Hemlock Grove is the third series in Netflix’s push to begin presenting original programming to their subscribers. This is a significant move, as it is another piece in the puzzle that could significantly change how we consume media. Part of this plan includes putting the entire season up at once so that you can either watch the show over time or all at once.
But for this move to work the programming has to be good. Not all of it, though. Even the most successful networks have bad programming. But the better the programming, the more people are going to pay attention. The big push will be next month with the fourth season of Arrested Development.
But in the meantime we have Hemlock Grove, so how did they do?
Hemlock Grove is a supernatural mystery developed for television by Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman based on a novel by McGreevy.
The show takes place in the eponymous town of Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania. The main characters are Roman Godfrey, eldest child of the richest family in town, and Peter Rumancek, a gypsy who has just moved into town with his mother. The two meet when they are both drawn to the location of a violent death of a fellow student. They bond over being fatherless loners, and also over the fact that they both are supernatural in nature. Peter is a werewolf; and although he is not aware of it, Roman is an Upir, which even though the series acts like it is teasing it out, is clearly something akin to a vampire.
As the two bond, they decide to hunt down the student’s killer after a second attack occurs. The police think it is a wild animal, but Peter can tell it is a vargulf, which is the term for a werewolf that has gone insane.
Several of the other characters represent other horror story archetypes.
There is Christine, who fancies herself a novelist, and is familiar enough with folklore to recognize that Peter is a werewolf, although no one else really believes her, making her the exposition character which is more a universal archtype.
Shelly is Roman’s younger sister. She is nearly 7 feet tall, mute, bald (but always wearing a wig), and part of her face is deformed. She is also the sweetest most caring person in the story, and is used in the story to act as a gauge for the level of compassion in other characters. As her backstory is revealed it is clear that she is a Frankenstein archetype.
There is also Letha, Roman’s cousin, whom he is unusually close to. She becomes pregnant after an encounter with what she sees as an angel. Eventually she becomes Peter’s girlfriend. She is the damsel in distress archetype.
Roman’s mother Olivia is clearly a femme fatale and master manipulator. She is the evil temptress archetype.
Peter’s cousin Destiny has psychic abilities and in many ways both covers and subverts the witch archetype.
There is also a Battlestar Galactica reunion. Arron Douglas plays the town Sherriff, who is the typical horror movie lawman; and Kandyse McClure is Dr. Clementine Chausser, a Fish and Wildlife investigator and this story’s Van Helsing.
There are others but the show has a huge cast and I could be here all day covering them.
The story at its heart is a classic horror mystery. The heroes have to discover the identity of the monster and how to defeat it before it can kill again. But at times that is secondary to the exploration of the characters. The theme of the monster within is covered, both for the supernatural characters and the humans caught up in events, as they spin further out of control.
Bucking the current trend of supernatural storytelling, romance is not at the heart of the story, even poking fun at Twilight, as seems almost required these days. The core relationship is the friendship between Peter and Roman. In these days of prolific fanfiction, they are a duo almost tailor made for Slashfic. They are constantly drawn together by their need for friendship, while at the same time being pulled apart by their differing nature. Landon Liboiron as Peter and Bill Skarsgard as Roman give good performances, and are clearly the anchor of the series. The one downside here is that when Roman becomes emotional, Skarsgard’s natural Swedish accent starts leaking through which can be distracting.
Unfortunately the level of acting from the rest of the cast is uneven. Some are very good, like Dougray Scott as Roman’s uncle, and Lili Taylor as Peter’s mother. Others are fine but not anything that will stand out, such as Douglas and McClure, as well as Tiio Horn as Peter’s cousin Destiny. Some of the younger cast members definitely show their inexperience, especially Freya Tingley. She gives a very uneven performance as Christina – at times playing too wooden, and at other times over the top, but every once and a while doing fine. And then you have Famke Janssen as Olivia, where she is attempting to chew the scenery while going for a constant state of bored distance, coming off as a character from an Addams Family movie.
The show is best as a character study. As a mystery it does work as well, but I feel they telegraphed the identity of the vargulf a little too much. I figured it out three episodes prior to the reveal. This is not to say it is all bad. I was engaged with the story through to the end and did find myself caring about the characters.
From a production perspective it was clear that the show was working from limited budget, and found ways to work with it. The werewolf transformation, while not necessarily a new take, was done extremely well. There was also a reliance on suggested violence over outright gore, although there were gory aftermath scenes.
Overall I enjoyed the show and would certainly check out a second season if one is made. It is also a solid entry into Netflix original programming plan.