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On ‘Harper’s Island,’ TV gore travels to a whole new place

TELEVISION CRITIC

Sometimes a television show is just a television show, and sometimes it’s a canary. A slashed-open, set-on-fire and hung-upside-down-to-die canary.

The 13-episode “Harper’s Island,” which premieres on CBS tonight at 10, has billed itself as a television event. And it is: network television’s first attempt at a by-the-book splatterfest. Agatha Christie, meet “Saw"(film%20_series) for its final-moments-of-torture-porn screams, dripping viscera and blade-meets-living-flesh sound effects. Between the beheadings, bisections, eviscerations, live burnings and hangings, the traditional gore boundaries of network TV are lost amid the blood trails and body count. If only they could have figured out how to do it in 3-D.

It may be shocking, but it isn’t surprising. The popularity of the “Saw” franchise spawned the “Hostel” franchise and dragged from the grave slasher classics including “Friday the 13th,” “The Last House on the Left” and “Halloween.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that audience action?

Clearly CBS does. Otherwise why would director-producer Jon Turteltaub send a group of highly attractive but otherwise disparate group of wedding guests to a remote and picturesque island where, seven years before, a series of gruesome murders took place?

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The murderer was caught but, wouldn’t you know, from the moment the last passenger steps on the flower-bedecked ferry, the killing starts right up again: two remarkably graphic and brutal deaths in the pilot with subsequent episodes proceeding apace as the guest list and cast dwindle to, presumably, murderer and final victim. But a few episodes in, the natural question becomes not who’s going to get it next, but how.

The question is: How will it all play? The gore seems almost intentionally gratuitous -- a body cut in half with lingering shots of the victim’s entrails. It doesn’t make the show any scarier (everyone knows it’s what you don’t see that makes a story truly frightening), just more shocking. And not because we haven’t seen blood and guts before -- one imagines that the audience for “Harper’s Island” has attended its fair share of splatter pics -- but because we haven’t seen this before on network TV.

Certainly TV has been dipping its toe in the ever-widening pool of blood for years now. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime took full violent advantage of non-censor freedom from the get-go -- nowadays, death by baseball bat won’t make their average viewer blink. HBO’s “True Blood” currently takes vampirism to meat-hook, decapitation extremes and “Dexter,” one of Showtime’s hottest shows, champions a serial killer as he tortures and slays, albeit in the name of justice; his day job of analyzing crime-scene splatter patterns seems positively benign in comparison.

It’s not as if the networks have an aversion to gut-wrenching fare. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” in all its forms regularly features horrifyingly defaced corpses, often sexualized (a key element of the slasher ethos) and the CW’s “Supernatural” should simply include Blood and Gore in the cast list. Lately, however, those arterial sprays have left wider and more vivid patterns.

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Because it follows a forensic anthropologist, Fox’s “Bones” gets to play with corpses that have been eaten by lions, stripped by flesh-eating bugs and microwaved to death. On NBC’s “Heroes,” Sylar, who previously had stolen powers with a single, albeit bloody, slash to the forehead, recently removed the cheerleader’s entire upper skull, exposing her brain, while she remained conscious.

A murder victim on an early episode of “The Mentalist” was not just a child, but one whose eyes had been sewn shut (by, it turned out, his own father.) When John Locke broke his leg on “Lost,” we didn’t just hear a snap and him scream, we saw the jagged bone end jutting out of the torn flesh. Several times.

ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” while recently giving us a lesson in acceptance via a heart-warming face transplant episode, felt it necessary to not only show the removal of the donor face, but to lift it up and let it hang there, backlit, for several long seconds, like the handiwork of Hannibal Lecter.

Even “educational” shows like “Dark Days in Monkey City” or the History’s new “Battles B.C.” have adopted the sudden splash of blood on the lens, spatter made popular by video games and the movie “300.”

In that context “Harper’s Island,” with its straight-ahead slice-and-dice setups and unapologetic scream-queen moments, was inevitable. For horror fans, the pilot shows promise, providing the crucial elements of an idyllic setting (more than reminiscent of “Twilight”); a familiar assortment of character types, including the ever-popular natives versus interlopers tension; a few “Blair Witchian” moments (“Oh, look, it’s the Hangin’ Tree!”) and some eerie mood music.

To heighten the blows, “Harper’s Island” is full of all sorts of familiar characters and plot lines: Here’s feisty but damaged Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), who hasn’t been back since her mother was killed in the first spree, and her best friend, Henry (Christopher Gorham), the former deckhand who is about to wed the daughter of the local, and power-mad, landowner. Here’s Abby’s charming old boyfriend Jimmy (C.J. Thomason) (first seen gutting a fish) and his possibly psycho and certainly violence-prone bud Shane (Ben Cotton).

Some may argue that these aren’t deep enough, that the plot lines are not sophisticated enough to warrant the graphic violence. That’s certainly true (though Cassidy, Thomason and Gorham put in very good performances considering the nature of the show), but it’s beside the point.

“Harper’s Island” is a piece of genre, as instantly recognizable as a Fish Out of Water scenario or an Odd Couple setup. In horror, even really good horror, the plot and the characters are there to service the tension and the splat, not the other way around. Occasionally, you can convince Jack Nicholson to do Stephen King, but here the goals are quite a bit more modest.

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“Harper’s Island” does not attempt to rise above the confines of its genre because it’s too busy rolling around in them. It’s tense enough, mysterious enough for those of us who enjoy occasionally watching the screen from behind our hands. But what’s more significant is the fact that it could have been just as effective, possibly more so, without the grisly details, without viewers seeing the victims actually meet their very nasty ends.

So as interesting as the idea of a self-contained series that produces a victim or two a week might be, that’s not the purpose of this canary. This canary is being sent into the darkness to see if splatter can find a home on network television, to gauge the number and effectiveness of the gasps, to see if, and when, those gasps stop -- because viewers have either passed out in happy paroxysms of terror or they’ve just gotten the heck out of the coal mine.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Harper’s Island’

Where: CBS

When: 10:02 tonight

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Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)


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