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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, it's even more important to remember that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. Plus: as an added bonus, we've got a backlog of passed over pilots - some from this season, some from last season - we'll be tackling as well. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
HARPER'S ISLAND (CBS)
(written by Ari Schlossberg; directed by Jon Turteltaub; TRT: 15:14)
The network's description: "In addition to the new series for fall, the network announced the pick up of two programs for midseason. The new drama, HARPER'S ISLAND, is a murder mystery that unfolds as friends and family attend week-long festivities at a destination wedding on a secluded and picturesque island off the coast of Seattle, infamous for a homicidal maniac's rampage seven years ago."
What did they leave out: "Harper's" turns out to be a very unique pilot presentation. The producers opted to film the teaser (i.e. the first seven minutes) of the pilot script as is followed by a dozen or so key scenes. Together they form an extended 15-minute trailer for the show, instead of an actual pilot. Subsequently, nearly all the roles are expected to be recast (save for the lead character, played by Elaine Cassidy) and incoming executive producer Jeffrey Bell plans to pen a new pilot script. In other words, this is a very long winded way of me saying all, some or none of what you are about to read could end up in the actual show. I should also note that I couldn't place the majority of the actors here so if you don't see a credit, I couldn't recognize them.
The plot in a nutshell: Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy) has returned home after seven years to Harper's Island in order to attend the 10-day destination wedding of her childhood friend Henry Dunn (Ryan Merriman) to his blue blood fiancee Trish Wellington (Samantha Noble). And her ominous demeanor isn't the only sign that there's trouble brewing - Trish's cousin Ben is nowhere to be found and the ferry is about to leave; Trish's dad isn't a big fan of Henry; Henry's rebellious brother has decided to start tossing $100 plates of seared ahi off the side of the ferry; Trish is unnerved by phone calls from her ex Hunter Jennings; the weather is unseasonably gloomy; and of course there's the island's terrible history (which we'll get to shortly). But the good news is Henry's thrilled to see Abby, as are his four groomsmen ("Eureka's" Christopher Gauthier plus three other cats I don't recognize); while Henry's uncle/life-of-the-party Marty (Bill Pullman, yes, that Bill Pullman) has also just arrived, complete with his own mariachi band. Nevertheless, it doesn't take Marty long to begin making eyes at a pretty blonde named Chloe (Cameron Richardson) while her boyfriend Cal (Adam Campbell) leers from behind. But those are all small problems, there's bigger ones at play - like the fact that the absent cousin Ben is actually tied to the ferry's propeller... and the engines have just kicked in. And thus begins the trailer portion of the show: "12 Miles Off The Coast of Seattle... 7 Years Ago, 6 People Were Murdered By John Wakefield... They Were The First Murders In The History Of The Island... They Will Not Be The Last." Cut to all sorts of craziness (and Abby's voiceover) - everything from Abby running into her old boyfriend Jimmy; to images of hanged bodies in the woods; to Cal and Chloe skinny-dipping; to Marty unpacking a gun; to Abby's reunion with her dad the sheriff (Bill Dow); to newspaper clippings about Wakefield's rampage and his connection to Abby (he killed her mom); to a creepy girl talking about a "bad man"; and, oh yes, to the revelation that Wakefield's body was never found. "This Fall On CBS... There's A Whole New Game Of Survivor. But On This Island, Only One Person Is Sent Home... Alive. Everyone Is A Suspect."
What works/What doesn't: My hat goes off to Ari Schlossberg, Jon Turteltaub and company - if I didn't know the aforementioned info (i.e. see "what did they leave out"), I honestly would have assumed the full pilot had been shot and this was just a featurette being sent out to the advertising community in order to keep spoilers under wraps (having also read the full pilot script, I can tell you there's plenty more crazy ahead). It really is that slick - and more importantly, unlike anything you'll see on television next season. Conversely it looks a lot like a teen slasher film you've seen before (girl with sordid past comes home, town is haunted by the memory of a serial killer, etc.). Nevertheless, one can't help - thanks to what's screened here - but be intoxicated by the prospect of applying that formula to television. From the hook that you get "murdered" off the island (natch) to the feeling that there's an intricately structured mythology at work, I'm nothing but hopeful to see the actual show turn up next year. Sure this is all based on footage that probably won't ever see the light of day - in no small part due to the abbreviated pilot process after the strike this year - but I can't help but think that regardless...
The bottom line: ...a real gem is in the works here.