Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I liked Hemlock Grove.
Honestly, it’s really a matter of personal taste. Twilight resemblances aside, Netflix’s fanged debut American horror-thriller series isn’t for the faint of compliance. Impatience has no place in this seedy town. It isn’t here to satiate your immediate story needs (though it might, if you’re abiding). This demographically unkind diss also applies to the scare-hungry scads of Eli Roth fans expecting torture-porn hyperbole (a la Hostel I and II). Roth serving as executive producer of the show and director of episode 1 is a tad misleading. His involvement conjures up certain expectations, but Hemlock Grove‘s most disturbing moments of viscera occur in painstakingly measured doses.
The writers’ storytelling methods smolder rather than burn. They almost defiantly stand in a narrative interstice where flowers wilt in real-time — not unlike what we’ve seen in HBO’s prematurely unplugged Carnivale, the plot almost takes a backseat to atmosphere. Existing somewhere between waking, linear consciousness and a Southern gothic exercise in anachronism, Grove merely employs the girl-murder mystery trope (first rendered thematically complex in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks) as a thin smokescreen for cryptozoological archetypes, corporate pseudo-bioengineering, and obscure occult orders that playfully splice esoterica with Catholicism.
Based on the titular novel by Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove concerns the strange case of an Elizabeth Short-esque young girl (one of an eventual gaggle), found mutilated beyond anthropomorphic description in the woods of a remote burg in Pennsylvania. While it all reeks of murder (and, well, putrefaction), the body has authorities baffled. Was it eviscerated by a wild quadruped, or Edward Scissorhands on PCP? Like a police lineup, the show steadily racks up its suspects. Could the culprit be an escaped abomination from the White Tower, a state-of-the-art biotech facility where freaky biological experiments are thought to occur? (Think Massive Dynamic in J.J. Abrams’ Fringe). Could it have been the town’s favorite semi-hirsute hipster gypsy, Peter Rumanceck (Landon Liboiron), a barely law-abiding outcast and alleged part-time werewolf (think Teen Wolf meets New Moon meets Clive Barker’s willingness to gross you the fuck out in the ’80s)?
Could it be high school playboy Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård, playing debonair son to late steel tycoon JR Godfrey), the morally disaffected adolescent prince of Hemlock Grove and scheduled inheritor of the White Tower? What about town matriarch and suspiciously inhuman Olivia (Famke Janssen), Roman’s weirdly svelte Machiavellian mother? While we’re talking about the Godfries, should we add Roman’s darling gentle-giant sister, Shelley (brilliantly nuanced by Nicole Boivin), to the list? That the show openly introduces viewers to Shelley’s unfortunate franken-deformities (Mary Shelley allusion notwithstanding), would-be detectives remain skeptical. Soon a manhunt of macabre ensues, both by officials and vigilantes alike. Mental note, aspiring heroes don’t have to qualify as human to chase a killer.
Amidst it all, we have gag-inducing gypsy voodoo and a sleight of soap opera subplots involving a sordid affair between Olivia and town psychiatrist Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), paterfamilias to Letha Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell). Her cousin, Roman, has a kinda-incestuous crush on her. Letha’s affections (Roman’s prime call to gentility) are nabbed by Peter’s trailer park good looks and unwitting charms. There’s a two-episode stretch of Jerry Springer drama here, but it ultimately proves inert. Arguably, “incest” plays a loosely defined role throughout the whole ensemble. Each character (bit cast or not) has a stake in someone else’s story stream, creating a bestiary of causes and effects. Unfortunately, the writers often fail to make these connections compelling, merely exploiting them for shock value.
I refuse to spoil the fun, though– because as kitschy, tacky, and frustrating as all this might sound, Grove is a lot of wicked, naughty fun. Shows like these have the survival instincts of a lemming. Season 2 typically defines their death knell. They’re lucky to generate the viewer ratings they seemingly disregard — like the cool, cigarette smoking high school pariah whose shtick is to pretend he doesn’t like you. But if FX’s relatively successful American Horror Story series is any indication, we are rediscovering the analgesic glow of creepy, twisted yarns, one that lures our retro Salem’s Lot experience out of hiding. There you are, a teenage mess of pubescence, lying by the proverbial lamplight in the quiet of your bedroom, feverishly eating through chapter after chapter. And therein lies the industry-shaking beauty of a Netflix series: The freedom to binge on the entire season of a tier 1, debut TV series and scratch the cliffhanger itch until it breaks skin and scabs over.
I worry as the era of the “non-story-arc” episode deliquesces into obsolescence. It’s like when hotdogs started being sold without mystery fillers and additives.
I can’t say Hemlock Grove hits every crescendo sans falsetto. The writing is contrived, the props are not atypical, and the acting is curiously dilettantish, almost in spite of its handsome cinematography and haute production value. The dream sequences and flashbacks the writers recklessly throw at your living room often muckrake in amateur indulgence (excess camera filters abound). Yet, for this brooding daydreamer, Grove consistently has me asking, “why can’t I stop watching?”
Rubbish or not, it engages — if not by its slapdash storytelling techniques, then by its visuals alone. There is a surplus of voyeurism, sure. Scenes of Roman’s masochism are, in short, rather gratuitous (“hey, we’re competing with HBO here”, says some Netflix exec). Granted, the show’s sexual bravado largely advances characterization; but it concurrently exists to unsettle, or hastily belie expectation. Don’t expect the moral complexity of Don Draper. It’s mostly potboiler fare from here.
By the close of its 13th episode, there are story strings we’ve yet to see fully unravel (its corporate biotech spookery and storybook cryptids too massive to squeeze into one season), and frankly, that’s OK for a debut series. Be forewarned, though, season 1’s big reveal is shoehorned and anticlimactic. As weathered TV viewers, we’re all too often force-fed “last-minute” revelations as omniscient spectators. This technique doesn’t impress as much as it underwhelms, these days. When the killer is finally ID’d, we don’t really care. Why? The show lacks the retroactive clues that make the guesswork any fun. While episode 12 had me riveted, is it worth your price of disappointment? I can’t say. I’m a mule for the genre; ergo an unreliable critic. Personally, I won’t be going back to Hemlock Grove for its messy shortcomings in story exposition, I’ll be coming back for its lurid color palette, its unabashed schlock, its photography, its moody atmosphere. For a show like this, it’s more about the journey — a TV curio whose means occasionally justify its head-scratching ends. So let’s agree to disagree.