Syfy, Fridays, 9/10 PM


Written by Ann Hamilton

Directed by Tim Southam

In Greek mythology, the king of the gods punished Sisyphus for his crimes by putting him to an impossible task in Hades: he had to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom as soon as he finished. This is more than just a clever metaphor for Friday night's episode; it is Friday night's episode. Soon after an angry confrontation between a preacher and a barkeep, a huge granite ball rolls down a hill, takes a few right-angle turns, and crashes through the front of the bar. Looks like Sisyphus took the day off.

FBI trainee Audrey Parker (Emily Rose, Ghost Whisperer, ER) has decided to toss away her FBI career and stay in the little Maine town of Haven on the basis of a mysterious photograph of a woman who looks like her. Even Spooky Mulder might find that a flimsy basis to make a decision. Perhaps she is swayed by the wooden charms of local sheriff's deputy Nathan Wournos (Lucas Bryant, Dollhouse), whose monotone delivery makes the Buddha look animated. Whereas Rose gives Parker a certain perky charm well offset by an acidulous sarcasm, Bryant's depiction of the literally senseless Wournos would put coffee to sleep. Supposedly Wournos suffers from idiopathic neuropathy and can feel no pain; frankly, I think the guy is just asleep.

Parker and Wournos set out to investigate the rollerball incident. No one even notes that this ball, which allegedly follows the laws of gravity, took several ninety-degree turns in defiance of that immutable law. Butterflies flit through several scenes, making it clear that they are harbingers of doom for assorted victims, who fall prey to cars that drive themselves, religious medallions that act like leashes, and bed covers that turn their users into mummies. I was never sure how much of this was straightforward, and how much was tongue-in-cheek. The wooden acting might be an homage to Kyle MacLaughlin's straight-arrow FBI agent in Twin Peaks—or just plain bad acting. When I can't tell the difference, I blame the writing.

We meet the preacher who was railing outside the bar: it's Stephen McHattie (Happy Town), giving his patented squint another chance to delineate a bad guy. In an attempt to avoid giving offense to Christians, this reverend is rendered as an amalgam of Catholic, roof-raising Pentecostal, and Puritan.  I have to hand it to writers who can manage to offend so many denominations in one character. He is apparently a backsliding alcoholic, who has taken in an orphan boy named Bobby (Ricardo Hoyos, Dino Dan) after his parents are killed, and who rules his grown daughter Hannah (Caroline Cave, Saw VI) with an iron fist. Hannah is trying to shield Bobby from her bullying father, Bobby is trying to block everyone out, the Reverend is trying to throw Wournos and Parker out of town, and meanwhile butterflies keep showing up and Odd Things happen when they do. No one seems to notice that Bobby is looking more and more ragged, except the audience, which saw last week's episode and therefore knows what's going on. Once again, we get the Exceptional Person Unaware Of His Powers. That's in all caps, because I'm sure someone has patented this meme by now.  The ending comes as a revelation only to people who may have missed last week's premiere.

As if recycling the pilot wasn't enough, we get a few soggy hints at a mysterious series of “troubles” in the town's past. I can see a long, dreary season of unraveling these “secrets” ahead of us. So far, the “troubles” only seem to affect Audrey and Nathan. Yawn. One of the reasons The X-Files early episodes were so taut and memorable was that the threat posed in each one was global—aliens out to control our minds, a government conspiracy that kidnapped children. Haven falls flat for two episodes in a row because the stakes are so low.

The truly Sisyphean task for this show is how to make it unique or even memorable. So far, we have the standard Twin Peaks-like small town full of Oddball Characters (who aren't all that oddball), the Crusty Sheriff, and the Mysterious Events. Unfortunately, this watered-down version is a little too nice, a little too bland, a little too (pardon me) Canadian. No one actually dies in these mysterious events. No one is seriously hurt. The stakes are far too low for a show that invests in this much atmosphere. There are good moments—Audrey wrapped up in a cocoon that weaves itself from her bed cover is a good one—but there are some clunky ones, such as Audrey's interview at the food pantry, which nets her exactly nothing. The only thing saving the character of Audrey at this point is her acerbic wit; right now, not even Lucas Bryant's chiseled jawline can save Wournos. His monotonic aspect and delivery are killing the character, and any romantic or sexual tension that is supposed to exist between him and Audrey.

Quirky towns populated with characters who have a Past, who have Powers they may not be aware of. Didn't we see this already? Oh, yes. It was called Eastwick, and it tanked. Haven was down 0.1% from its debut last Friday, but still pulled in over two million viewers. Maybe this is a victory in the eyes of the Syfy Channel programming suits; I call it ominous. This show used Stephen King's name as bait, and has not yet caught me. I am keeping an open mind, however, Warehouse 13 started out pretty low-key and ramped up quickly into a bona fide hit.

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Copyright 2010 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.