Friday, July 17, 2009

Harper's Island Post-Mortem

I've been following the CBS series Harper's Island thanks to my friend Alex Harkey. Quick recap/explanation: several years ago, lots of people got killed on Harper's Island, a secluded island off the coast of Seattle; now two people are trying to get married on Harper's Island; people start dying again; the killer is one of the wedding guests or one of their friends on the island. (Spoilers follow. Most of this is taken from a conversation with Alex, and edited for coherency.)

In the end, we find out that the killer was Henry, the groom-to-be, motivated by some psychotic conception of "togetherness" with his childhood friend Abby. And if I understood the finale correctly, I think Henry and Abby might be half-siblings? That's especially creepy.

My thoughts on the reveal and the resolution:

I don't dislike Henry as the killer, mostly because I don't see him as totally implausible. Everything I said about knowing the island, and knowing the wedding party, and being central enough to have some sort of impact definitely applies to Henry. The thing that I like the least about Henry as the killer is that it was weird to watch him transform into a complete psychopath over the course of about an hour.

It was clear Henry had some downright bizarre notions about "being together" with Abby--as in he seemed like a total nutjob--but he seemed the most stable out of anyone on that island through the first eleven episodes. Given that the motive was apparently driven by insanity, I'm not sure how plausible it was to see ostensibly the most sane guy there have that motive then see the sanity just vanish as soon as it was convenient.

A killer in a murder mystery should appear as normal as, or even more normal than, the other characters. The trick in making a really good one is to put in subtle hints that some motive could exist while still appearing like a normal person on the surface. From that angle, I more could have bought the killer being someone with some kinks to their personality than the guy who was essentially the straight man to a whole lot of eccentricity.

I'm not sure if you could have positively identified Henry as the killer in any of the first eleven episodes. There's plenty of evidence against him, but I don't think there's a smoking gun. Motive would have been impossible to nail down until about the ninth episode at the earliest, when we found out that Abby's mother likely had a child with Wakefield. It would be interesting to watch through some of the early episodes already knowing how the ending and resolution to see if that colors some of the "clues" or if any of the deaths could be explained or are still suspicious.

All that said, the weakest part of the denouement was the explanation of Henry's motive. We saw that Henry wanted to go around with Abby a lot, but that's not identifiable as motive at all--they were understood to be good friends, and it's a heck of a logical leap to take that to "well, okay, what if Henry wants the two of them to be more than friends, and that's why he's the killer."

I would have preferred one of the characters to have figured out the killer rather than Henry essentially telling them. Of the characters who knew who that killer was Henry, Henry himself told Trish, Sully, Abby, and Jimmy. We don't know what eventually happened to Shea and Madison, but we can assume that Abby or Jimmy told them the truth eventually. That means that nobody actually figured out the killer for themselves, which is a little disappointing.

Finally, it would really help if we got a "debrief" sort of episode? Maybe some "here were all the clues" and "here's how Henry killed all these people and avoided suspicion"? Make it similar to the Mole, where after the big reveal, there's always a "debrief" episode where the "clues" and "sabotage" are explained. I think Harper's Island would probably benefit from something like that too. Or maybe even a writer/producer commentary track over the episodes to say things like "okay, notice how we haven't seen Henry in the last few minutes here" or "while all this is going on, here's where we imagine Henry is rigging the trapped chandelier in the church."

Thoughts on the series as a whole:

Foremost, I think it would have worked better if everyone wasn't so "sure" that Wakefield was dead at the beginning. I really dislike starting a story with the premise that an old villain was dead, then bringing back the old villain just so the good guys can fight him again. (See my comments on the new Transformers movie.) It would have been a lot easier for me to stomach if it had been something along the lines of "some people say that Wakefield died, but I have my doubts". That way, you can get people thinking from the very beginning about whether or not the guy is alive, and there's a lot less secret-keeping between Abby and her father.

It's easy to say that I would have preferred that Wakefield not come back at all, but honestly that would have changed the series so much that it's tough to say if such an overhaul would have made things better or worse. He was pretty intense as a villain, but that doesn't necessarily say that his appearance made good narrative sense. The idea that he would show up to prove his own innocence, as suggested by Harkey, is a great twist that I never even thought of, and I doubt anyone would have seen coming.

There was a definite shift in tone between the first ten episodes and the last three, when the killings went from mysterious to out in the open, or alternately the style went from "murder mystery" to "horror". Maybe that was to try and make things more exciting and intense for the last part of the series. I think it worked; the last three or four episodes really seemed like a climax to me, with the real emotional climax of the series as a whole coming at the end of the eleventh episode, when Chloe threw herself into the water so Wakefield couldn't get her.

Speaking of Chloe, I'm glad that the Cal-Chloe story and the Sully redemption story reached their resolutions. Toward the middle of the series, I kept insisting that all of those characters had to live to the end so their stories could resolve. In retrospect, though, none of those people actually did, and I think both stories were handled well. Also in retrospect, Shea pretty much had to live, unless they wanted the Madison story to end in complete tragedy. Not only can you really not kill a little girl, you really can't orphan her either, I guess.

Overall reaction to the series:

Definitely one of the strengths was the closed environment--the promise of "this is only going thirteen episodes, you will know all the answers by the end, and the killer will be revealed." It's like Lost, which hit a nadir at an episode now popularly referred to as the "flying kites in Thailand" episode, which had virtually nothing to do with the overarching plot of the series, or even the story arc of the season. Basically, the producers realized the show had no real direction, so they petitioned ABC for an end date. When they got it, the show got back on its feet, because they'd always imagined Lost as a show with a beginning, middle, and end. Short story long, having a set amount of time to get things done allows much more effective storyboarding and long-term planning, which I think Harper's Island capitalized on.

I'm not exactly sure why Harper's Island's ratings were so low. Obviously the move to a different time slot didn't help, but I think the low ratings probably started before that and the move was a reaction to falling ratings. Maybe people didn't want to wait thirteen weeks to figure out how it ended? Maybe it's because it was so serialized? I definitely think it's the sort of show where if you miss one episode, you feel lost, and you might be less than inclined to watch the next week. Of course there's always the option to watch online, but maybe not enough viewers thought that was worth it, so there was just a gradual decline in watching each week. The only other idea I've heard is that some combination of the time slot and network didn't reach the target demographic well enough.

In general, I enjoyed it a lot, and would recommend it with a few reservations (noted above). It's absolutely the sort of show that's way more fun to discuss with someone else, to make predictions and give reactions to the murders as they happen.

Currently listening: "I'm Not Over", Carolina Liar

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