Towns full of secrets have been ripe fodder for movies and TV since time immemorial. The well-worn process for exploring them involves a city fella (or gal) who drives right into the center of town with some problem that'd led to a town full of drawn curtains and curt nods. Discovery of the secret conveniently coincides with the city fella becoming "one of them." When did we see this trope most recently? Why, that'd be Eureka, the compatriot Syfy series entering its fourth season the same night as Haven's premiere (July 9, 2010).
So what separates Haven from other towns with secrets? Does it have its own story?
How to Communicate Secretiveness
While there are similarities in setup with Eureka, these are largely superficial. In its effort to evoke a straightforward, slightly eerie atmosphere, Haven bears a closer resemblance to the previous series based on a Stephen King story, The Dead Zone, with which Haven shares several writers and producers. The structure is inverted -- in Cleaves Mills, Maine, Johnny Smith was the only person with a supernatural gift, and everyone knew his secret; in Haven, there are lots of secrets, and no one's talking.
Still, everyone's genial enough. Around the time you expect the locals to be warning Audrey Parker (Emily Rose) to be heading off back where she came from, the two brothers from the local paper (the droll double act of Richard Donat and John Dunsworth) roll up and start fawning over her like she's the new girl in school.
The secretive nature of Haven is conveyed more subtly than you expect, and the key to this is the excellently balanced casting of the two male leads. On the one hand, there's Nathan Wournos (Eric Bryant), the wry, stone-faced local peace officer who ends up working with Agent Parker on the case of an escaped convict who'd returned home to Haven and suddenly died. On the other hand, there's Duke Crocker (Eric Balfour), the charming, smooth-tongued ne'er-do-well. Each of these characters is a natural deflector, and if anything they see Parker not so much as a threat as a novelty, someone on whom they can exert their skills -- not to mention a fresh rope for their tug-of-war with each other.
A Few Familiar Concepts
Of course there are tropes connected with the boys, too. If I tell you that Nathan's dad is the police chief (Nicholas Campbell), will you be surprised to discover that Nathan has daddy issues? Is it even possible for a kid to grow up and join the force after his dad and not be obsessed with the father's approval, constantly measuring himself against the old man and find himself wanting, or subvert the father's perfect-cop image in subtle and identity-forging ways? We won't find out from Haven, I think.
More worrisome, cliché-wise, is the actual plot of the pilot. I'm not going to give away anything here, but I will express my disappointment that it essentially involves a freak-of-the-week plotline that, in terms of threats to the principals, is half as mild as the most forgettable Smallville episode. Nonetheless, I'm not as concerned as I might be, for two reasons. First, the pilot is meant to be self-contained, despite the fact that Haven is setting itself for a multi-story throughline involving the log-buried Colorado Kid case, which seems to have a personal connection to Parker (an old newspaper photograph turns up featuring a woman who looks just like her). Second, Haven is not an action series -- it's rooted in personalities and relationships that get pushed around by supernatural events. I'm not happy that the plot of the pilot is fairly mundane -- perhaps I'm jaded by decades of witches and wendigos? -- but I understand it. And hope it's not representative.
Excellent Writing and Production
The writing is strong (the pilot was written by Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn, who wrote several late episodes of The Dead Zone): it's low-key, like the town, and solid. The production values are fine: it's believably Maine, for one thing (the costuming helps with this as well). And the guest cast is uniformly excellent -- especially Nicole de Boer, another lovely and welcome reminder of The Dead Zone.
As for Emily Rose in the lead role, I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude. My first reaction is that she's so fresh as to be raw: the 21st-century ironclad necessity of casting twentysomethings as series leads, even if someone with a little seasoning might work better, has placed in this vital role someone who seems slightly inexperienced, slightly unpracticed at conveying the seen-it-all attitude you'd think would be the natural veneer of a "shrewd and confident" FBI agent. But Rose can hold a close-up; her performance overall is sure-footed; and she definitely has some chops. My premonition is that she'll grow with the show, and vice versa.
Balfour and Bryant, meanwhile, are naturals, and they eye each other like rivals who're used to having their nemeses close at hand. With these anchors, the rest of the town is free to be slightly peculiar, whether in supernatural or ordinary ways, and greatest potential of this series is the fun that the writers can have luring the three leads through the dense-packed streets and rocky beaches of Haven, Maine. I'm looking forward to tagging along.