Dreamcaps, Your Imaginary Shows, Reviewed: ‘Welcome to Islandtown’

Billy Zane in Welcome to Islandtown. (Hulu)
Billy Zane in Welcome to Islandtown. (Hulu)

Dreamcaps is a series in which I write recaps for episodes of TV shows that do not exist. That means I make up absolutely everything, except for the show titles, which are made up by YOU- if you have an idea for a show title you’d like to see recapped, tweet @jennyjaffe! This week’s title comes from @mynameisntdave. Previously: The Fourteeners.

Welcome to Islandtown

SERIES PREMIERE and Episode 1: “Three Hours To Soon”

5 out of 10 

Was there any way Hulu’s new original series, Welcome to Islandtown, was going to live up to its self-made hype? Even if it was impossible to take a bus or order a cup of coffee without Billy Zane’s brooding mug on it for the past six weeks, all the advertising in the world couldn’t prevent the public from predicting what inevitably came to pass: a lackluster premiere, bloated by exposition and self-seriousness, buoyed only by Anna Gunn’s scenery-chewing turn as Zane’s possible love interest and likely future baddie, Zoe.

As you’ve definitely seen in the 15 seconds of advertising you’ve watched a million times before the YouTube video you ACTUALLY want to watch, Welcome to Island tells the story of Alan Quinn (Zane, doing what he can given that he’s unconscious half the premiere episode), a novelist who wakes up in Islandtown, PA- the fictional setting for his bestselling novel. The town appears to be exactly as it is at the start of the book (the titular “Welcome to Islandtown”- also the name of the little-lauded Michael Crichton novel the upon which the show is based), which is bad news for Alan—“Welcome to Islandtown” is a horror novel about a virus that wipes out a town in a government experiment. Alan immediately realizes he either has to get out, or figure out a way to alter the course of events to which his story has doomed the town.

It’s not a bad set-up, and the pilot is littered with all the juicy seeds of mysteries, but it’s easy to see the writing on the wall, and not just the passages of his book that Alan finds secretly scrawled on buildings all across the town. The mysteries in these kinds of shows will always be more interesting than the solutions, even if the show is determined to appear sharper than it is. Hulu has teased that the show will resolve differently than the book, but has kept the details of production such a closely-guarded secret that the cast, besides Zane and Gunn, wasn’t even announced on IMDB. Not that there are any huge surprises. The reveal of Adrian Grenier as Gregory West, the novel’s hero, is played as a gasp-out-loud moment, but all it prompted in me was a half-interested, “Oh, Adrian Grenier’s in this”.

Hulu rolled out both the pilot and second episode, “Three Hours Too Soon” (Shakespeare quote episode titles? Christ, Welcome to Islandtown, who are you trying to impress?), at the same time. Episode two gives us some of the backstory on Zoe, Islandtown’s corrupt mayor, and the real world book editor, Sloane Crayborn, Alan based her on. The toggling between Islandtown and Alan’s real world that inspired it is handled somewhat sloppily, and often it took me a moment to realize which reality we were in. Perhaps we were intentional, and I have to believe that veteran TV director Michael Slovis (most recently of Breaking Bad, reunited here with Gunn) knows exactly what he’s doing. And, by the way, I’m calling an early Emmy nod for whoever it is doing the wardrobe for Gunn and the charming Hannah Marks, as her Audrey Horne-esque assistant.

Through both the pilot and “Three Hours Too Soon”, my biggest question wasn’t, “How’s Alan gonna get out of this one?” but rather, “so is Wayward Pines getting a second season or what?”. It’s an unavoidable comparison, but for all its faults Wayward Pines at least zipped a long a bit more than Islandtown, which drags its feet even in the reveal that Islandtown is Alan’s novel creation, despite the fact that that’s the one thing everyone knows about the show. By the time Alan realizes what’s happening, all that we know about his character is that he stumbles and asks “what’s going on?” almost as well as Pines’ Matt Dillon.

I’d likely stop watching here were it not for an actually interesting moment towards the end of a pilot. As Alan waits for Zoe at the mayor’s office, musing (in voiceover, which, ugh, I don’t even have room to complain about here) that if she looks like the woman he knows she’s based on it will confirm that this must all be in his head, the letters on the posters and books in the background contort, blur, and subtly rearrange. It is genuinely dreamlike, and it raises the question of what reality Alan has actually found himself in. If you’ve read the book (unlikely), you may suspect they are rolling out one of the biggest twists- SPOILER AHEAD- that Alan is in fact in a virtual reality experiment Sloane signed him up for as revenge for his unfaithfulness, much earlier than its literary reveal.

If that’s the case, then maybe Welcome to Islandtown has more in store for us than its uninspired maiden voyage or tepid source material would imply at first glance. Maybe, like the town itself, Islandtown is full of secrets of its own.

Dreamcaps, Your Imaginary Shows, Reviewed: ‘Welcome to Islandtown’