Thanks to Netflix original programming, not only are there more production opportunities, but when a Netflix show is finally ready for public viewing, we’re not forced to wait a week for the next installment and can watch every single episode in a single shot. A nice bonus for folks with little patience – but in the case of the Eli Roth-produced Hemlock Grove, the show might have benefited from the standard release format.
Rather than earn longer legs by enticing audiences to hang on just one more week, a viewer can decide to turn this one off completely after just one two and a half hour viewing – but likely less.
The Roth-directed first episode opens with an introduction to Bill Skarsgård’s Roman Godfrey, by showing off an odd sexual fetish during a quickie in his car. From there, we jump to episode one’s main victim, Brooke Bluebell (Lorenza Izzo), a student at Hemlock Grove High who’s enjoying a little fling with a female teacher. They’re set to meet one night, but before Brooke can get there, she’s viciously attacked and literally torn apart by a mysterious predator.
From the moment Hemlock Grove begins, there’s red flags all over the place. On the technical front, the coloring often doesn’t match, the shot composition isn’t particularly appealing, and the action coverage is entirely disorienting. But, even worse, the first ten minutes are devastatingly poorly formatted. Why open with that strange sexual display that ultimately amounts to nothing, when you could kick things off with more of a bang? Brooke’s death isn’t particularly frightening or original, but her portion of the episode is one of few segments that actually has a somewhat compelling build.
Once poor Brooke’s insides are on the outside, Hemlock Grove falls almost entirely flat in an effort to deliver the basics of the show’s main players. Perhaps it’s just that Skarsgård charm, but Roman Godfrey is intriguing enough. He very clearly has inner demons, but also a curious allure and kindness that sets him up as a winning protagonist early on.
The same goes for the show’s other leading man, Landon Liboiron (Terra Nova). His character, Peter Rumancek (the poor guy who goes through that vicious werewolf transformation), first moves to town with his mother to live in the grungy trailer his deceased uncle left behind. With an assist from a notably appealing and real performance from Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) as his mother, Liboiron easily establishes Peter as a good guy with values – but also someone who’s in touch with his darker side. Ultimately, we end up with two leads harboring a unique combination of good and evil, and that’s intriguing enough to want to learn more.
However, beyond Roman and Peter, few characters make much of an impact by the end of the episode. The biggest letdown is Famke Janssen’s (X-Men) Olivia Godfrey. She’s very clearly pinned as one of the show’s main sources of mystery, but the elements of her character that are revealed in round one are either too cryptic to understand, or entirely uninteresting.
Back at school we’ve got Christina Wendall played by Freya Tingley. There’s nothing wrong with Tingley’s performance, but her introductory scene is full of terribly odd banter with Peter. She goes from outright accusing Peter of being a werewolf to judging him for using the word retard. We’ve also got Roman’s sister Shelley stalking the halls of Hemlock High. She’s a ceiling-high specimen with bandaged hands and hair that covers her face – the exact character you’d hope for from a show like Hemlock Grove. Her backstory isn’t particularly well woven into the main narrative, but her sub-plot is the first thing that piques interest in a manner the entire show should.
Olivia, Roman, and Shelley’s extended family also make an appearance in the inaugural episode – but, yet again, their big moment amounts to nothing. The scene wastes time pointing out that Roman’s cousin, Letha (Penelope Mitchell), is nixing sushi in her effort to avoid mercury, when it could be building her character before hurling her into what should have been one of the episode’s more impressive set pieces: a night when Roman and Letha get to enjoy an entire amusement park to themselves. Regardless, the girl’s name is still Letha, so if you can keep yourself from giggling every time a character says her name (it sounds more like Lisa with a lisp), you might get more out of her than us less mature viewers.
It’s only episode one, so all of this thin character development could have been passable had the episode actually had a through line. Remember Brooke Bluebell? We don’t hear another word about her until the tail-end of the episode. And that teacher she was hooking up with? She disappears entirely. Whereas that opening massacre could have functioned as a developing scenario to push the episode forward while introducing the show’s leads, it’s entirely abandoned and what we’re left with is a set of disjointed moments desperately trying to convey the basics, while still being cryptic.
The end result is a dull and dreary display that barely scratches the surface of true horror and mystery. In fact, minus the hunk of organs that was Brooke Bluebell, the first episode of Hemlock Grove doesn’t really qualify as horror material at all. It’s more of a deliberately dark soap opera comprised of ominous staring and conversations that never really amount to much. For example, after first meeting Shelley, we get this great opportunity to see what life with the Godfrey family is really like when the trio sits down for dinner. However, in just about three lines of dialogue, Roman announces that there’s a new gypsy kid in town, Olivia throws her fork and calls them filth, and the scene comes to an abrupt end, cutting off before getting to what could, and should have been the most interesting part of the conversation.
Fortunately, throughout episodes two and three, the material does become more engaging – but more so because you’ve been in the world for nearly two and a half hours and not necessarily because the show improves. The narrative details never coalesce to make you feel like you’re finally understanding the Hemlock Grove universe, and the shooting style and shot selection further make the viewer feel like an outsider, as there’s often a very heavy hand on the camera.
But what really puts the stake in Hemlock Grove – more so than anything – is that it’s flat out boring. There are certainly moments that work and they’re very easy to identify because once they come and go, the urge to take a peek at the clock returns, and that sensation certainly doesn’t meld with the Netflix binge-watch release strategy.
All episodes of Hemlock Grove arrive on Netflix on April 19th.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.