The DVD Edition
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All photos © CBS
Reviewed by Will Harris
hen “Twin Peaks” battled its way through a rating-challenged first season on ABC in the early 1990s, creator David Lynch had one major battle with his co-creator, Mark Frost: Lynch wanted to leave the murder of Laura Palmer unresolved, while Frost felt that they had an obligation to the audience to solve it. From a creative standpoint, it’s easy to understand where Lynch was coming from, but one suspects that the network executives breathed a sigh of relief when Frost won the war. If the series premiered today, however, Lynch probably would’ve ended up as the de facto victor, if only because ABC would’ve almost certainly yanked “Twin Peaks” within two or three episodes if the ratings hadn’t lived up to their expectations.
Case and point: “Harper’s Island,” a murder mystery which offered a twist to the usual TV series model by offering itself as a 13-episode “event,” was hyped to the heavens by CBS, but within three weeks, the network had given up on it as a failure. Granted, they did allow the show to play out in its entirety, but their vote of no confidence was delivered via the announcement that it was being moved from Thursday night to a Saturday night “dead” timeslot.
So was “Harper’s Island” truly a failure? Well, it certainly wasn’t perfect, but it sure was a hell of a lot of fun.
The premise in a nutshell: Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham), a semi-average young man, is marrying heiress Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy), and their nuptials are taking place on Harper’s Island, the site of several horrific murders some years earlier. The killer, John Wakefield, is believed dead, but when the slaying begins anew, thoughts immediately turn to the possibility that the rumors of his demise may have been exaggerated. This is particularly disconcerting to Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), whose mother was one of the individuals to have died at Wakefield’s hand.
While certainly not a completely original creation (with at least one victim per week, Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” is an obvious point of reference), stretching the mystery out over 13 episodes gives us the opportunity to actually meet and know something about the various residents of the island and the members of the bridal party. Very few of those who survive beyond the halfway point are left as pencil sketches; they’re actually built up to the point where you feel as though you’ve learned something about them and, subsequently, you feel the loss when they meet their end. The most realized of the characters are probably Chloe and Cal (Cameron Richardson and Adam Campbell), possibly because we spend more time with them outside of the John Wakefield storyline than anyone else, but everyone gets a few moments in the sun when it comes to their development. It’s the father-daughter relationship between Abby and Sheriff Mills (Jim Beaver), however, which provides much of the series’ best moments of drama. The performance you’ll be most impressed by is probably that of young Cassandra Sawtell, who manages to blend innocence and complete creepiness to make the character of Madison into a suspect for many viewers. But, of course, for horror buffs, the best part of “Harper’s Island” is seeing what ingenious methods are used to off the various victims. There are plenty of memorable departures to be had throughout the run of the series, but it’s arguably the abrupt end to Mr. Wellington (Richard Burgi) that you remember the most. (It’s also one which proves conclusively that what you don’t see is far more disturbing than what you do.)
When the final episode of “Harper’s Island” rolls around, you may or may not be thrilled at the outcome (your mileage will probably depend on how quickly you determine the identity of the killer), but those who come for the mystery and horror and are willing to stick around for the long haul won’t walk away disappointed at having invested their time.
Special Features: If you dug the show when it originally aired, then you’ll be psyched at the bonus material provided by the producers for the DVD presentation of the series. First, though, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a critic if I didn’t offer a complaint about something that’s missing: the original pitch reel for the series. There exists within the CBS vaults a short presentation that was made by the producers to give the network an idea what “Harper’s Island” would be like, and although there are some crossovers in casting between this footage and the final pilot, the most interesting difference lies with the character of Uncle Marty, who was originally played by Bill Pullman. You can read the story on how Pullman came to participate in the project (and why he wasn’t in the actual series) right here, but it would’ve been nice if fans of the show could’ve actually gotten to see his work. If anyone can tell me why it wasn’t included, please drop me a line, as I’d really like to know.
As for what is included, however, there are a quartet of commentaries, but the first of the four – the one on the first episode, done by producers Jeffrey Bell, Ari Schlossberg, and Dan Shots – is the least of the bunch; the others, however, include at least one actor amongst the bunch (Dean Chekvala, Matt Barr, Cameron Richardson, and Christopher Gorham all contribute) to provide light, breezy recollections of their experiences. Quite a few deleted scenes are spread throughout the four discs, offering up expansions of various storylines; of the bunch, none are more profound than the gradual building of a friendship between Malcolm and Beth, a development which was all but removed from the final version of the series. There are also four featurettes: “Casting ‘Harper’s Island’”; “One by One: The Making of ‘Harper’s Island,’” which offers a nice look into the creation of the series on an episode-by-episode basis; “The Grim Reaper,” which looks into the role of producer Karim Zreik as the man who was responsible for telling the actors that their time on the series was up; and a collection of theories from the various actors and crew members about the identity of the killer (“Guess Who?”). Lastly, there’s the collection of “Harper’s Globe” webisodes, which served to create a parallel storyline which, though it had no direct effect on the show itself, managed to tie its story of a young journalist for the Harper’s Island newspaper into the saga of John Wakefield. It’s actually pretty impressive stuff for an online series, but the viewing experience on the DVD is severely hampered by the lack of a “play all” feature for the 16-chapter saga.