When I mentioned to a (non-AV Club) co-worker that I was reviewing Hemlock Grove this weekend, he told me he’d recently finished Netflix’s previous originall series, House Of Cards. I asked him what he thought of it. “It was okay,” he said, with a voice that sounded like a shrug. “Not great or anything.” The genius of Netflix’s computer-programmed, demographic targeting approach to TV is that it doesn’t need to create amazing, or challenging, or even particularly memorable shows. So long as the company can manage a product that’s just a little better than average, it will reach its customers with series that are less the result of creative minds working to tell stories, and more the efforts of aiming for that sweet spot of passive attention and mild entertainment. I’m not saying Netflix can’t make great TV, but House Of Cards only had to be acceptable. It had to be competent. And it managed to accomplish that with, if not aplomb, than at least stolid professionalism.
There’s a dark side to Netflix’s approach, though. Typically, a show has to pass through multiple stages to last out a season. Each episode is dissected by audience and critics alike as soon as it airs, and while that doesn’t prevent bad TV from surviving (or flourishing), it does require a certain level of competence. While occasional flukes slip through, for the most part, a badly paced, clumsily acted, increasingly nonsensical season has plenty of time to die by inches when aired on a regular schedule. But on Netflix, the entire product is bought and produced before an audience sees a single minute of it. Theoretically, this could allow for more artistic leeway, but that only pays off if the artists in question aren’t full of shit. The critical consensus on House Of Cards has been “flawed, but passable,” much like how my co-worker described it—certainly nothing for anyone to be embarrassed about. But Hemlock Grove is rich with embarrassment. It is a shockingly inane misstep, a ponderous mess whose only saving grace are the occasional moments of camp, inadvertent and otherwise, sprinkled throughout. This is the sort of show that would’ve been laughed off the screen after an episode or two on broadcast, and yet there it sits on Netflix’s electronic shelves, a pulsating puss-ridden boil waiting for the next unsuspecting victim to click through. Whatever credibility House Of Cards may have earned the company, Hemlock Grove could very well destroy. It’s just that bad.
I watched all of it. And in the interest of serving the public trust, I’m going to summarize the plot as best I can, and try and point out some of the bigger flaws as I go. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, you should get out now. For the rest of you, well, I survived to tell the tale, and let’s get to it.
Netflix has been marketing the show as a kind of “dead girl murder mystery,” ala Twin Peaks or The Killing, but one of the more inadvertently funny/bad aspects of Hemlock Grove is how little anyone cares about the nominal central mystery. The cold open of the first episode introduces us to Brooke Bluebell (yup), a sexy high school student who likes to have sex with guys in cars who pay her money after. Brooke is also shacking up with her English teacher (who we never see again), but that night, before she can make it to their proposed assignation, something attacks her car, and she’s chased into the night, which means she runs for a bit, and then decides to hide in a playhouse. Because I guess if she isn’t brutally murdered, we don’t have a plot. Thing is, Brooke’s death is treated as mildly upsetting, but everyone in the cast has largely forgotten about it by the third episode—they might act worried that a monster is on the loose, and the show’s two heroes (about whom more in a moment) like to talk about hunting down whatever’s doing the killing, but Brooke herself is a non-entity. Same with the second victim, Lisa Willoughby, whose corpse is discovered in episode three. At first, Hemlock Grove is too gonzo stupid and slow-moving to come across as overtly vile, but once you notice the apathy, it’s hard to ignore just how little of a fuck anyone gives about dead teenagers.
But hey, there are mysteries and weird goings on afoot, so I guess folks try and budget their time. One of those mysteries: Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) and his mother Lynda (Lili freakin’ Taylor) have just moved into town, taking over the house that once belonged to Lynda’s now dead brother. Peter and Lynda are gypsies, but is Peter a werewolf? Yes. Yes he is. And hilariously, everyone in town seems to know he’s a werewolf. Oh sure, some have a harder time believing it than others, but once the dead bodies start turning up with all the bite marks and mauling and what not, accusing eyes turn in Peter’s direction, despite the fact that, so far as I could tell, they have no reason to do so. This lasts the entire season. While I’m not a big fan of overly skeptical characters in fiction (Scully notwithstanding), this borders on madness, and it’s indicative of one of the show’s major structural problems. Developments happen throughout without any organic process to them. Stories are, at their most basic, a way of showing a connected series of events: once upon a time there was a boy who had a cow; he traded the cow for a magic bean; his mom threw the bean out the window in anger; the bean grew into a giant beanstalk; the boy climbs the beanstalk because they’re poor; and so on. But bad writing doesn’t recognize the in-between steps. On Hemlock Grove, a boy would just kind of have a bean at some point, and then maybe he’d glance out a window later and there’d be a beanstalk and he’d be like, “Shit, where’d that cunt of a bean go?” and then he’d be in the clouds. It’s writing with too many foregone conclusions, and watching it feels like having to suffer through someone else’s bad dream.
Oh, and about that “cunt”: hope you like the word, because it comes up a lot. The show’s dialogue veers between flatly expository (“So, particle physics. What does that mean?”) to baroque attempts at wit (“That woman is what she says she is like a Mexican hates fireworks.” ???). I’ve collected some of the hightlights in Stray Observations below. Nearly all of the one-liners are the sort of convoluted garbage you get when you try really really hard to be funny, but have no ear for dialogue. None of the characters speak like actual human beings should speak, and the best actors (Lili Taylor and Aaron Douglas, and maybe Dougray Scott) just grumble through their lines as casually and speedily as they can.
Back to the plot! So, we know who Peter is; there’s also Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard), the spoiled rich kid who plays like a Brundlefly version of Damon from The Vampire Diaries and Ryan Phillipe in Cruel Intentions, only in a way that’s much less interesting than that sounds. As with so much of what goes on in the show, Roman is a copy of a copy, and Skarsgard flails around like a sullen five year old, pouting and grimacing by turns. It’s hard to blame him, though, and there’s a least some small amount of pathos behind his flailing. The closest the show comes to having a decent plot-line is Peter and Roman’s burgeoning friendship. They team up and complain about women and every once in awhile talk about trying to hunt down the vargulf (psychotic werewolf) that’s doing all the killing. Their conversations are as badly written as anything, but at least there’s a hint of what might have been. Also, Liboiron and Skarsgard have enough chemistry together (and walk around shirtless enough) that I kept wondering when they’d start making out.
Right, the plot. Roman is a vampire. Or he will be a vampire eventually. A werewolf, hanging out with a vampire sounds exciting, right? I mean, it’s been done before, but it has an appeal, the sort of thing you could build a show around. Too bad, though, because Roman’s true identity isn’t revealed until the last ten minutes of the finale, when he tries to kill himself, only to rise from the dead with awkward plastic teeth in his mouth. Before that, Peter and Lynda called Roman an “upir,” without ever specifying what an “upir” was. All we know until the reveal is that Roman has the power to control minds (which at one point he uses to rape a girl and then erase her memory of the rape, because he’s very conflicted and troubled and whatnot), and that he has a habit of cutting himself with a razor while he’s having sex with someone. Oh, and once, he notices a girl is having her period (sees a tampon sticking out of her purse), so he goes down on her in a restroom.
Yeah, just let that sink in for a bit.
Roman’s secret is left to simmer in the background for most of the 13 episode run, and here, again, we have another structural inadequacy. There really isn’t much story in Hemlock Grove. Maybe an episode or two worth. But because of the demands of TV, everything has to be stretched out over ten hours or more, which means there are a lot of sequences that don’t really matter, and a lot of characters reminding us what we’re supposed to be wondering about, but then not giving us any more information. This is one of those mystery shows that keeps stringing you along with hints and scraps of hints; it works on the barest level of holding audience attention, but fails to satisfy in any other way. Actual scenes of characterization are either fitful or overstated, and eventually it becomes impossible not to realize that nearly everything that happens is just to keep the minutes spinning away until the final revelations.
Right, so, Roman has a mutant sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin) and a controlling mother. Olivia, played by Famke Janssen, is trying to do her absolute best Jessica Lange impersonation, and it is awful. She has this British accent that’s just—look, I’m not even going to do a joke. I like Famke Janssen. She tries in this, I’m assuming, but none of the directors had the brains to tell her to stop, and, like Roman, she’s just an impression of other psychotically controlling mothers who have vague Oedipal conflicts with their sons, and it’s kind of sad how often that comes up these days. Olivia has this whole plan to turn Roman into a vampire like herself, and it nearly works, but in the end he rips her tongue out, which is like, thank you, no more of that accent. Also, she’s having an affair with Norman (Scott), her dead husband’s brother (guess who killed the husband?)(it was Olivia). Norman is a psychiatrist, and he’s father to Letha (Penelope Mitchell). Letha is friends with Roman, eventually in love with Peter, and also pregnant. Letha thinks an angel fucked her, but ha ha, no, it was Roman, under a hypnotic spell because of Olivia’s plans, and when Letha gives birth, she dies, because she’s a young woman and this show just really fucking hates young women, unless they’re ugly, in which case they get a pass.
This may sound exciting, the sort of crazy, batshit plotting that doesn’t really have to be good to be watchable, and if you feel compelled to watch, hell, I’m not going to stand in your way. (I’m tired of the court orders.) But be warned: I’m summarizing, and in summarizing I’m cutting out a lot of empty, stretching time in which idiots say the same things to each other, and then make plans, and then forget those plans, and then wander off. This isn’t like True Blood, which at least (in the few episodes I saw) has some zany energy keeping it alive. This is slow, and the scripts are constantly repeating the same small handful of half-hearted beats. Even the conversations are torturous, because the actors are constantly… pausing. I’ve done theater, and one of the first things a good director tells you is, cut the pauses out; tempo matters. This is an excellent example of why that’s so important.
Let’s see, what else… Well, there’s a werewolf hunting group called the Order of the Dragon that just sort of pops up, represented by Dr. Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure). Clementine is troubled and tormented in a way that means she spends most of her screentime acting tough and appearing to get things done, without managing to accomplish anything. In the end Olivia flays her alive, and Dr. Pryce (Joel de Fuente), a mad scientist who is mostly useless, shows up to smother her. I guess this is setting up a revenge mission next season for Clementine’s brother Michael, and if you actually care enough to watch the second season, you’ll have to let me know how that works out. Clementine, like every other damn subplot, is a grind. She does nothing. She is not a likeable character, or an interesting one. She gets one good sequence, a flashback to one of her earlier kills; the rest is filler. Also, she’s apparently gay and a terrible girlfriend, which is casually introduced in her first scene (in such a way that we’re clearly meant to go “Gasp! Sapphists!”), and then never mentioned again. I guess it fits into this show’s overall tendency to punish sexually active women, so that’s nice.
In the next to last episode, we finally discover the identity of the crazed mad-dog killer who’s been doing all this damage no one cares about. (That’s not fair. Sheriff Tom Sworn [Douglas] is legitimately upset when his twin daughters are eviscerated, but hey, the girls were listening to pop music and wearing make-up so they clearly had it coming.) It’s Christina (Freya Tingley), a girl on her way to high school who spent most of the season going slowly crazy after discovering a body in the third episode. One day before the first episode, Christina decided to become a werewolf. So she did some research and drank water out of a wolf’s pawprints, because I guess that’s how it works. The next full moon, she turned into a monster and started slaughtering anyone who offended her with their sexual promiscuity.
The subtext is fucking rancid. Christina says again and again that she wants to have experiences so that she can be a better writer, but one of those experiences includes turning into a monster and killing anyone who’s more romantically experienced than she is, including her two best friends. There’s a nod towards the curse of the wolf somehow possessing her and turning her evil beyond her control, but it’s still just exploiting a pre-existing resentment. Far too much of the show’s fumblings can be summed up as “Bitches be crazy, huh?”. (At one point, Peter actually says, “Women do what they do. That’s the hell of it,” in case you weren’t getting the point.) Basically, if you’re young and pretty, don’t fuck anyone or go outdoors or try and do anything, because you’ll be literally gutted, or else you’ll kill people. And don’t think being kind and trying to avoid sex will save you! Didn’t save poor Letha. She got touched by an “angel,” and so we get a nice, long shot of her post-delivery corpse.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this; maybe I’m imagining what isn’t there. It’s possible. Marathoning a show doesn’t lend itself to impartial viewing. But if you ignore the potential subtext (and really, it’s just a slightly more specific version of a subtext that’s plagued the horror genre for ages), there’s nothing to replace it. I found myself grabbing onto the worst interpretations as an act of self-defense, because everything else was so hackish and empty. If there’s an undercurrent of misogyny to the scripts, at least that’s something to hang on to and get invested in tearing down. Otherwise, it’s the void, punctuated by half-hearted screams.
Tacky, tasteless, and tedious by turns, Hemlock Grove is a wretched little show. There’s some nudity, but it’s not enough, and the gore goes away for such long periods of time that when it does come back, it’s almost like a bad joke. So much of what’s wrong here goes back to Netflix’s hubris, their assumption that making good (or even okay) television is just a matter of pumping out the requisite number of hours and hitting the right notes. Everyone loves supernatural bullshit, dead teenage girls, and sex, so just throw ‘em all together and hope for the best. The result is lazy, and dreary, and oh so insipid. There are bits and pieces I’m leaving out—Shelley’s painfully “eloquent” letters to her uncle; Shelley breaking Christina’s neck right before a grief-stricken Tom shoots her, although he doesn’t kill her; the endless dream sequences; Peter cutting his hair as an expression of grief; the Godfrey Institute, a super evil company that comes dangerously close to being relevant before finally not being so in any way; and I guess Norman’s wife, although the show doesn’t really care about her either—but really, I’ve said enough. It’s dreck, and should be approached with great caution. Take it from me: there are better ways to spend a day.
- Here are some choice lines, joyously free of context:
- “Sorry, I didn’t mean to get in all your shit.”
- “Stupid ass birds!”
- “This is a strange town, you can feel it in your balls.”
- “How do you know it’s caucasian?” “Pennsylvania.”
- “My name is Destiny, and I will be your sacred whore.”
- “Did you know that the wettest place on Earth is a small garden island in Hawaii?”
- “The animal did go snatch first.”
- “She’s a farm-fresh cunt.”
- “I suspect he’s had a severe psychic break.”
- “You’re a remarkable cunt.”
- “People see Peter as just a flying piece of paper they can put everything they’re afraid of on.”
- “I believe I’ve accepted I’ve fallen victim to collective hysteria.”
- “You gonna say something to me or are you just gonna eye-fuck me?”
- “This must be what it feels like to cum!”
- “Look, Hemingway, girls get to a certain age and it’s like a freight train without a conductor.”
- “You’re abnormal as fucking balls!”
- “I can’t wait to marry your ass.” “You’ll have to engage it first.”
- “Your smile makes the flowers grow and your tits make them bloom.”
- “It’s all so fucking pointless.”