Harper’s Island begins as wedding guests board a ferry bound for a small vacation island off the coast of Seattle. They bring along beer, children, and dates, all busy with their own dramas. The boat’s engine rumbles as the camera peers beneath to find a person is tied up, scuba mask fixed tightly so he’s still living—until he’s caught in the rudder. None of the guests notices the blood churning in the water as they set off for the island.
This scene might stand in for the show as a whole: melodrama on the surface, with serial-killer genre elements underneath. As the guests explain in awkwardly expositional dialogue, the wedding destination has a bit of a gruesome history. Seven years prior, a murderer went on a rampage on the island, his victims including the mother of wedding guest Abby (Elaine Cassidy). The homicides caused such a stir that, now even cab drivers feel the need to tell Abby about the incident—as if it’s the first time she’s heard of it. Though Abby’s best friend, groom Henry (Christopher Gorham), says the killer is dead, someone apparently has 10 Little Indians-style plans for his guests.
Even without a killer traipsing around the island, this party would be in trouble. The bride has a boyfriend on the side. Her father is trying to stop the marriage. The female guests maraud around in their underwear, Henry’s uncle threatens to blackmail his father-in-law-to-be, and Henry’s brother is suicidal. Even the flower girl seems pained, frying slugs with a magnifying glass and looking generally creepy.
All this emotional turmoil appears premised on class differences. It’s no secret that bride Trish (Katie Cassidy) is much wealthier than Henry. She originally came to the island as a vacationer, while he cleaned the luxury boats to earn his keep. The show clearly delineates between the locals (Henry, Abby, and Abby’s torch-holding ex-boyfriend Jimmy, played by C.J. Thomason) and the upper-echelon vacationers (Trish, her father, and all her friends). Abby wears a denim jacket, while her fellow guests—when they see fit to put clothes on—prefer chic party dresses. This conflict could unfold intelligently, a la Veronica Mars, or perhaps offer Dirty Sexy Money-style exploits of the rich and their bad behavior.
Unfortunately, clumsy writing gets in the way of potential insight. One bar patron angrily walks up to J.D. (Dean Chekvala), the groom’s brother, and with little prompting says, “So, I heard you tried to whack yourself again.” That patron is never heard from again; his only function is to deliver that bit of background on J.D. And poor Trish has to look her sister in the eye and say, “We all know you have the perfect life, don’t pass judgment on mine,” as if such stilted speech were somehow natural.
Trying to suss out the motivation and identity of the serial killer while guessing the next victim is fun so far. Harper’s Island‘s producers have promised resolution after 13 episodes. That means there must be an economy of storytelling, with no digressions to drag out the central plot. Unfortunately, if the bad dialogue persists, we may be learning the killer’s name because some party guest will feel the need to explain too much.