The Pursuit of Happy Town

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It’s not premiering till the end of this month, but ABC’s Happy Town is already garnering plenty of buzz. How could it not, with those creepy ads the network keeps running during Lost’s commercial breaks? For those not sufficiently intrigued, Happy Town’s cast and crew gathered at WonderCon last weekend to offer reporters some insight into the new show. Here’s what actors Amy Acker, M.C. Gainey, and Geoff Stults and creator Andre Nemec had to say.

On the Basic Premise
Happy Town is an answer to what TV is missing—but that answer varies depending on whom you ask. “The one thing that’s missing on television today, among all the shows, is a town, a community,” Gainey claimed. But when discussing the creation of the series, Nemec recalled, “We were talking about how there generally really isn’t a murder mystery on television.” OK, so which is it? Ever the peacemaker, Acker summed it up well: “Happy Town is a small-town mystery, so it’s kind of like two shows in one.”

Care to elaborate a bit? “You’re in this small town where you think you know everybody, but there’s bad stuff happening,” Acker continued, “so somebody who you know and like has got to be the one who’s causing this stuff.” Slightly vague, but you get the idea. The truth is, no one involved with Happy Town wants to give away too much too early. I think Nemec offered the best explanation, in that it was succinct and informative. It also convinced me to set up my TiVo Season Pass: “A murder occurs in this small town,” he explained, “and after it occurs, it forces the revelation of information that people don’t necessarily want to give up. It starts to expose the ugly underbelly of this town.” Now that’s something I can get behind.

On the Show’s Season-Long Mystery
I asked Acker if Happy Town would be a mystery-of-the-week type series, or more focused on a single whodunit. She assured that it would be the latter: “There’s one guy that we’re trying to find.” Of course, things are never quite so simple. While there is a central murder mystery at its heart, Happy Town offers plenty of other loose ends. “Often in shows like this,” Stults noted, “when big questions get answered, sometimes those things create more questions.” I’m sure some of you out there are already shaking your head in frustration. But rest assured, the identity of the elusive Magic Man (see below) will be revealed at the end of the eight-episode season. “The thing that we really went for in this particular series is answering questions,” Nemec consoled. “We don’t want to frustrate the audience.” Phew.

On the Characters' Non-Minnesota Accents
One thing that struck me a tangential remark Gainey made about accents, a side note that he suggested he might get in trouble for discussing. Though all of the show's characters were raised in the small town of Haplin, they don’t share the common Minnesota accent one might expect. Could this be a clue to a larger mystery at hand? “We’ll see if anybody notices,” Gainey said. “How come all these people who grew up in the same town have different dialects? Maybe there’s something at work there.” My mind immediately lit up with possibilities. Is Haplin really a spaceship? Is everyone a lizard alien? Are they on a mystical island? “Wow,” Gainey concluded, “you better reign me in.”

On the Actors’ Genre-Show Roots
Acker is best known to genre audiences for her work on Angel and Dollhouse, both products of Joss Whedon’s expansive imagination. “I am attracted to these shows with mythology, because you get to do so much more,” she said. "I like that the characters really get to evolve." Referring specifically to her role on Angel, Acker reflected: “From Fred to Illyria, and then just even the journey of Fred.... These kind of shows, for me, are so much more fun, because you really get to challenge yourself.” (Fred was a bookish librarian turned crazy by years in a hell dimension; she was eventually transformed into a kick-ass demon fighter. By the series’ end, Acker was playing Illyria, a powerful god trapped in Fred’s body.)

Gainey himself has had a diverse film and television career, but Lost fans know him well as Tom Friendly, one of the most memorable (and sadly deceased) members of the Others. “That character was, to a very small degree, a creation of my own,” Gainey revealed. “He’s the only openly gay character on the island.” Some of us had only postulated about Mr. Friendly’s sexuality, so it was nice to hear confirmation from the man himself. Playing a gay character was a choice Gainey made after reading his line to Kate before she takes a shower: “You’re not my type.” He explained his thought process: “I just thought, if she’s not your type, then maybe Jack and Sawyer are.”

On Complex Characters
Like Acker’s Fred/Illyria and Gainey’s Tom Friendly, the characters on Happy Town aren’t easy to pin down. After all, that’s kind of the point. The series is about seeing past Haplin’s, well, happy façade—and the people who reside there. Gainey plays the lovable grandpa role, something new for him, but he hinted, “I have issues. I have major issues, and as it goes on you’ll find out what those issues are. My character knows way too much.” For Acker, this was one of the show’s selling points. “Instead of just having all of these cookie-cutter beautiful people on TV,” she said, “it’s so fun to be on a show where you get to be the weird girl. It’s not just like everybody’s perfect.”

Stults was similarly drawn to the role of Tommy Conroy because of the character’s complexity. Having played several versions the standard "all-American beefcake" role, Stults liked stepping in as the reluctant hero. “A lot of times on television and film, the lead guy or whatever you want to call him is this hero guy who wants to be the stud,” he noted, “and Tommy, what I found interesting, is he didn’t want to.” Tommy is the son of Gainey’s Sheriff Griffin Conroy, and—until the dark events that begin the series—he has low ambitions. “He’s very reluctant,” Stults said. “He was very content living in his dad’s shadow and not having to be a grown-up, so to speak.”

On the identity of the Magic Man
Obviously no one was eager to spill the beans and spoil Happy Town’s first season. But we’re not the only ones curious. “Apparently everybody knows who the person is except for, somehow, I think I got wrapped a day early and I don’t know,” Acker lamented. “And I’m like, ‘Guys, tell me!’ And they’re like, ‘We’re not gonna tell you! You have to watch the show!’” Guess that goes for the rest of us as well. According to Acker, the Happy Town crew placed bets on the Magic Man’s identity and only one person got it right, so don’t expect an obvious answer. Acker even threw her name into the hat of possibilities. Referring to her past TV work, she joked, “I think this is the first time I haven’t killed somebody. But then again, I could be the Magic Man for all I know. I don’t even know. Maybe I’m killing everybody!”

Happy Town premieres April 28 at 10pm on ABC.