Welcome to a strange place called 'Happy Town'

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Haplin, Minn., where people are friendly, the water and air are pure, houses are lovely, and life is just dandy. Oh, except for that pesky problem about folks disappearing.

This small town is the setting for ABC's drama "Happy Town," premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m.

It's the sort of show best watched weekly or you miss too much. Those who work in television and those posing as insiders tend to love comparisons about shows. Along those lines, expect to hear that this is the latest nod to "Twin Peaks" or it's like "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire."

No, "Happy Town," very much has its own vibe.

"It's like nothing I have ever done before," says Geoff Stults, who stars as Tommy Conroy. "And it's like nothing you have seen on TV. It's about a small town that seems perfect, and underneath that perception is a scary, seedy underbelly of things that go wrong, and it makes you question your relationships. It's dark and scary and going to keep you engaged on television."

He plays the reluctant hero. His father, Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey), the longtime sheriff, goes nuts; not the usual midlife crisis of growing a goatee and buying a snazzy sports car, but he chops off his hand. He calls for a mysterious woman, Chloe.

Tommy is deputized to become sheriff, whether he wants to or not; he doesn't.

Who's your mommy?

In the pilot, Henley (Lauren German) comes to town. She says she's moving here to sell scented candles because her late mother loved vacationing in Haplin. If her mom were a regular visitor, why doesn't anyone remember her?

"Her mom was here, and no one is saying, 'Who is your mom?' " German says. "Somebody would have known her. Even in big, big cities, people do that. I just chalked it up to maybe that would be a big story line at one point."

" 'Happy Town' is a lot of things," German says. "It is a mystery and has a bit of supernatural elements, but it is about the setting. It takes place in a bucolic sort of town, and it's about rural life in this kind of beautiful little town where something just seems off. The people are friendly, and everybody knows each other, but there's something amiss. You find out this town Haplin has a dark hidden past, and it seems as if everybody has tried to forget about the past and move on because everything has been fine for a while."

The perky and nosy real estate agent places Henley in a boardinghouse, a smart setup that gives the show a rich cast of characters. There's the woman who owns the boardinghouse, who warns Henley from going to the house's third floor. She might as well have just handed her the keys.

A few older women live at the boardinghouse, as does Merritt Grieves (Sam Neill), who's channeling Claude Rains' savoir faire but with a sinister mystery. Grieves opens a movie memorabilia shop in town and is fully aware that the boardinghouse widows are aflutter whenever he's around.

His presence, like Henley's, makes viewers wonder why he's in Haplin. They'll also wonder about an odd symbol of a halo and a question mark that shows up; Henley has a tattoo of it. What does it signify?

Missing persons

The biggest mystery is what happened to those who went missing. Are they dead? Have they been abducted by the same person, whom some refer to as the Magic Man?

John Haplin (Steven Weber) is convinced the Magic Man took his daughter. Haplin's mom, Peggy (Frances Conroy), is the town doyenne. Their family owns Haplin's largest employer, the bakery. Peggy believes it's her duty to make the big decisions, such as appointing Tommy sheriff, regardless of protocol or his desires.

The first two episodes weave enough plot lines that "Happy Town" should appeal to cross-demographics. There's a forbidden teen romance between Conroy's townie baby-sitter, Georgia (Sarah Gadon), and Haplin heir Andrew (Ben Schnetzer). Andrew's dad, John, gives Weber a chance to show how well he plays simmering fury. As John's mother, Conroy, as usual, quietly reigns over whatever scene she's in.

The excellent casting also allows fun turns for Neill as the aggressively charming Merritt and Abraham Benrubi as Tommy's best pal, Big Dave Duncan, a well-intended lug.

This small town is so rich in characters that any of them could be the Magic Man or Woman.

"If you are in a small town and something happens, you know that person," says Stults, who grew up in a small Colorado town. "With the show being so spooky, it works so much more in a small town. If a neighbor or your husband or wife or daughter goes missing, you don't know who did it, and you start to question your neighbors and friends.

"The mystery is so deep, and it runs to the very fabric the town runs to," Stults continues. "You know what they say about the Magic Man? He passed you on the street today."

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