to keep the acting fresh. It kept any guilty party from leaving inadvertent clues in their performance to their true identity. In the end it was more gimmick than anything else. The promos promised an almost extended horror film, but the deaths, while imaginative, didn’t push any envelopes here. We’ve seen far worse on cable television, not to mention the Saw or Hostel franchises. It might have been more effective 15 or even 10 years ago. But I found it all rather mild and tame. Promos aside, there was a lot of build up for very little punch. The series became far more of a soap opera than a horror show. The tangled web of relationships and history became overwhelming for me after a while. It took so long to actually get to the week’s kill most of the time that it was anticlimactic to say the least.
The cast is a large collection of relative unknowns. Harry Hamlin is likely the biggest name in the bunch. By far the best performer was Jim Beaver as the sheriff. I’ve just recently caught two seasons of his work on Supernatural. This guy’s pretty good, and for the most part wasted here. There’s far too much melodrama and more than a little overacting here. Several of the ladies appear to have graduated from the William Shatner School Of Emoting. There’s a little girl played by Cassandra Sawtell who has to be one of the most annoying characters I’ve had the displeasure of watching in quite some time. She’s pretty much a red herring mysterious little girl who has the most irritating nails on chalkboard voice. I’m sure it’s not the little girl’s fault. I get the idea someone decided to try and make her this creepy little kid. The series is little more than a very light diversion and worth only a rent, if you’re really that curious.
I also want to complain about the vast amount of front end filler on each episode. You get some “previously on” material that you can’t opt out of. There’s this narration from the Abby character. Finally there’s a title sequence. As much as 5 minutes is wasted on this stuff each and every time. It doesn’t make marathon viewings very easy.
Each episode of Harper’s Island is presented in an above average television 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The show is often a little too dark for my tastes, but the image doesn’t suffer in quality from the choice. Black levels are fortunately pretty solid. A taste of grain sometimes works its way to the forefront, but never enough for me to downgrade the quality. You’ll see a little compression artifact from time to time, again made more noticeable by the dark tone of the show. Colors are solid, and sharpness creates a fine element of detail most of the time. Some of the vistas are pretty impressive. It helps that there are often only 3 episodes on a disc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a nice mix for a television series. There’s plenty of subtle surrounds, more than enough to generate a nice immersion into the story for the viewer. Dialog is clear and well placed in the center.
The show spans 3 single-sided discs with most of the extras found on the final disc.
Audio Commentaries: There are audio commentaries on select episodes.
Deleted Scenes: There are a handful of deleted scenes, at least one on most episodes. For some reason they have a brightly overexposed image that looks very unlike the finished product.
Casting Harper’s Island: (20:10) Do not watch before finishing the show, as the killer is revealed in this feature. The production crew go character by character and profile them and the actor. You get some of each of the main actor’s audition tape.
One By One – The Making Of Harper’s Island: (30:22) More a promo piece than anything else. It takes you episode by episode mostly showing how each of the kills were done.
Guess Who: (2:47) The cast and crew speculate on who the killer might be.
The Grim Reaper: (2:51) It was the job of executive producer Karim Zreik to contact the actors when it was time for their character to die. It became a dreaded call when Karim called you and invited you for diner or drinks. It usually meant curtains for your time on the show.
I guess the idea here was to create a reality television style or feel on a scripted series. I’m sure it won’t be the last of this kind of thing. Even though the series was not really a ratings hit, I imagine it was relatively inexpensive to make. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I do credit these guys for trying something different. I’m a little cautious of a show that’s not really trying to get picked up for the next season. I suspect we’ll get to see more of this or something very much like it. For now, I’ll keep an open mind on the next wave and take them “one by one”.