April 24, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “Hemlock Grove” (Episodes 1-3)


If Netflix is going to be the 21st-century version of a “network,” its content will eventually have to include all sorts of genres–and the quality, inevitably, will vary as well.  There may be high-class, award-caliber dramas like House of Cards, but there will also be crap.

HEMLOCK GROVE is the crap.

Horribly written (Hours 1-3 by series co-creators Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman, based on McGreevy’s novel), sluggishly directed (Hour 1 by marquee Executive Producer Eli Roth of Hostel fame, Hours 2-3 by Deran Serafian) and–let’s be kind–unevenly acted, Hemlock Grove is a gothic soap to make you long for The Secret Circle and 666 Park Avenue.  It tries to be stylized in a Twin Peaks-ian sort of way, but comes off as merely tedious and simpleminded.

The titular town is in Pennsylvania, and the plot centers around two high schoolers.  Peter (Landon Liboiron) is the newcomer, a gypsy who’s moved with his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor) into his dead uncle’s trailer.  The two are distrusted by the town–and they don’t even know that Peter is secretly a werewolf, albeit (or so it would seem in the early episodes) a benign one.  From their trailer, Peter and his mother can see the estate of the Godfrey family, Hemlock Grove’s local royalty.  Son Roman (Bill Skarsgard) is the cool kid in town, who tools around in a convertible roadster and sleeps with any girl he chooses.  He has his own supernatural powers, though, including a knack for the Jedi mind trick–and soon enough, a slightly homoerotic fascination with Peter.  Roman’s sister Shelley (Nicole Boivin in close-ups, Michael Andreae in long-shots) is a hulking adolescent who hides her deformed eye with bangs and who can’t speak (except in Jane Austen-ish voiceovers of her e-mails, sort of like when Becky on Glee narrates in the voice of Helen Mirren).  Roman and Shelley’s mother is Olivia (Famke Janssen), a witchy femme fatale who buys mysterious eyedrops from Lynda, and who is having an affair with her dead husband’s brother Norman (Dougray Scott), the town doctor, even though he despises her.  Norman has his own problems:  his daughter Letha (Penelope Mitchell) is pregnant, and she claims the father is a literal angel.

The main storyline kicks off with the savage murders of several high school girls, seemingly half-eaten by a wild beast.  Peter is the obvious suspect, being a wild beast and all, but he professes innocence, and thus he and Roman investigate together.  There is, of course, plenty else going on, including evil experiments at the Godfrey family pharmaceutical company, evil omens, and some garden-variety high school cruelty and sex.

All of this could be serviceable enough for a CW soap, but Hemlock Grove roundly misses on both of the levels it seems to be aiming for.  As a serial drama, it’s glacially paced, with dialogue scenes that go on and on as though the show is an afternoon soap from the 1970s.  Even worse, the dialogue itself sounds like it’s been badly translated from another language. (“How do you explain walking to a man with no legs?” plaintively asks one character.)  Some of this is undoubtedly meant to be self-conscious campiness, but the show doesn’t work as a commentary or satire on its genre either, and it’s too wooden and second-hand to establish anything like the distinctively creepy, erotic mood of a Twin Peaks.  It’s just silly and self-indulgent; three hours that feel like six.

There are a few redeeming qualities.  Netflix (for now at least) is being generous with its budgets, and while Hemlock isn’t as gleamingly expensive as House of Cards, it’s clearly shot on a more comfortable scale than its CW and cable counterparts, and that allows for some satisfyingly spooky atmospherics on the (mostly) Canadian locations.  There’s also a niftily gory werewolf transformation sequence at the close of Episode 2 that didn’t come cheap.  (Notwithstanding that, the violence so far is relatively mild for a show that faces no censorship issues and has Eli Roth attached to it.)  Although quite a bit of the acting is rather bad, Taylor is appealingly natural as Roman’s mother (she’s a guest star, though, so no clue how long she’ll last), Janssen seems to be enjoying her meal of the scenery, and Kandyse McClure, well-remembered from Battlestar Galactica, shows up as a nicely ambiguous werewolf hunter.

Producers working with Netflix have been raving about the lack of creative interference they face once the company has signed onto a project, but there’s a downside to that.  Some show creators need a gentle foot on their necks along with the cash if they’re to create something that’s actually worth watching, and Hemlock Grove is what happens if they don’t get it.  The show turns “creative freedom” into dirty words.


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."