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ABC's Happy Town is almost anything but -- plausible, absorbing, spooky or entertaining (which is sad)

Sam Neill strives to be creepy again in Happy Town. ABC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, April 28th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Geoff Stults, Sam Neill, Lauren German, Steven Weber, Sarah Gadon, Jay Paulson, M.C. Gainey, Frances Conroy, Abraham Benrubi, Ben Schnetzer
Produced by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg

ABC remains the network of mondo occurrences in out-of-the-way burgs -- or on out-of-body islands.

Twin Peaks and Lost come to mind. As do this season's short-lived Eastwick and Lost's ill-fated 2005 followup act, Invasion. Add Push, Nevada and shower with a wide variety of small town intrigues in ABC miniseries based on Stephen King creepfests.

So it's no surprise that of all networks, ABC now is home to Happy Town. It's a suitably preposterous but largely laughable effort to raise goose bumps in the pall-laden, pale-faced town of Haplin, Minnesota.

Snow's still on the ground, but they're gearing up to celebrate the annual Thawfest. Unfortunately, a murder has just been committed in a fishing shack, its victim left with a spike driven through his head.

Then along comes kill-joy John Haplin (Steven Weber), descendant of the town's founding family and also owner of Our Daily bread factory. He reminds one and all that his eight-year-old daughter, Addie, is still missing after mysteriously disappearing. Other townies likewise have vanished over the years. This prompts town sheriff Griffin Conroy (M.C. Gainey) to remind everyone that "Thawfest is about corn dogs and carousels. It ain't about darkness."

By the end of Wednesday's premiere episode, though, that same sheriff is mumbling gibberish and maiming himself. His son, Tommy (Geoff Stults), soon is commanded to take the top cop job by hardened town matriarch Peggy Haplin (a recurring role played by Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under fame).

Layers of Happy Town's "mythology" are supposed to be peeled back weekly, as with all of those above-mentioned ABC series and miniseries. But after watching two episodes, I easily resisted a third hour available for preview. Not really caring what happens to any of these characters can be a powerful incentive to bail out early. Count on that happening with Happy Town, which just doesn't have much pulling power despite all those ominous references to the unseen but supposedly demonic "Magic Man."

Happy Town's three principal producers all worked on two other quickly evicted ABC series, October Road and Life On Mars. Those with exceedingly sharp TV memories will remember that both Stults and Jay Paulson (cast as a deputy named Eli "Root Beer" Rogers) logged time as regular characters on October Road, which lasted for 19 episodes.

Better known to most TV watchers is redoubtable Sam Neill, who last traipsed through NBC's Crusoe. In Happy Town he plays ridiculously mysterious movie memorabilia shop owner Merritt Grieves -- who's been told to get out of town but doesn't listen.

One of his first customers is Haplin newcomer Henley Boone (Lauren German), who winds up living in a boarding house populated by elderly widows and an alternately cheery, cranky landlady who's hiding something. Then again, so is Henley. As are pizza shop owner Big Dave Duncan (Abraham Benrubi) and babysitter/high schooler Georgia Bravin (Sarah Gadon).

Happy Town also presents the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Stiviletto brothers, a collective group of hee-hawing, drunken knuckle-draggers who make Larry, Darryl and Darryl seem like the Brothers Karamazov.

All of this and more make for a taxing attempt at a riveting yarn that by Episode 2 is already unraveling. And that's before yet another new character drops in to cheese things up even more. He's supposed to be helping acting sheriff Conroy track down the "Magic Man." But he first sends Georgia careening through what looks like a bad acid trip from a Roger Corman quickie.

Would it be giving away too much to reveal that a bird flies through a central character's car window at the end of Episode 2 to the tune of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain?" Inane hits closer to the mark.

GRADE: C-minus