Tom Shales's TV Preview of 'Harper's Island' on CBS

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

As family scrapbooks, the National Enquirer and "America's Funniest Home Videos" have all made painfully clear, virtually every wedding has its share of booby traps. The road to the altar is full of potholes. An uncle will get drunk, a pair of pants will split in the back, or the flower girl will faint dead away.

Generally speaking, though, a growing pile of hacked-up bodies is not among the usual annoying bloopers. CBS is counting on that fact to help make a success of "Harper's Island," a 13-part serialized murder mystery that premieres tonight and lets the stiffs fall where they may.

With this show, I thee wed. I mean, with this show, CBS takes another step away from traditional program formats. Though common for years in England, the idea of a self-contained whodunit like this is novel -- and, of course, risky. If ratings are disappointing for the first couple of episodes, is CBS obliged to air the entire baker's dozen for the benefit of those who did watch? A network spokeswoman says that's a bridge to be crossed later, if ever.

Actually, the show's chances seem fairly good -- and not only because it has powerful Thursday-night lead-ins "Survivor" and "CSI." The fact is, "Harper's Island" is a cunningly constructed, habit-forming mystery that makes for an intriguing departure from normal episodic television. It's also a kind of hybrid; as on reality competition shows, one member of the cast will be eliminated each week, except that on "Harper's Island" they'll be murdered, not voted away by yuppies in leafy underpants.

Set in the Pacific Northwest -- Harper's Island, no relation to Harper's Ferry, is said to be off the Seattle coast -- the mystery sprints right along after a fairly de rigueur first chapter in which the writers are obliged to introduce the cast of characters, which is also a cast of suspects. Central to the show are those goo-goo, ga-ga youngsters (relatively speaking) Henry and Trish. As played by Christopher Gorham and Katie Cassidy, they're a believably contented couple with a high tolerance for members of the wedding party happening to disappear -- or turn up dead in particularly grisly and gory ways.

Cassidy is the 22-year-old daughter of '70s heartthrob David Cassidy and is not to be confused with Elaine Cassidy, who is no relation and plays the pivotal role of Abby, the former islander whose mother was monstrously murdered by a maniac seven years earlier, along with five other people. You'd think the happy couple and their relatives would have thought twice about having a wedding in such gruesome surroundings, but maybe they did think twice and went ahead just the same.

Perhaps thinking three times would have done the trick, but then there wouldn't have been a story, and CBS might have had to fill its Thursday-at-10 slot with, oh, let's see -- "Meet Your Critics."

As TV murders go, those on and around the island are unusually graphic for TV (viewers who don't find them graphic enough can buy the forthcoming DVD version, which will include even more gory details). One poor chap gets virtually sliced in half by a nasty sort of contraption that comes plunging down from the rafters -- and never mind fretting about spoilers, because we haven't told you who, when, where or why. But then we don't know why.

With 13 hours and as many characters to kill, the producers inevitably must throw in a plethora of colorfully creepy clues and red herrings, though telling which is which won't be easy until closure sets in and the killer is revealed. And though many episodes end in cliffhangers, CBS has promised that the murderer will indeed be identified and the case closed in that final chapter, which is set to air July 2.

Mischievously enough, all the chapters have one-word titles on the order of "Whap" (tonight's premiere), "Thwack," "Bang" and "Sploosh."

Meanwhile the intriguing details include a spooky little girl who likes to play with tarot cards; a wedding rehearsal from which the presiding minister happens to be conspicuously AWOL; an abandoned boat containing a putrid desiccated corpse and a satchel filled with $250,000 in bloody money; a badly disfigured recluse who serves as the island's equivalent of village idiot; and a kinky couple whose idea of fun is to play kidnapper and kidnappee, with the latter bound and tortured.

CBS released several chapters for preview but not, of course, those revealing any of the big surprises, assuming big surprises are waiting 'round the bend. The show is really 94 percent plot, so the actors don't have much leeway in terms of characterization or depth of performance. Elaine Cassidy's Abby, though, is a genuinely sympathetic figure, someone who's already been through a hellish sort of nightmare, and it doesn't take long to develop a rooting interest in seeing her survive this one. Gorham as Henry is so relentlessly chipper and smiley that he arouses suspicion from early on, but then in mysteries, the ones who look the guiltiest usually are not the whos that dun it.

As in all horror stories, characters do manifestly dumb things, like swim alone, drunk, in a lighted pool at night, or go wandering off in the woods once the sun sets and it gets awfully hard to retrace your steps. Once there was a way to get back homeward, as the Beatles lamented, but not for everyone on Harper's Island. For that reason and others, the show may very well and fairly cleverly hold your attention -- in fact, grip it tightly and securely -- as it dangles its array of morbid possibilities in your face.

Should it carry a warning label along the lines of "Not for the Squeamish"? That'd be a bit gratuitous; besides, life itself is not for the squeamish -- especially, one could easily argue, now.

Harper's Island (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

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