TV, Interrupted: Harper's Island Was A Slasher Event That Died Young

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

"And Then There Were None" knockoffs are everywhere. The classic Agatha Christie novel was published in 1939, and the murder mystery genre has never been the same since. And while Christie's novel wasn't exactly a slasher (its party guests are mostly killed off-page) it's undoubtedly a touchstone for horror's goriest genre as well. People reveal their true selves under tremendous pressure, so the idea of putting a group of disparate strangers in one place and picking them off one by one is all but irresistible for character-driven horror writers.

Enter Ari Schlossberg and Jon Turteltaub's "Harper's Island," a short-lived, massively entertaining horror series that knew the tried-and-true Christie formula had bloodbath potential. Originally marketed as a thirteen-week limited TV event, the series gamified its whodunnit mystery, even going so far as to create a game board-like poster featuring its sprawling cast. Who will be killed? Who is the killer? Circle them in red and watch the mayhem unfold! Never one to underdo it, "Harper's Island" also used onomatopoeic episode titles ("Ka-blam!" "Gurgle!") to hint at the often-over-the-top nature of each week's death.

The show ran for a single season on CBS, and plans for a second season were so rarely mentioned that most viewers figured it was meant as a one-and-done. The show may not have been built to last, but "Harper's Island" remains a gory, silly, propulsive, and ultimately awesome touchstone in horror television for the fans who have been lucky enough to discover it.

Why Harper's Island was great

Buried beneath its kill-a-week gimmick, "Harper's Island" has an excellent plot. The show follows a reserved young woman named Abby (Elaine Cassidy) as she returns to the Pacific Northwest island where she grew up for her best friend Henry's (Christopher Gorham) wedding to a woman named Trish (Katie Cassidy). When the series starts, Abby hasn't been home since a man named John Wakefield went on a killing spree that traumatized her family, including her dad, Sheriff Mills (Jim Beaver).

The show's ever-dwindling cast of characters starts out as a mash-up of archetypes and oddities. Some are typical, like creepy kid Madison (Cassandra Sawtell) and Abby's reliable high school sweetheart, Jimmy (C.J. Thomason). Others are entertainingly offbeat, like edgy emo adult J.D. (Dean Chekvala) or endearingly unlucky posh Brit Cal (Adam Campbell). When the wedding party starts falling prey to a series of brutal murders, Abby fears John Wakefield's return — and the guests start to point fingers at each other.

"Harper's Island" is a veritable Matryoshka doll of goofy plot points and stone cold thrills. People get sawed in half, killed by chandeliers, and harpooned in the chest. The killer is nearly impossible to guess, because for a long time, their only goal seems to be entertaining the people watching "Harper's Island." But if you think it's unrealistic or stupid, just wait, because a joyfully disgusting kill or surprisingly emotional gut punch will be just around the corner.

The show starts as a sprawling, red-herring heavy ensemble piece, but narrows down into a lean, mean thriller. By the final stretch of its thirteen episodes, it's transformed into a relentless and genuinely shocking horrorshow that'll have you screaming at the characters on screen. This is a series with shocking highs and ridiculous lows that, more than almost any other I've seen, is a straight-up joy to watch with friends. Once you've been through "Harper's Island" together, you can go through anything together.

Along with the talented core group of Elaine Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, Gorham, Beaver, Thomason, and Campbell, Cameron Richardson puts in a memorable, cheer-worthy performance as resilient bridesmaid Chloe. It's no wonder every horror fan I've spoken to who caught "Harper's Island" defends it as a new cult classic; the series gives its characters room to grow, so that by the time we finally reach the pulse-pounding killer reveal, we love our Final Girls and Guys way more than we would if given only 90 minutes to get to know them.

Why Harper's Island was canceled

"Harper's Island" was ahead of its time. It debuted right before "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story" brought horror back to TV in a big way. It was also born into an era in which the limited series category of the Emmys wasn't the creative hot ticket it is now, but mostly a period piece-heavy snooze-fest ("Little Dorrit" won the Emmy that year).

All of this is to say, "Harper's Island" didn't connect with audiences when it premiered in 2009. The show has a 65% Rotten Tomatoes score, based on reviews that I assume take into account the soapy, campy early episodes and not the rollercoaster back half (full seasons of network shows usually aren't available to screen for review ahead of time). "Harper's Island" was admittedly a tough sell. It's hard enough to pitch a movie that's gonzo, gory, and epic all at once and get your friends to watch it; doing as much with a 13-hour TV show on a channel known for procedurals seems all but impossible.

The show quickly moved from its Thursday time slot to Saturdays, before being canceled altogether. It wasn't a particularly acute loss for fans of the series, since murmurs of a second season were never finalized and the first season's plot was able to entirely wrap up with a killer finale. But while the story may have been wrapped up, the format of "Harper's Island" was designed for more than one season.

Unfinished business

A few key characters made it off Harper's Island once the blood had dried, but there's no indication they would have returned if the show had been renewed for a second season. In fact, the series was apparently originally planned as an anthology series. Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice wrote briefly about the concept:

The series was originally designed as a 'Survivor'-style anthology; the show could reinvent itself with a new locale and fresh players each season but the conceit would largely remain the same, i.e. a killer's on the loose and he/she is racking up victims over a 13-week period.

It's tough to say what a second season of "Harper's Island" would have looked like. Its general premise is certainly a narratively fruitful one, and it could theoretically keep going with slashers set among groups of strangers at, say, a ski resort, or amidst a tropic beach getaway. But the genuinely great parts of the show, including the compelling core cast and Abby's macabre backstory, wouldn't be replicated with another season. Neither would the utterly singular viewing experience — the humbling whiplash that comes with making fun of something seemingly stupid only to realize soon after that it's also extremely fun.

Will Harper's Island ever return?

From where I'm standing, "Harper's Island" is unlikely to make a comeback, in large part because it didn't seem to get enough eyes on it to make it a worthy creative risk for networks. And while every "Harper's Island" fan I know is a die-hard "Harper's Island" fan, we still seem to be few and far between. I've been wanting a touristy "Visit Scenic Harper's Island" T-shirt for years, but whenever I search Redbubble, a fandom-centric merch site with millions of unique products, it comes up empty. Until the show gets enough fans to cultivate even a little bit of fanart, it likely won't stand a chance at being successfully revived.

"Harper's Island" might never come back, but the specific joy of watching it for the first time can be replicated. I know because I've thrown it on at three different friend get-togethers and counting. What starts as a fun chance to make fun of wacky red herrings and mark off suspects on one's character card turns into an all-night marathon of melodrama, gore, and a surprisingly intense level of personal investment. I promise, it's never too late to join the cult of "Harper's Island."