Can it really be 20 years since ABC made an enormous splash with “Twin Peaks” and had millions wondering “Who killed Laura Palmer?” “Happy Town” is cut from similar cloth, beginning with a grisly murder and referencing a mysterious “Magic Man,” believed responsible for a string of unsolved disappearances years earlier. Yet just as that prior series began hot and fizzled amid impatience with its cryptic nature, this show’s promising yet not wholly satisfying start invites a more pragmatic question — namely, how long can viewers be strung along before history repeats itself and they tire of this town?
After previewing three episodes, “Happy Town” does establish that it isn’t strictly a one-horse affair, though its soap-opera elements and hints of the macabre remain less than fully formed.
The main weakness might be the wishy-washy nature of the ostensible protagonist, Tommy Conroy (Geoff Stults, who also co-starred in the producing team’s “October Road”), the easygoing son of the town’s longtime sheriff (M.C. Gainey). Happily married with a young child, Tommy eventually will be called upon to make tough decisions, pressured by the founding family of Haplin, Minn., which cloaks an iron fist underneath a velvet glove.
Much of the town is introduced through the eyes of new arrival Henley (Lauren German), a young woman who takes a room in a boarding house filled with older ladies. There she meets the one male resident, Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill, channeling Vincent Price), who operates a movie-memorabilia store appropriately named the House of Ushers.
So is the Magic Man back? Who killed that guy in the fishing shack? And is there something supernatural afoot tied to “man’s capacity for evil?”
The episodes are certainly watchable, but as constructed by writer-producers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, the train also takes its time getting out of the station. And while past shows — “Peaks” included — have gained cult followings operating from similar playbooks, when it comes to teasing viewers with scattered tidbits, “Lost” remains the exception that proves the rule — and likely would have crashed had ABC not agreed to announce a well-telegraphed end date.
On the plus side, the ensemble casting is strong. In addition to Neill and Amy Acker as Tommy’s wife, there’s Steven Weber as the Haplin brood’s hotheaded dad, Frances Conroy as his imperious mother and Abraham Benrubi as Tommy’s boyhood pal, who runs the local bar. For the most part, though, that talent amounts to more promise than payoff.
“Happy Town’s” outlook is also clouded by ABC’s flameout with “Eastwick” this season, just as CBS tanked a year ago with the murder-mystery/slasher-movie wannabe “Harper’s Island,” which had the advantage of a self-contained storyline, as opposed to drizzling out clues in miserly fashion.
Given that, “Happy Town” will need considerable good fortune to conjure a happy ending — in this case, sustaining a level of tune-in that would forestall its own abrupt disappearance.