Why almost everyone on CBS' Harper's Island is doomed

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Producers of CBS' upcoming 13-episode horror/mystery series Harper's Island told SCI FI Wire that the show is an unusual experiment for American TV: a scripted drama in the shape of a Survivor-like reality series in which a person dies in every episode, as well as a limited-run series that tells a single complete story.

"It's a who and a why, and honestly anyone could die at any moment, and someone dies every episode, and by the end of the series pretty much everybody is dead," said executive producer Jeffrey Bell (Angel) in an interview at WonderCon in San Francisco over the weekend.

CBS describes the show as the story of a group of family and friends who travel to a secluded island off Seattle for a destination wedding. Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), whose mother was killed on the island by a homicidal maniac's rampage seven years ago, journeys home for the first time since the horrific event for the wedding of her best friend, Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham). Henry, the boy next door, is marrying the woman of his dreams, Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy, no relation to Elaine), a beautiful and wealthy heiress.

As the wedding festivities begin, friendships are tested and secrets exposed as a murderer claims victims, one by one, transforming the wedding week of fun and celebration into a terrifying struggle for survival. By the end of the 13 episodes, all questions will be answered, the killer will be revealed and only a few will survive.

Jon Turteltaub (Jericho) and Bell (Alias) are executive producers; Karim Zreik (Jericho), Dan Shotz (Jericho) and Tyler Bensinger (Cold Case) are co-executive producers, and Ari Schlossberg (Hide and Seek) is co-executive producer and creator.

Following is an edited version of our interview with the producers. The show debuts Thursday, April 9, at 10 p.m. ET/PT and concludes July 2.

This is unique, more like a British TV series than an American one.

Bell: And that was really fun. Because, you know on, on Alias, you knew Jennifer Garner was in peril, but you knew she wasn't going to die. Well, in this, those people over there [points to cast members], ... no one was hired for the whole season. Everyone was hired minimally, like, what we could do to secure them, and then it was all week to week after that. And nobody knew when they were going to die. We didn't tell them until the week they were going to die, and this was a very well-behaved cast. But it was fantastic. Everyone was really excited, and it was a murder mystery. And each week who was going to make it, who not? And everybody got really close.

Shotz: And when you're killing off leads, we as writers got so attached to these characters, because they're your leads. They're the people you're focusing on each week, and all the time you're constantly just upset. ... We would say, "No, we can't do it! ... We can't kill this one!" And then we did it, and because we liked that character so much we're like, "No, it's the right time to kill them." ...

Bell: Over 13 episodes, we feel that character had a really great arc. No one starts off as they started. And so you think, "Oh, he's kind of, he's a frat boy, or he's this." And by the end, saving lives. Just, you know, that was really fun. ...

I've seen the pilot, and there's hints or suggestions of genre elements to it. There's a Twin Peaks vibe, or a horror movie vibe.

Shotz: I would say all of that. When we started talking about this, we, you know, we're fans of horror, but at the same time we're really fans of the murder mystery, and ... most people in the business who are writers, Jeff always talks about, loves, Twin Peaks. It's such a special show. And so, this wasn't intended to be anything like Twin Peaks, but we see there are elements that are, that are similar. ...

Bell: We tried not to consciously mimic that, because we aren't David Lynch. ...

You introduce some of the genre elements early on, like Lost. Do you guys take care to not make any promises?

Bell: Well, no, at the beginning you don't know whether it's supernatural or not, and we don't do anything that we can't buy back. ...

Zreik: We don't cheat.

Bell: Yeah, and as a friend of all the writers on Lost, I'm not saying that they cheat, because I love the show very much, which I do. But we're very different in that we're 13 and out. And so, when we were building it as a murder mystery, we knew that, like, you can't do Friday the 13th. Because we couldn't do just a body-count show, because you get bored. ... We didn't want it to be super-soapy, so we tried to find a balance. ... Twin Peaks, not a lot of people died. It was really what happened to Laura Palmer. And honestly it would be like, Laura dies one week, and the next week her dad would die, and then the next week some other high-school kid would die. ... The show starts a little soft, because it's a wedding. Did you see the whole thing with the ending? ...

There are teases of what's to come. But by five or six episodes in, the tone of the show is completely different, and it's people running through the woods covered in mud and blood, screaming, fighting for their lives. ... We have to have the wedding. We have to work towards the wedding. ... We had to keep the murders a secret for a while, because if you come in and, let's say, for instance, the best man got killed in the second episode, the wedding would be off. So then why doesn't everybody leave?

Doing a show with so much bloodletting on CBS, which is known for attracting a more mature audience, how tricky is that?

Zreik: ... We sold a great concept to a show. We showed a great pilot presentation. But we knew that CBS was the buyer, so we had to cater to that network. And they'll testify, the network notes we used to get back, after reading stuff that they would watch scripts and, after they'd read scripts and watched [it], the cuts were endless, you know? "Cut that scene down three seconds. Take the blood out of this, don't show that." We knew that going in.

Bell: Standards and practices.

Zreik: Standards and practices. And we knew that going in. And we catered to that as best as we can. But I don't think ... we ever sacrificed the tone of the show by doing that.

You got a severed head in the first episode.

Bell: Exactly.

Shotz: You need a severed head!