When Netflix decided to take on the networks and the pay cable stations as a producer of episodic television, they unleashed two shows. The better known of the two is the acclaimed House Of Cards, which quickly became a binge viewing favorite for t.v. addicts. The other was Hemlock Grove, a mixture of horror and soap opera that was exec-produced by Eli Roth. It was poorly reviewed by fans and critics but has managed to hang in there, recently announcing it will have a third and final season. A close look at its first season reveals why it is a schlocky indulgence for some and a nuisance for others.
Hemlock Grove takes place in a town full of creepy doings. Once home to a steel mill, it is now attached to an experimental science and hospital facility owned by widower/creepy and mysterious type Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen). She is running the family business and tending to two children, the brooding and handsome Roman (Bill Skarsgard) and the disfigured, hulking Shelley (Madeline Martin). She spends her free time in an affair with town shrink/married brother-in-law Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), who she became romantically involved with before his brother/her husband committed suicide under strange circumstances.
Her already bizarre life gets even stranger when gypsy Lynda Rumancek (Lili Taylor) moves into a trailer on the outskirts of town with her son Peter (Landon Liboiron) in tow. You see, Peter is not only a gypsy but also a werewolf – and his arrival in town coincides with a monstrous murder that could have only been done by something inhuman.
Peter falls into a “frenemies” type relationship with Roman, which becomes further complicated when Peter also falls in love with Roman’s cousin, Letha (Penelope Mitchell), who claims to have been impregnated by an angel. There’s also a Vatican-sponsored monster hunter (Kandyce McClure) and mad scientist Dr. Pryce (Joel De La Fuente), who does strange projects at the hospital and treated Shelley when she was a child…
As the labyrinthine synopsis above reveals, the first season of Hemlock Grove isn’t hurting for plot or characters – and this is both its blessing and its curse. At its best, the show achieves a breathless “what next?” quality as its plot threads bounce of the many monster archetypes (Frankenstein, werewolves, vampires, etc.) that it incorporates. However, the plot is so busy and overstuffed with characters that the show more often gets bogged down in a juggling act, trying to keep all these elements aloft without ever having the time to fully exploit the dramatic possibilities of any element.
A side-effect of this overtly busy plotting is that characterizations often become subservient to its twists and turns, resulting in maddeningly inconsistent behavior from episode to episode and occasionally scene to scene. Roman’s characterization really suffers in this respect: sometimes he’s a spoiled rich brat, sometimes he’s a put-upon underdog and sometimes he’s a monster. It’s also a rather head-spinning change when Letha transforms from a Pollyanna-ish innocent into a horny vixen to pursue Peter.
It could also be argued that Hemlock Grove‘s first season struggles with finding a balance between all the styles it combines in its storytelling: the unwieldy blend of gothic romance, bitchy soap opera, teen drama and all-out horror lurches to and fro depending upon what episode you’re in. Things get dicey in the middle of the season, particularly in an episode where Roman is in a coma: this leads to a series of awkward, contrived dream sequences packed with on-the-nose, Creative Writing 101-level symbolism.
Despite these problems, there are elements of Hemlock Grove that work nicely, hinting at a more balanced version of the concept. A subplot involving Peter’s cousin, a fortune teller named Destiny (Kaniehtiio Horn), is surprisingly charming in its blend of horror-style loopiness and satiric wit. Her scenes are woven nicely into the plotting arc (never too much or too little) and they are always a highlight whenever they pop up in an episode. It’s also worth noting that the season has a gorgeous style to it, with impressive digital photography by Fernando Arguelles that really amps up the gothic mood and an elegant score by Nathan Barr built around a lovely, mournful piano-and-cello main theme.
Another crucial asset for Hemlock Grove is that it has a likeable cast. Liboiron and Skarsgard make interesting contrasts as the show’s two protagonists: Liboiron underplays in a charming manner while Skarsgard does a broader, emotional style that suits the campy nature of his archetype. Janssen uses an odd, Joan Collins-ish accent but smoothes over the rough edges of her characterization through sheer professionalism and Scott is more sympathetic and grounded in his “tormented cheater” role than you might expect. De La Fuente and Horn both pick up on the show’s oft-buried dark comedy undertones and do so with subtle wit.
Overall, you could charitably refer to the first season of Hemlock Grove as a “hot mess.” The rough seams show in many places and the show is often maddeningly inconsistent. However, its “anything goes” approach to plotting and mood ensures that the proceedings are seldom dull. It’s the kind of misguided production that is just good enough to keep you watching to the end, though you may question why you hung in there once the credits roll.