Review: Netflix tries horror with ‘Hemlock Grove’

Senior Television Writer
04.17.13 15 Comments


As Netflix pushes into the world of original programming, it’s easy to see why the streaming video giant picked up certain series. “House of Cards” had a two-time Oscar winner as its star, David Fincher as an executive producer and a look and feel that automatically put Netflix into the discussion with HBO, AMC, etc. “Arrested Development” (which will debut on Netflix in May) is a show that, while never a hit on FOX, was beloved then and has been among the most popular titles in Netflix’s library.

With “Hemlock Grove,” whose 13-episode first season will be released in its entirety on Netflix on Friday, you have to squint a bit to see why it was chosen. Yes, it’s a supernatural thriller larded with teen angst, which has value in the age of “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries.” And it has a movie pedigree as well: Eli Roth is an executive producer and directed the pilot, and the cast includes Famke Janssen and Dougray Scott.

But it’s also a mess: a horror series with a weirdly slow build (you don’t even see the lead werewolf character transform until the end of the second episode), a mix of campy performances and competent ones, and just enough intriguing ideas to make me wish the entire thing was a lot better than it is.

Though Janssen and Scott are the names, the actual leads are Landon Liboiron (patron saint of Annoying TV Teens for his work on “Terra Nova”) and Bill Skarsgard (younger brother of Alexander from “True Blood”) as, respectively, a teen werewolf from a poor Gypsy family and the son of the town’s wealthiest family, who doesn’t seem to realize the nature of his own supernatural genes. Liboiron’s actually quite good playing a guarded, sarcastic outcast used to a life where his only friend is his mother (Lily Taylor), while you can charitably put Skarsgard into the campy camp right next to Scott. (Janssen manages to be coolly menacing without going over the top.) 

The action involves a series of werewolf-style attacks in the sleepy Pennsylvania town that gives the show its title, but the story – from the novel by Brian McGreevey, who adapted it for the series with Lee Shipman – also involves a teenage girl who claims to have been impregnated by an angel, a mad scientist performing illicit human experiments, a cop from the department of fish and wildlife who knows more than she should about werewolves, and another girl who can’t speak and has the build of a Frankenstein monster but may be vampiric in origin.

There are just a lot of crazy, crazy ideas hurled out there with no real thought given to pace or tone or how to mesh them all together. It also seems counter-intuitive to Netflix’s release strategy, as the most likely hook for the show would be to come back each week to see what ridiculous thing is happening next; watched all in a row (I saw three episodes in an afternoon), the nuttiness becomes desensitizing after a while.

Netflix is still early enough in its life as an original content provider that it’s hard to get a sense of the brand yet. And AMC, after all, has room for both “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead,” just as HBO has “Tremé” and “True Blood.” But those channels also built their reputations by coming out with multiple great series in a row. Even if the new “Arrested” turns out as great as the old “Arrested,” “Hemlock Grove” is an automatic streak-buster.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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