Features and Columns · TV

‘Harper’s Island’ Was Just a Little Ahead of Its Time

The anthology horror series just missed out on a trend which resulted in likeminded shows finding success on the small screen.
Harpers Island
By  · Published on April 7th, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.

Anthology shows have been quite commonplace on television and streaming services over the last decade. The trend took off in 2011 when American Horror Story burst onto the scene and dedicated entire seasons to a different scenario and spooky subgenre. Since then, shows such as Fargo, True Detective, and American Crime Story have also focused on telling a brand new story with each season.

A couple of years before American Horror Story gave new life to the horror anthology, however, Harper’s Island tried to bring it back from the dead. Much like its more successful counterpart, Harper’s Island was a season-long anthology that was dedicated to a single story. However, the show only lasted one season, and the show’s long-term potential died in its tracks.

That’s a shame. Despite not being able to survive in a crowded television climate, Harper’s Island was a lot of demented fun that’s just as good as some of the more successful likeminded shows that followed in its wake.

Produced by CBS, Harper’s Island is a murder-mystery tale about a killer on the loose on the titular island, which has a dark history following a series of grisly murders that rocked the community years before the events of the show take place. However, when a wedding party gathers on the island for Trish (Katie Cassidy) and Henry’s (Christopher Gorham) big day, only to start getting off-ed, they soon discover that history is repeating itself, even though the serial killer is supposed to be dead.

The series is anchored by Abby (Elaine Cassidy), a former resident of the island who left at the behest of her father following the murders, in which her mother fell prey to the slasher. She already feels weird about returning home and having to bump into her ex-boyfriend and deal with her overprotective father, who is also the local sheriff. But at least the series of slayings that coincide with her visit take her mind off of making awkward small talk with figures from her past.

Harper’s Island didn’t break new ground. Other than bringing the slasher movie format to a television series — before shows like Scream, Scream Queens, and Slasher did so a few years later — it was a simple whodunit with a bloody punch. That said, the show was rooted in a fun mystery that kept you guessing throughout, and each episode disposed of another victim in a bloody, satisfying way.

Slashers and murder-mysteries have enjoyed longevity in pop culture because the good ones are always fun and scary. Despite their horrifying subject matter, watching characters being brutally massacred by an unknown assailant provides thrills and chills while keeping us invested until the killer is revealed. Harper’s Island didn’t try to change up the formula, but the show was packed with twists and turns.

Harper’s Island started out with a cast of 25 characters, all of whom could have been the killer. Furthermore, most of the characters were presented as potential culprits. However, the show also did a great job of suggesting that maybe the old serial killer who haunted the island years before survived certain death. If slashers have taught viewers anything throughout the years, it’s that the killer rarely ever truly dies. Sometimes, though, they inspire copycats. Anything was possible.

The one-off nature of the season also meant that no character felt safe from harm. This added more excitement to the carnage, as there was no telling who’d be next. While the show didn’t go completely off the rails and kill off major characters in a Game of Thrones kind of way, it did feature some unexpected deaths all the same.

CBS also made efforts to engage the online community with a web series called Harper’s Globe, which was based around the island’s newspaper. The series also featured characters from the show and complemented what was going on in Harper’s Island. While the web series wasn’t essential viewing, the network’s desire to expand the show’s presence online was a good idea in theory, and probably one that would be more well-received in today’s online climate.

Unfortunately, Harper’s Island wasn’t a ratings sensation and the show was canceled as a result. However, the creators did have plans to make more seasons that focused on a different setting each time. Jon Turteltaub, the show’s executive producer, revealed some of these plans in an interview with the New York Times:

“Our hope for the show is that it becomes an anthology that continues in 13-week spurts. Maybe there’s Harper’s Safari, where people have crash-landed in the jungle, or one where there is a boat that is lost at sea.”

Harper’s Island deserves a revival to implement some of these ideas. If the show came about in a post-American Horror Story climate, it could have been more successful. With anthologies now en vogue and slasher shows also proving to be quite successful in recent years, a new incarnation of Harper’s Island would have a lot of potential. And that’s what makes this one Petition Worthy.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.