June 23, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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>The FOX pilot LOCKE & KEY is a very effective hour of creepiness, but it’s not that hard to understand why the network didn’t put the project on its schedule.  The show screams “cult hit” at best, and the pilot feels more like a shortened feature film than the viable prototype for a continuing weekly series. 

As we noted yesterday, the busted Locke & Key pilot is being given a very unusual screening and panel discussion at next month’s Comic-Con, at the behest of the publishers of the graphic novel (by Joe Hill, who happens to be the son of Stephen King) that’s the basis of the story.  There’s every chance it’ll receive a strong reception from that particular audience, although probably not enough to make the network or its studio, 20th Television, change their minds:  the economics of network (and cable) television are not very yielding these days.

As written for television by Josh Friedman, the man behind Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles (itself a cult show that couldn’t sustain an audience on FOX), the title refers to the Locke family, victims of a horrible crime:  Rendell (Mark Pellegrino, Jacob from Lost), a school guidance counselor, has been brutally murdered by one of his students.  His wife Nina (Miranda Otto) and children Tyler (Jesse McCarthy), Kinsey (Sarah Bolger) and Bode (Tylar Gaertner) have moved back to Rendell’s family manor, where Rendell’s brother Duncan (Nick Stahl) resides. 
Strange things immediately begin to happen, mostly having to do with hidden keys that open mysterious locks.  Crossing through one doorway temporarily strikes you dead but allows you to roam as a ghost; another key allows the holder to go anywhere he or she wishes.  There’s a mysteriously evil girl dwelling in the estate’s well, who has a hold on the student who killed Rendell and helps him to break out of prison.  Bode feels a strong pull from the magic in the house, while the rest of his family mostly only senses something odd. 
Friedman’s script does a good job at developing the suspense, and although the characters are thinly sketched, they’re written and played a cut above the usual TV horror standard.  (Probably not coincidentally, the pilot’s Executive Producers include Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, veterans of the JJ Abrams school whose own writing credits include Alias, Fringe and the last Star Trek movie).  The pilot is directed by Mark Romanek, a meticulous visual stylist (his most recent film was Never Let Me Go, a fascinating if failed adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel), and the show has exemplary production values and a swift pace.
One could sooner imagine the pilot expanded into a feature, though, than as the basis for a series.  It appears at the end of the pilot that the show would be based around the keys, each one presumably leading to a new adventure, which is a shaky premise that almost seems more like an anthology with the family as continuing characters (hey, look what’s behind this door!) than a serialized story.  There’s also something a bit hermetically sealed about the setting, with the main characters confined to the family and their (admittedly large) house; it would only take so many episodes of the family being menaced by some creature unlocked by one of the keys for things to get tiresome.  In comparison, the Alcatraz pilot (reviewed here), which as a supernatural project was probably Locke & Key‘s main competition for the Fox schedule, isn’t nearly as polished, but provides a much more robust platform for additional and varied storylines. 
Locke & Key provides a handy, if somewhat sad, example of how the makers of a pilot can do almost everything right, and still not get to the goal they’re trying to achieve.  It’s a strikingly good TV show that happens not to be a terribly effective pilot.
The Sked’s (reluctant) Verdict:  The Network Was Right.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."