As much as I like the idea behind “Harper’s Island” — a self-contained 13-episode “mystery event,” with a fixed July 2 end date — the execution falls well short of the “Ten Little Indians” conceit. Playing mostly like a twentysomething soap — “One Tree Hill” if they killed a character or two each week — the episodes are too scattered initially to provoke much curiosity about whodunit, and the slasher-movie flourishes (grisly as they are) will feel watered down to an audience weaned on them. Things gradually become more interesting, but by then, viewers will likely be disappearing faster than the cast.
“One by one,” a little girl’s voice drones ominously during the opening credits, foreshadowing the mayhem destined to thin out the wedding party that has descended on Washington-adjacent Harper’s Island, where poor-kid Henry (Christopher Gorham) is about to wed Trish (Katie Cassidy), the wealthy daughter of the Wellington family for whom he once worked. Just to drive the point home, they’re referred to as “the princess and the pauper.”
Among those boating over to celebrate their nuptials is Abby (Elaine Cassidy — no relation), a former townie who escaped to L.A. Her departure seems logical, inasmuch as she was living on the island seven years earlier, when a guy named Wakefield went on a killing spree that claimed her mother among the victims.
Abby’s estranged dad, the sheriff (Jim Beaver), killed Wakefield, but suddenly, a new flurry of murders begins. Not only does the unseen killer appear to have rigged half the island with tripwires and other elaborate means of death, but he or she is miraculously able to eliminate wedding party members for about three episodes before anybody realizes something’s rotten near the state of Washington.
Although bed-hopping, infidelities and long-simmering crushes add to the froth, the plot doesn’t really start to thicken (or more accurately, coagulate) until around hour No. 4. CBS helpfully sent out nine installments, doubtless recognizing that until then this is just a poor excuse for a slow-motion horror pic — one that borrows several beats from “Jaws” in the early going.
Yet as constructed by series creator Ari Schlossberg and director Jon Turteltaub, “Harper’s Island” too often indulges in slasher-movie absurdities, with a murderer who seems to be everywhere at once and genuine clues in too-short supply. This deficiency renders the 25 characters less suspects in a gradually unfolding mystery — which they ought to be — than simply shark bait.
Credit the producers with assembling a solid ensemble, especially since nobody could be assured of surviving until the finale. Kudos to CBS, too, for bending the episodic mold (and its procedural comfort zone) to accommodate a stunt resembling the British TV model — that is, a limited series with a fixed run.
Now if they’d only made a better show. Let’s just hope that one haphazard trip to “Harper’s Island” doesn’t kill the innovative spirit that got the series launched.