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TV preview: Hank Stuever previews 'Happy Town'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; C06

"Happy Town," ABC's curious but melodramatic new Wednesday night spookfest, should seem familiar to anyone who's ever had the misfortune of checking into one of those bed-and-breakfast lodges where there's a "mystery" to be "solved," and you write your clues on the back of the menu. Or it's like being dragged to a dinner theater where the troupe has decided to stage an amateur adaptation of "Twin Peaks" as a hammy homage to that show's 20th anniversary this month.

Set in the make-believe town of Haplin, Minn., where there's a bread factory on a hill overlooking Restoration Hardware's idea of a Main Street, "Happy Town" does a few things right: The opening scene is good 'n' sick, involving a mysterious person who has tied up the town weirdo in an ice-fishing shack, torturing him for information, and then hammering one of those big railroad-track spikes through his forehead.

After the body is discovered, Sheriff Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey) begins his investigation, aided by his son, Tommy (Geoff Stults), and the town detective (Robert Wisdom). The only problem is the sheriff seems to be having flashes of clairvoyant dementia, which leave him blurting out worrisome nonsense, such as: "At what point did Chloe contact you? Did you realize the glow from her mouth was the silvery moon?" Also it causes him to freak out near the end of the episode and chop his hand off with a hatchet.

What does it all mean? We'll get to that. (Or we won't, if "Happy Town" is quickly canceled, but there are eight or so episodes in the can.)

In theory, I'm in favor of any new drama that isn't a tidy, "CSI"-style procedural. Bring on the layers, the darkness and the puzzlement in as many baffling directions and plot lines as "Happy Town" cares to toss out at us. The problem is that the show is strewn with an unironic, overwrought sense of portentousness and constant, blunt hints that the town is Not What It Seems. It's got a bad case of the foreshadows -- so much so that you expect a wolf to howl after every character speaks.

At night, "Happy Town" adores dark stairwells, plaid flannel, flashlights, seedy pizza parlors, pine trees, the occult. It's Laura Palmer times Hardy Boys divided by Scooby-Doo. But during the day, "Happy Town" adheres to that old cliche that the sunnier things seem, the more sinister they are.

It's spring in Haplin, almost time for the big ice-thaw festival. On the morning after the murder, pretty young Henley Boone (Lauren German) has arrived with plans to open a candle shop. She is shown around by a too-cheerful real-estate lady, who is saddled with all sorts of expository dialogue about life in Happy Town.

Henley winds up renting a room in a spooky mansion boarding house, where the proprietress, Frau Bl├╝cher, warns her never to go up the stairs that lead to the top floor. The rest of the residents include a gaggle of randy old widows and, refreshingly, Sam Neill as Merritt Grieves, who is planning to open a movie memorabilia shop. (Next to Henley's candle shop?)

But it's not about scary retail schemes! It's about eeeeevil. The town of Haplin, it just so happens, is still trying to get over the disappearance of eight of its citizens several years ago. Their bodies were never found but they're believed to be victims of the legendary Magic Man.

What is the Magic Man? Seems like the devilish Grieves character knows. Seems like Henley knows, too.

Hold on, we've hardly begun: There's also Steven Weber as the scion of the bread factory, whose young daughter vanished at the hands of the Magic Man years ago and whose teenage son is in a Romeo-Juliet romance with a girl from the meth side of the tracks (Sarah Gadon), and she might have witnessed the murder (see "spike in head" above), and she babysits for the sheriff's son.

Confused? Do you like to be confused? Do you have time to be confused? Then welcome to "Happy Town." Let me know how it works out.

Happy Town

(one hour) premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.

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