Harper’s Island ~ A Little Like A Whodunnit

– 13 weeks –
– 25 suspects –
– 1 killer –

Henry Dunn and his girlfriend Patricia ‘Trish’ Wellington decided to get married. It is the story of a workers class boy getting the princess, which is now being fulfilled against the backdrop of the island where he spent his youth. Among the guests is Henry’s childhood friend Abby Mills, who fled from the island after her mother was murdered 7 years ago by a killer who claimed 6 victims. Though the murderer, John Wakefield, was shot by Abby’s father after that incident, strange occurences start to haunt Harper’s island and it seems the nightmare is not yet over…

The 3 lines below the picture were the tagline of the ’08/’09 CBS series Harper’s Island, which was introduced by producers as something like a cross between a And then there were none‘ish whodunnit and a Scream‘esque slasher. So naturally I had to check this one out, because the number of good mystery series (which don’t become too supernatural during their run) is rather low. It is only 13 episodes long and it was good to know beforehand that the series was neither cancelled nor was it ever intended to run longer than this set of episodes. I still tried to keep my expectations low, because the current idea of a mystery in US movies and series’ has been slightly removed from my taste. I think that was a wise move, so I was able to enjoy Harper’s Island quite a lot.

First of all, it is more of a slasher than it is a whodunnit. Though the hints and red herrings are plenty, some developments killed the investigation, either because they revealed things to quickly or because they did not focus on certain aspects enough. It was definitely more focused on building up tension and keeping the thrill-bar high, which is a shame because the mystery wasn’t even half bad.
What I really liked was how certain important things were dropped very early on the show and were hidden well enough that most people noticed them but probably didn’t connect them properly. I would say that it’s possible to solve most of the case around episode 5 , though many important details to provide the how and why still follow.


The characters were pretty well done, at least the central 15 or so suspects. The remaining 10 fulfill their part but never really grow beyond the archetype they are given in the series introduction (see also the character-sheet to the right).
At the beginning I had some trouble keeping them apart, especially all the blond girls, among whom only Chloe really seemed to develop.
There were some pretty funny moments and most characters can really grow on you even though they have their stereotypical motives. I never got around to like Sully though, and that’s not even because he’s an ass of a best man.

Some of the deaths really got to me, because the characters had grown on me. It was not the typical slasher format where you primarily root for the killer to take the annoying cannon fodder out, but some grew into real people who I felt for when they died. And I have to say, they had some guts to go that far on television, no wonder the series’ ratings dropped after a short while.

What I found a bit disappointing, considering it had been quite a well done mystery so far, was how quickly they decided to reveal the culprit in the end.
It’s not like I had no time to figure it out by myself, but they used some pretty good perspective and narrative tricks along the way and suddenly they ditched them all to go for an action and drama oriented finale. They could have went until the final episode without revealing the culprits identity and then going all out, showing some of the last murders in retrospective and still getting the drama. The final 3 episodes still had enough tension left, but I would have liked a more mystery-oriented approach more.

It was a nice ride and with 13 episodes it’s not too long, even though some might say that the first ew episodes dragged a little. My favourite episodes were probably Thwack, Snap and Sigh, but there were many nice scenes throughout the whole series, for example I liked almost all of Madison’s scenes because she played the part of the eerie little girl really well. And although the fortune teller plot was left dangling a little too much, I still liked what they did there.
They also used some very nice mystery-fiction tropes along the way, like people being suspects though already dead, locked room scenarios or the setting of the (almost) deserted island. I also liked the hotel as a setting, because it had a very mansion-like atmosphere to it. Though like I already said many things are solved a little too quickly and things develop a little too hastily, maybe to keep the common TV-person hooked and I wish they had made the island a little bit smaller in exchange for a little more claustrophobia.

The ending was well done and sick enough to be featured in any (neo)classical mystery for that matter. There was one part about it that I would have changed maybe, though there are rumours that the producers wanted to do that but where told it was too harsh for TV. The killer’s motive is quite deranged and though I was able to get most of it before it was revealed, it was still pretty chilling to see it play out in the end. It was one of those scenes where you can’t really decide how to feel and you are just confused, I like it when a plot is able to do that with me.

And as a last thing, I loved the visual aspects of the series. I wish the team who did Harper’s Island would adapt any classical mystery because it looked just so damn good in so many scenes. Yes, they reused almost all the classical horror/mystery/gothic filters there are, but it just fit and it created a very spooky atmosphere. The whole island breathed that deserted island charm and some of the murder scenes (especially the gardening shears murder) looked plain gorgeous. Even the more lighthearted scenes, with their brighter colours, weren’t as obnoxious as with many current slashers which divide the plot too much into light and dark passages.

All in all it was enjoyable, though you have to keep in mind that it is still far from the perfect mystery series. But if you like to have a look at how people can play around with certain ideas and influences from mystery fiction, this is one of those series’ for you. It’s probably still ranking below the enjoyability of Dario Argento’s movies (which I watched because of his influence on e.g. Ayatusji Yukito), but it’s nice to see that some influences are still circulating. And it’s probably the better recent example of And then there were none inspired film-works, after what I heard about the movie adaption of インシテミル ~ Incite Mill.

~ by seizonsha on 2011/04/10.

3 Responses to “Harper’s Island ~ A Little Like A Whodunnit”

  1. Can you elaborate how the ending was supposed to be harsher?
    Enjoyed your review-this series grew on me; I’ve read plan was for subsequent series to have the smae format-a killer picking victims off one by one in different places -eg Harper’s Mountain, possibly w/same cast in different roles.

    • Apparently they had several different ideas that went into a slightly less happy end’ish version of how it ended.
      If you want to know the full spoiler please ask for me to reply per email, because I’d like to keep these entries spoilerfree.

      Just trying to describe it, there was no plan for other survivors beside the killer and the person who was the reason for it all. That person was apparently never supposed to learn the truth behind that special connection to the culprit. A pretty mean-spirited ending which was supposedly why CBS changed it.

      • Thanks-I am spoiler-sensitive-have written an op-ed on the subject recently, but would like a response by email so can discuss how that could have worked given that the killer would have stayed the same-my email is chthompson@jtsa.edu. Thanks.

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