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Harper's Island: The Death of Cheesy Fun?

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Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Here's hoping that CBS' murder mystery series will end with a bang (or a slice, thwack, or thunk) and not a whimper.

Harper’s Island finishes its run with a two-hour series finale on Saturday night. For those few of us who are still watching, it will be a kick to finally see who was behind it all. The main killer has already been revealed, but the question of which cast member or members were his accomplices is still up in the air. But the answer to the question “Why are there so few viewers left?” is worth pondering. Harper’s Island premiered to much fanfare in early April. CBS promoted it relentlessly during its primetime shows and during its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament in March. The network even gave it a plum schedule slot, right after the still-powerful CSI on Thursday nights. The premiere episode scored great ratings, and yet by May the show was airing in the network dead zone of Saturday night. Even worse, CBS pre-empted the program during the final week of May sweeps in favor of airing reruns of other shows.


So what went wrong? Well, the viewers who tuned into that first episode expecting a taut murder mystery with a healthy helping of violence received the latter, but not much of the former. Truth is, Harper’s Island is not a very good show. There are too many cast members running around to give any character depth to all but the primary three or four leads. The rest are typical stereotypes you see in any soap opera or horror movie. There’s the rich daddy who isn’t happy that his daughter is marrying a commoner, the sleazy uncle who parties too much, the sullen drugged-out brother, the blonde princess with a tiny yappy dog, the earnest foreigner, the bride’s menacing ex, the bumbling fat guy, the douchebag, and the token black guy. Not to mention the residents of the island where the wedding was supposed to take place: the groom’s female best friend, her nice but sorta creepy ex-boyfriend, the bully with a chip on his shoulder, and the sheriff with a history. They needed all these characters because it was a given that the body count was going to be high. But in the early episodes this cast was handled with all the finesse of a daytime soap. They all came with pre-existing backgrounds with each other, but we couldn’t be bothered to care about any of it, especially since we knew most of them were just going to be offed anyway.
  
All of these awkward, bumbling elements drove audiences away quickly. The gruesome deaths (ripped in half, doused in gasoline and burned alive, decapitation, chopped up by boat propellor) probably didn’t help much with a lot of the general audience. Although horror is a reliable genre at the box office, it’s still a niche that has limited appeal, and Harper’s Island didn’t bother to package these deaths in the sanitized CG of a crime procedural. Honestly, I can’t blame the viewers for abandoning ship. And yet, those of us who stuck with the show know that it’s been a cheesy delight. Mistakes have surely been made by the writers and directors. It took a whopping six episodes for any of the living characters to realize that other guests were being killed off. The writers pushed this way beyond the limits of credibility. They also tended to focus so much on attempted scares and atmosphere that other, more basic story elements were neglected. The details that make a suspenseful murder mystery really work, such as character consistency and a coherent geography of the locale, mostly never came to fruition. As much as I was frustrated by the show’s basic story problems and its failure to generate any real scares or even much suspense, I have to admit I never really expected Harper’s Island to pull any of that stuff off.


Yes, I went into the show with the expectation that it would probably be pretty bad, but hopefully still entertaining in the same way a bad movie can be when it hits the exact sweet spot of laughable and engaging. And on that note, Harper’s Island has delivered. The deaths have been both gross and widely varied, and I will cop to cackling with glee from watching what is basically the cast of a soap opera get chopped up in creative ways. Because as bad as the writing and basic plotting has been at times, the deaths have been consistently entertaining. And that’s what most of us came for, right? Sure, there’s a mystery element, but once it was clear that it was going to be a clumsily handled one, the killings became the focus. To its credit, CBS did a very nice job of getting solid actors in these roles. The cast uniformly has played it straight and done their best with the dialogue they’ve been handed. Earnestness always works better than winking when dealing with grade A cheese like this.


I should also point out that the Vancouver-based location shooting in the forests of the Pacific Northwest looks gorgeous in HD. I’m sad that the producers of Harper’s Island won’t get the chance to make a sequel series set in some other exotic location, with a new set of hapless victims. But I will still treasure Saturday’s finale, as most of the remaining cast members will assuredly lose their lives to the evil serial killer and the accomplice they don’t realize walks among them. Here’s wishing luck to Henry, Trish, Abby, and their surviving friends. But not too much luck. Just enough to keep things entertaining for another two hours.


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