Hemlock Grove Season One
Directed by: Eli Roth (1.1), Deran Sarafian (1.2-3, 1.6-7, 1.12-13), David Semel (1.4-5), David Straiton (1.8-9), & T.J. Scott (1.10-11)
This weekend saw the debut of Netflix's third original series with somewhat mixed results. Hemlock Grove is a thirteen-episode adaptation of the novel by the same name by Brian McGreevy (who is on-hand as series developer and co-writer), involving werewolves, high-school, sex, drugs, murder, magic, drinking, smoking and genetic manipulation. With vampires, too. Sort of. Barely. How in the hell could that go wrong?
Well, the first episode was directed by producer Eli Roth, and sets the tone for the next twelve episodes. One would think that would be a good thing, since despite what you think about Roth, he excels at crazy-ass horror. Unfortunately, the tone established is not really a tone they should have stuck with.
In fact, it was a remarkably pedestrian outing, given Roth's pedigree. It lacked any of the over-the-top sensationalism that we've come to expect from his work and that would have been very welcome here. Instead, he tries to capture a Twin Peaks meets True Blood vibe that just never really coalesces. It's not just with the pilot, though. Over the course of the season, no matter which name is on the director's chair, Hemlock Grove falls short; although David Semel's episodes four and five do hit the target. They stand as a model of what the series should have been.
Instead, the rest of Hemlock Grove ends up being a middle-ground between a generic CW show and True Blood, but without the personality or camp of either. Overall, it is a remarkably and surprisingly humorless affair; unless you count chuckling at bad wigs, shoddy make-up, and a particularly awful bald wig in the final episode. The dialogue is at times cringe-inducing, but every now and then the actors do settle into a bizarrely surreal banter that with better material could have been something special.
There are good performances buried in the muck. Fake Janssen's ice-queen matriarch of the Godfrey clan, Olivia, is worth sticking around for, as are the all-too brief appearances of Lili Taylor as Lynda Rumancek, the Gypsy mom of our teen-wolf, Peter. Peter is played with spirit and charisma by Landon Liboiron (although, if characters are going to keep commenting on how hairy Peter is, they really should have cast someone with body hair). His partner-in-crime, Roman Godfrey, heir to the Godfrey Empire is played by Bill Skarsgård, who does his damnedest to channel his brother, True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård, right down to the mannerisms, costuming, and lanky lounging around the scene. It's not how I would have cast, just for the similarities in the roles, but he does a good job with it. Rounding out the rest of the cast is Dougray Scott as Norman Godfrey, the town psychiatrist and brother-in-law/sex toy to Janssen's Olivia.
We also have a Battlestar Galactica mini-reunion with Aaron Douglas as Sheriff Tom Sworn and Kandyse McClure as Dr. Clementine Chasseur. Both characters give their all, but the material and direction lets them down. They both have ample opportunity to provide a much-needed element of camp and/or eccentricity to the proceedings, but they aren't allowed to move in those directions. Instead, Douglas has to play it straight as the small-town sheriff who meets with tragedy then goes all grim and crazy. And McClure unconvincingly flirts with alcoholism while working undercover as a Fish and Wildlife Agent when she really works for a mysterious religious group with ties to the Knights Templar, called the Order of the Dragon.
They hunt monsters.
Or at least, they're supposed to. All that really happens in Hemlock Grove is McClure knows things she can't tell the locals, drinks, engages in lesbian trysts, and apparently has a crisis of faith that is never really explained or explored.
Her character is a completely missed opportunity. As are the characters of Letha Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell) – daughter of Norman and cousin of Roman – who believes she's been impregnated by an angel; Shelly Godfrey (Nicole Boivin and unnamed body double) – daughter of Olivia and sister of Roman – the gigantic, misshapen-but-beautiful-on-the-inside, mute-but-sensitive-poet teen who literally glows when strong emotions are directed her way (something to do with phosphorus infused with her DNA during the procedure that brought her dead baby corpse back to life!!); Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley, who wins for best name in the cast), the teen wanna-be writer who gets a little too curious about werewolves for her own good; and Dr. Johann Pryce (Paul Popowich), the brilliant scientist with the permanent condition called Hysterical Strength (the adrenaline surges that make feats of strength possible in moments of extreme stress are how he exists normally???) who heads the Godfrey Institute's research, particularly the mysterious Ouroboros project.
The elements are all there, dammit! Why don't they work?
Well, if you want to make something that blends Twin Peaks with True Blood, you really should look at those shows to see why they work(ed). Both shows never shy away from being bat-shit crazy and both shows never shy away from playing up the humor. Hemlock Grove shies away from both as fast as it can. It's as simple as that.
I don't know if the creators think that the Twilight generation wouldn't get the joke, or if they didn't get the joke themselves. Either way it ruins what could have been a gloriously absurd horror series that would have left me clamoring for more. As it was, if it hadn't been for the novelty of being able to watch the entire series at once, I probably wouldn't have finished. If I'd had to wait a week in-between episodes, there's no way I would have stuck around till the end.
Which raises an interesting point. This Netflix model is an strange one. I don't know anyone who said anything, good or bad, about LIlyhammer (but a second season is on the way), and House of Cards was satisfying despite a lull in the middle, mainly thanks to a virtuoso performance by Kevin Spacey (it also already has a second season in production). In a month or so, Arrested Development returns and later in the year we get Ricky Gervais' Channel 4 series, Derek and after that, the women's prison comedy, Orange is the New Black. Next year they plan on releasing Jose Padilha's Narcos and JMS & the Wachowskis' Sense8 along with, I assume, those second seasons of Lilyhammer and House of Cards.
Releasing the entire seasons at once means that traditional episodic storytelling isn't as necessary as it might be on a network show that needs to keep viewers coming back week after week. Hemlock Grove pays lip-service to tradition, yet most of the episodes begin literally just moments after the final shot of the previous one. The pacing is more relaxed, but still feels tied to that episodic structure weekly television normally requires.
Netflix seems to be stuck in the traditional mode of storytelling, despite the seemingly relaxed approach to storytelling. The HBO model, where the storytelling is novel-like, would have served better here. Game of Thrones doesn't bother itself with television tradition. It tells its fucking story and expects you to keep up. If you're adapting a novel for television and you've got thirteen hours to do it without worrying about ratings, then go for it. Tell your fucking story the way it needs to be told. Don't force things into an unnatural structure. Concentrate on breaking the story up the way you would when deciding on chapter breaks.
This model demands a shift in tradition. This story demands a shift in realism.
I know Roth and company saw Hemlock Grove as the next step forward in what the Twilight audience might be looking for, but they seriously miscalculated how to present it. And that's not even taking into consideration the fact that Hemlock Grove is a boy's story for boys, rather than what the Twilight audience might find interesting. If they had geared this towards thrill-seeking boys instead of somehow thinking that teenage girls would want to see Famke Janssen getting her pussy eaten, then maybe it would have had a chance.
Hemlock Grove is just one missed opportunity and misstep after another, occasionally stumbling into something cool and interesting, but more often than not, demonstrating a remarkable lack of understanding about just who its audience is and what they want to see on the
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories,Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at@PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.