'Castle Rock': TV Review

All Easter eggs, no Easter dinner.
7/25/2018

Hulu's new horror drama plays on viewer knowledge of the Maine town from Stephen King's 'Needful Things' and 'The Dead Zone,' but lacks a compelling narrative of its own.

Before bingeing TV shows was a thing, my media consumption patterns were established during family cross-country car trips on which I'd sit in the back seat and plow through Stephen King books, hundreds of pages at a time. I'd finish a Pet Sematary or The Stand in a day or two and immediately flip to the beginning and start again.

The best of King novels are like a vortex, gaping narrative maws that suck you in entirely. Even lesser King works are like that, designed to be consumed in breathless gulps.

In contrast, Hulu's new horror drama Castle Rock, boasting King and J.J. Abrams as big-name producers, is a string of small wormholes, offering countless references and digressions and themes to amuse and entertain devotees of the Master of Horror, but lacking in the broader storytelling spine necessary to establish its own identity. It's all Easter eggs, no Easter dinner.

The series takes its title and setting from the fictional Maine town that King constructed from The Dead Zone to The Dark Half to Needful Things, with creators Sam Shaw (Manhattan) and Dustin Thomason building an original story atop the ancient burial ground of Castle Rock's mythology. The conceit is that some towns are just poisoned at their root, sources of infection that spread evil and attract more of the same. The rot that plagues Castle Rock isn't to be confused with comparable moral putrefaction in Derry or Jerusalem's Lot, though they share in common the notion that some towns are just born bad, especially towns right down the road from Shawshank Penitentiary.

The series opens with the discovery of a mysterious, non-communicative young man (Bill Skarsgard) kept barricaded in a makeshift cage in Shawshank's bowels. He has no name. He has no criminal record. He may have dark powers. His only words are the name, "Henry Deaver."

Played by Andre Holland, Deaver is a Texas death-row lawyer raised in Castle Rock, but ostracized from the community after a childhood incident that left his father dead and Henry a lead suspect. This strange summoning back to his hometown forces Henry to deal with his aging mother (Sissy Spacek), the retired sheriff (Scott Glenn) who still distrusts him and the now-grown girl-next-door (Melanie Lynskey) who still harbors a crush.

If the location of Castle Rock is the show's uncredited star, pilot director and co-executive producer Michael Uppendahl gets a lot of New England texture from Massachusetts environs. The setting has the run-down murkiness of a depressed factory town, with a few lively locales including a regionally accurate candlepin bowling alley and a recreation of Shawshank that has echoes of its incarnation from the beloved film and yet still stands as its own setting.

In a town where deadly rabid dogs and a Satan-owned antique store are just part of the historical tapestry, the series struggles to establish stakes. Skarsgard's off-the-books prisoner is creepy and the voiceover narration implies greater incipient menace, but the four episodes sent to critics are slow to make his threat concrete. The plotline revolving around Henry is even more meandering, as his connection to the prisoner is loose and his investigation into his father's death, which he doesn't remember at all, has a "Well, since I'm here anyway …" perfunctory air.

If the big questions asked in developing this series had to be "Why this particular town?" and "Why this particular story?," it's the latter question that's still puzzling me. A prodigal son haunted by his past and a wide-eyed kid with possible demonic ties sound like the outlines for an archetypal King tale, without getting distinctive yet. The failure to get hooked in the story was becoming particularly frustrating by the fourth episode, which at least pushes the series forward by the end. Generally, the show isn't at all scary, nor is it all that suspenseful, and I can't quite put my finger even on the exact genre it's working in.

There's less uncertainty when it comes to Shaw and Thomason's interest in the town and in establishing Castle Rock as a show by Stephen King fans for Stephen King fans. References play to beginner, intermediate and advanced levels of King knowledge, and while it's hard to feel particularly clever for catching a reference to Cujo, a certain suicidal Shawshank warden or the Dead Zone-affiliated serial strangler from 40 years ago, remembering the name of the local luncheonette and its proprietress gets you bonus points with this show. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Glenn very ably follows Ed Harris and Michael Rooker from past screen adaptations) is the rare character with a full previous King pedigree, but practically every role invites a head-scratching inquiry into one's internal King database. If Jane Levy's wonderfully sarcastic Jackie has the last name "Torrance," is she actually kin to the tortured protagonist of The Shining or is that just a wink? What's harder is remembering the names of each of the secondary bullies in "The Body"/Stand by Me. Is it worth it? Perhaps not, but it's fun.

It's a process that can be taken a little too far. Early in the premiere, a mouse scurries across a Shawshank hallway and meets an unfortunate end in a snapping trap and my notes sarcastically ask, "Is he supposed to be the resurrected Mr. Jingles?" — which would cause any true King partisan to observe that The Green Mile was set in Louisiana and to ask how Mr. Jingles got so far north and what do we gain from that?

These echoes extends to the cast, which is superb and carefully chosen. Spacek's background as King's paragon of nightmarish adolescence in Carrie adds poignance to her turn as a mother whose encroaching senility makes her perhaps the only Castle Rock resident unable to remember the town's legacy. Skarsgard, so amusingly outsized and intentionally cartoonish as the balloon-wielding Pennywise in It, gets to mine a more subtle, haunted terror. Casting like that is a conscious nod. If you recall that Terry O'Quinn, Ann Cusack, Frances Conroy and Lynskey were in Silver Bullet (directed by Castle Rock episodic helmer Daniel Attias), Mr. Mercedes, the TV version of The Mist and Rose Red, respectively, extra credit for you.

Of course, the stars weren't just chosen exclusively as part of some Six Degrees of Stephen King lark. There's an authentic backbone to Castle Rock that you get from populating the town with character actors like Glenn, Spacek and O'Quinn, with only Conroy resorting to a Maine accent that I found distracting. Holland doesn't always have a character to play, but I appreciated that he has a different polish and energy than the actors playing characters who've been beaten down by the psychic weight of Castle Rock. Lynskey gives the best of those performances, because unlike Holland, her Molly is a wealth of little details and backstories, including a drug addiction, social anxiety and the potential of untapped capabilities of her own. Noel Fisher offers a jolt of blue-collar conscience as the Shawshank guard who discovers the hidden prisoner, while Allison Tolman is almost too perfectly cast as Molly's disapproving sister.

The actors will offer the best incentive for the King-ambivalent to tune into Castle Rock, but I'm not sure even they will ultimately be enough to overcome the sluggish and vague story. Beyond that, my own enjoyment was derived mostly from the nerdy and obsessive King details, often despite the plot.

Cast: Andre Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Glenn, Sissy Spacek, Jane Levy, Terry O'Quinn
Creators: Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason
Premieres: Wednesday, July 25 (Hulu)