Two years before American Horror Story heralded the return of horror TV in a big way, Harper's Island was roundly ignored and quickly canceled. CBS did the series the favor of finishing out its thirteen-episode run, but bummer ratings caused the network to move it from Thursday to Saturday nights, and a second season was never touted as a possibility, disappointing those few of us who'd become invested in the show's at-least-one-death-an-episode promise and chilly, beautiful Vancouver setting.
Harper's Island is now free to stream on Amazon Prime, and a recent re-watch actually strengthened my conviction that this show would still be on if it had aired in the post-American Horror Story environment, in which we're all hungry for small-screen horror and networks welcome a bloody new premise. And Harper's Island still feels like a fresh offering amid the horror anthologies and series on nearly every network and cable channel right now; And Then There Were None meets slasher is a very effective formula, at once classic and new.
Creator Ari Schlossberg made one mistake in the plotting of his show (a mistake that cost him, not only a second season, but seemingly a second shot at anything so far, as Harper's Island is the last credit on his IMDb profile): the series starts slow and a little basic before turning deliciously twisted. Henry (Christopher Gorham) and Trish (Katie Cassidy) are returning to the island to get married, surrounded by a large, comely group of friends and family - including Henry's best friend Abby (Elaine Cassidy), our solemn-faced protagonist who is loath to return to the island that once claimed her mother, along with several other people, in a murderous rampage committed by John Wakefield. Wakefield's presence still looms ominously over the wedding proceedings, despite the promise of Abby's dad, Sheriff Mills (Supernatural's Jim Beaver), that he shot Wakefield dead all those years ago.
Soon, the good-looking Canadian cast is whittled down, "one by one" as the little girl sing-songs in the credits, but in the first four or so episodes, no one even notices. Missing guests are assumed to be taking some time to themselves, or perhaps having left the island for unknowable reasons. This leaves a lot of time for pre-wedding activities, which allow us to get to know the characters as they get to know each other - but these scenes don't otherwise make for riveting television. But once the survivors begin to realize something's amiss, Harper's Island ramps up in a big way. Paranoia sets in, true colors are revealed and many of the characters' journeys take surprising turns. Smug jocks and polite wieners turn out to be heroes; some of the biggest talkers are exposed as cowards.
The women of Harper's Island are uniformly interesting: Trish and Abby are quick-thinking and courageous, but all of the actresses (including Gina Holden, Cameron Richardson, Claudette Mink and Ali Liebert) turn in performances that are layered and surprising. The nature of the show means we start out with a lot of nothing, disposable characters, but as the Harper's Island killer begins stabbing, shooting, harpooning, disemboweling, beheading and impaling his or her way through the population, the last third of the show leaves us with a Darwin's cast of likable, complex and formidable characters. A couple's death in the eleventh episode, "Splash" (all episodes titles are onomatopoeias, including "Gurgle," "Thwack," "Sploosh" and "Bang"), even though I knew it was coming, made me cry, because Harper's Island had done such an effective job of making them beloved and crucial to the fabric of the show.
But death is inevitable on Harper's Island, at least one an episode, remember? And these deaths are gnarly. For a CBS show, the gore is startlingly gross; the episodes aired at 10pm ET/PT to get around censor laws, presumably, and though that probably hurt its ratings, it's hard to lament a decision that brought us such glorious blood, death by pruning shears, furnace, harpoon and chandelier. So the gore is solid, but scares are harder to accomplish, and Harper's Island manages that, too. The season steadily grows in dread, and the cool blue island setting adds to an atmosphere much like Hannibal's, in which the environment and coloring make for a literally chilling viewing experience.
The series is all-around quite stylish, with a retro noir aesthetic that works alongside the cool lighthouse vibe of the thing:
And the best thing I can say for Harper's Island is that it absolutely sticks the ending. You won't anticipate this conclusion, but when it arrives you'll find it satisfying. A rewatch will prove that clues were established from the first episode, but these are so organically constructed into the narrative that you'll never even notice the first time around. And can you say that about a single season of American Horror Story?