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Harper's Island: The DVD Edition (2009)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 9/8/2009

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/31/2009

This is going to a hypocritical statement, considering the fact that I watch more television today than I have in years, but modern TV sucks. Sure, there are some good shows on today (30 Rock, Lost, The Big Bang Theory), but the overabundance of cable channels and the never-ending reality shows have diluted the quality of television. You hear people say "I've got 200 channels and there's nothing on", and while that's a cliche, it's also completely true. For some reason, the powers-that-be at TV have forgotten how to do BIG things. I grew up in the age of the mini-series and event television. People would clear their calendars to watch things like The Thorn Birds or to find out who shot J.R.. Does that ever happen today? So, kudos to CBS and producer Jon Turtletaub for attempting to bring back event TV by throwing a maxi-series at viewers. The ratings of Harper's Island show that America wasn't too interested, but that doesn't mean that the experiment was a complete failure.

A wedding is on the horizon and celebration is in the air! Lifelong sweethearts Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) and Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) are tying the knot, and they're doing it on Harper's Island, a small isle off the coast of Washington state. Trish's Dad, Thomas Wellington (Richard Burgi), has pulled out all the stops and planned a huge shindig. The wedding party boards a charter boat and heads to the island, where they will stay at the elegant Candlewick Inn, enjoying several days of activities. Reluctantly joining the party is Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), one of Henry's oldest friends. Abby is a native of Harper's Island, and her father, Charlie (Jim Beaver), is still the sheriff there. Abby's mother, and several others, was murdered by serial killer John Wakefield, who was subsequently killed by Charlie. Abby left the island soon after and hasn't returned until now, but she feels that she must be there for Henry. The group arrives on the island, and Abby runs into her old boyfriend, Jimmy (C.J. Thomason). The games and planning begin at the Inn, and everyone is so busy that no one notices when certain members of the party begin to disappear. But, once the dead bodies are discovered, they realize that a killer is amongst them. The survivors soon find themselves trapped on the island, and they must not only attempt to live, but learn the killer's identity.

You would think that as Harper's Island runs 541 minutes, it would be difficult to diagnose the pros and cons of the show. But, you would be wrong. Despite the fact that this is a maxi-series, it basically has one strong point and one weakness. The show's strong point is simply this: it's length and scope. Harper's Island is an Agatha Christie novel (like Ten Little Indians) combined with a Friday the 13th film. But unlike any Jason outing or any murder mystery movie, Harper's Island is able to take its time and really build the story and allow us to get to know the characters. In your average 90-minute slasher film, we barely get a chance to meet the characters and they end up simply being stereotypes. Thus, when they die, we simply don't care. The first few episodes of the show are sort of like this, and there was one murder where my wife and I looked at one another and said, "Who was that?", as the show hadn't had a chance to have us to get to know all of the visitors to the island. However, as the series progresses, this changes. The number of survivors dwindles and we really become acquainted with the characters and when they die, it has an impact. During the last two episodes, there are some characters who have made it this far, and if they were to die, it would be very emotional. The show's length also allows the mystery to really play out. We are fed a ton of red herrings, and while they grow tiresome at times, it's nice to see a show throw everything possible at us.

And now for the show's weakness; the killer. I'm obviously not going to reveal the killer's identity here, but I will say this -- it's disappointing. Again, the show takes its time and builds the tension and keeps us guessing about who the killer can be, and when the killer is unmasked (not literally), the only reaction is a letdown. "Oh really, it's them? That doesn't seem fair." As with any good mystery, Harper's Island wants to lead us down path and suddenly deliver a shock, but the killer's ID is so non-sensical and yet, cliched, that it truly damages the experience.

If you didn't catch Harper's Island when it was on TV, it's certainly worth watching. I wish that it would have done better in the ratings, so as to inspire TV execs to make more unique projects like this. Not only is the scope of the show impressive, it never shies away from violence and is quite bloody for TV (on CBS no less!). Yes, the show is flawed, but fans of mysteries or slasher films will find something to like here.

Harper's Island: The DVD Edition has really creative episode titles on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The 4 disc set contains all 13 episodes of the series. The shows have been letterboxed at 1.78:1 (although it looks more like 1.66:1 on one of my monitors) and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. This show is dark at times, but the DVD is well-balanced and the action is always visible. The colors look fantastic, most notably the lush green forests and the red blood. The image shows only a hint of artifacting and certainly rival HD broadcast quality. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a nice mix, as we get impressive stereo effects, most notably when the characters are in the woods. Crowd scenes and waterfalls create very nice surround sound effects. Gunfire produces subdued subwoofer.

The Harper's Island: The DVD Edition set contains several extras spread out across all four discs. Disc 1 offers an AUDIO COMMENTARY for the episode "Whap" from Jeffrey Bell, Ari Schlossberg, & Dan Shotz. We also get a series of "CBS Network On-Air Promos" which run about 4 minutes. These focus only on the premiere, not on individual episodes. All four episodes contain at least one DELETED SCENE. Disc 2 brings us AUDIO COMMENTARY on the episode "Sploosh" from Karim Zreik, Dean Chekvala & Matt Barr. "Thack, Splat, Sizzle" features one DELETED SCENE. Disc 3 (which contains only two episodes) has all 16 webisodes from the "Harper's Globe" website. There's only one problem -- there's no "Play All" feature. Are you kidding? You want me to cycle through all 16?! Disc 4 has an AUDIO COMMENTARY on the episode "Splash" with Dan Shotz, Cameron Richardson, & Matt Barr. In addition, the episode "Sigh" has COMMENTARY from Jeffrey Bell, Dan Shotz & Christopher Gorham. "Gasp" has one DELETED SCENE. "Casting Harper's Island" (20 minutes) features comments from the producers and the casting directors who discuss the challenge of finding a large ensemble without being able to give the actors a lot of information about their characters. We see some audition footage and get a brief overview of each main character. "One by One: The Making of Harper's Island" (30 minutes) offers a nice amount of on-set footage and comments from the cast & crew. We get to see how certain scenes were shot, and there's also a look at some of the special effects. "Guess Who?" (3 minutes) has comments from those involved as they discuss the fact that even they don't know who the killer is. "The Grim Reaper" (3 minutes) is a humorous look at how the actors learned when their character was going to die.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long