Netflix has recently had a rather simple mandate: to fund its own original series under the auspices of well-known creative talent and use its streaming video platform—now ubiquitous in households around the world—as a dynamic delivery mechanism, offering every episode on the same day. No more waiting, no more time slots, and no more viewer fatigue; in fact, the technique removed any sense of delayed gratification, playing to viewers’ innate need to binge and “just watch one more.”
This scheme worked quite effectively with David Fincher’s remake of the British cutthroat political drama House of Cards, which launched on Netflix in February and received much critical adulation. (The company is prepping for an Emmy Awards campaign, in fact.) Numerous media stories were written about the binge-watching movement and whether Netflix’s model would make the broadcast and cable networks cower.
Not yet, anyway. Ahead of next month’s return of Arrested Development, the company today launches its second original series, the bizarre horror drama Hemlock Grove, from creators Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman. (It’s based on McGreevy’s 2012 novel of the same name.) As with House of Cards, all 13 episodes of Hemlock Grove are available to stream today. Which means, if you get hooked while watching the first episode today, you can call in sick to work and plow through the entire season.
With Hemlock Grove, however, that seems unlikely to happen. Fincher’s House of Cards, with its serpentine protagonist, stellar cast, and compelling plot, established Netflix as a major player in the original-series arena, a gladiator competing with the legacy networks and the upstart cable channels. It felt like a paradigm-shifting enterprise that unfolded before our eyes and threw off the shackles of cable providers and outmoded ratings systems. But with Hemlock Grove, one can’t shake the feeling that the streaming-video goliath has effectively stumbled.
Hemlock Grove, unfortunately, is absolutely dreadful. The Roth-directed drama is an almost unwatchable muddle of horror tropes and painfully creaky dialogue. The show is set in an eerie Pennsylvania town that is equal parts Twin Peaks; Twilight’s Forks, Washington; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sunnydale. The brutal murder of a high school student puts the entire town on edge, particularly since it appears that she was ripped apart by a wild animal while en route to a lesbian encounter with her teacher. Two suspects in her killing quickly emerge: Peter Rumancek (Terra Nova’s Landon Liboiron), a Gypsy whom the local kids believe to be a werewolf because of his “quite excessive body hair,” and cherub-faced teenage playboy Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), who isn’t a werewolf but is ... something else.
I’ll be honest: Peter is a werewolf, though he doesn’t really appear to have too much excessive body hair, so the fact that the local kids make this deductive leap is surprising. Roman’s family seems to own most of the town, and the dour scion appears to exhibit some preternatural abilities of his own, but it’s not clear what exactly he is (a vampire?), other than that he has a fascination with blood, particularly during sex, and has some sort of hypnotic or suggestive abilities. Together, the unlikely pair set out to catch whatever it is that is viciously disemboweling women in the town.
Roman’s mother, Olivia, played by Famke Janssen as though she is channeling Madeleine Stowe’s Victoria Grayson through a hazy, upside-down kaleidoscope, is some sort of supernatural creature as well, her darkness symbolized by her haughty indifference, cut-glass English accent, and penchant for wearing black lingerie. Roman’s disfigured sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), is about seven feet tall, with half of her face, with its unblinking and enormous black pupil and boil-like complexion, hidden behind a wall of dark hair. Did I mention that Shelley speaks through an electronic device and wears large gauzy mittens? And that her father believed her to be some sort of demon spawn—and killed himself? Elsewhere, Roman’s cousin Letha (Penelope Mitchell) believes she was impregnated by an angel.
These are but a few of the plotlines covered in the first few episodes, which set up some sort of apocalyptic event that will unfold over the course of the series. Good versus evil, light versus dark, a snake eats its own tail, ad infinitum. The Godfrey clan owns some sort of advanced medical-research company, and every time a scene is set within the research complex—which looks like a cross between a bank and a Manhattan luxury-hotel skyscraper—the momentum goes from merely plodding to deathly tedious. Local teens indulge in sex and drugs, tripping over dialogue that no person outside of a badly scripted horror movie would ever utter. The bodies—and gore—pile up.
I applaud Netflix for wanting to get into the genre programming business, particularly as the broadcast networks haven’t had much luck in that department lately; devotees of science-fiction television know that cable is where it’s at, and the insane success of AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story has proven that there is a healthy appetite for stories and plots that aren’t about doctors, lawyers, or cops. But Hemlock Grove does not feel like a step in the right direction.
Additionally, for a series that reportedly cost $45 million to produce, Hemlock Grove feels awfully cheap, particularly once you get past the quick-cut ricochets between candy-colored sunshine and the hostile gloom of the nighttime scenes. Still, a special-effect-laden sequence in the second episode, in which Peter transforms into a werewolf in front of Roman and his mother (Lili Taylor), is nicely done and surprisingly gruesome with its approach to how his inner wolf emerges from his body. (The wolf itself, however, is less Wolfman and more man’s best friend.)
However, what all of that money has gone to—clearly not dialogue coaches, as the accents exhibited by the cast are all over the place, or script doctors—is unclear from the first few episodes provided to the press. Despite the aforementioned special effects, there’s a distinct flimsiness to the production (that continual close-up of a wolf’s eye is cringe inducing) and a sense that the world it is depicting is less than grounded in anything resembling reality. (Even without looking, one can tell that this was shot in Toronto.)
But production values are a minor quibble when looking at a show as nonsensical and inane as this one. The wooden quality of several of the actors (Janssen, most egregiously) and the strident shrillness of much of the writing allows this already plodding production to wander into the territory of the laughably bad. Horror aficionados may lap this up, but for me, Hemlock Grove is about as appealing as curdled milk.