Hemlock Grove: TV Review

Hemlock Grove Landon Liboiron Bill Skarsgard - H 2012
Sophie Giraud for Netflix
Hemlock Grove is proof that making quality television is a very difficult trick.

Netflix follows "House of Cards" with a new horror series from Eli Roth that takes place after the murder of a teenage girl.

Deep into the second episode of Hemlock Grove, the new horror series from Netflix, a character lies bleeding in the road, screaming: “I don’t want to see that! I don’t want to see that!” You’re not the only one, pal.

Hemlock (whose 13 episodes will be released for streaming April 19) is the second in a string of highly anticipated series from Netflix, which has been getting a lot of justified compliments for changing the way we consume television. But -- welcome to the content business -- here comes the company’s first truly bad series. Hey, it happens. Just ask anyone in the industry, old-school or new.

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You never want to put the word “unintentional” in front of the word “campy,” but there you go. Executive producer and pilot director Eli Roth and series writer and co-creator Brian McGreevy have a real mess on their hands. There are moments when the only reaction to the dialogue (the series is based on McGreevy’s book of the same name) is to stare slack-jawed and wonder if the fault rests with the words or the acting. The more you watch, the more you realize it’s both.

In fact, it looks like someone spliced a bunch of strange cuts into the flow. The actors’ delivery is often staccato, late in arriving as responses and larded with cliches; the characters don’t even seem to be looking at one another, much less reacting to one another.

Weird can be good, but this isn’t intentionally weird so much as it is plain bad. The series comes from Gaumont International Television, which just made NBC’s vastly superior Hannibal. Maybe Roth (Hostel) was stretching for something beyond horror -- something epic or Twin Peaks-creepy. But he doesn’t get there (nor does it get to True Blood territory, which is saying something). But it’s not for a lack of trying -- some of the visuals work, but not nearly well enough to prop the rest of it up.

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Such a miss certainly will make the rest of the industry feel a little better because Netflix has been a media darling on the heels of the David Fincher/Kevin Spacey House of Cards and its resurrection of Arrested Development (14 episodes coming in May). But Hemlock shouldn’t be read as a vote against Netflix, only more proof that making quality television is a difficult trick.

The series is set in Pennsylvania and revolves around a very rich family, the Godfreys, and a mother-son gypsy duo who move into a trailer on the edge of town. The vicious killing of a teenage girl -- by beast, not man -- has the town on edge as secrets get revealed about dark pasts. Boo.

The series will be a seasonlong murder mystery, but it also will contain the aforementioned deep secrets. Not too secret, though: Roth and company showed a clip at WonderCon and, not coincidentally, it’s the best part of the first two episodes (which were so underwhelming, there wasn’t enough motivation to watch the third that Netflix offered up). The scene features the gypsy boy, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron, who does fine work amid all of this failure), transforming into a werewolf. It’s unique, graphic and well-imagined – two of three elements not found elsewhere on the show (the graphic part was not hard to pull off).

What we’re left with -- yawn -- is a mystery about whether a vampire or a werewolf killed the girl. To keep our attention, we get myriad bits of horror/evil/strangeness. Peter’s mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor), might be supplying Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen), the alluring but clearly evil matriarch, with some type of scary-making eyedrops.

Taylor seems out of place. She’s got that grounded indie-movie thing, but she also seems to be checking out as Hemlock misses its cylinders. When Peter transforms into a werewolf in front of her and his friend, fellow bad boy Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard), she just smiles wanly. And to think, she missed the parts where hints are dropped that Roman is a vampire. In one scene, he’s doing the town hooker (do small towns in the woods have really gorgeous, girlie hookers?) and cuts himself to suck his own blood. Later we get a bigger hint when, at school, he’s servicing a girl who goes to the bathroom to address her period. (Told you it was a big hint.)

As for Olivia, well not only did she birth the handsome and brooding Roman but she also is the mother of Shelley (Nicole Boivin), whom her father (now dead -- cue scary music and a sideways glance at Olivia) called “an abortion.” She’s actually more of a bald, mutant giant with a misplaced eye, radiation boils and hands perpetually wrapped in gauze. No, seriously, people, she’s a giant -- a creation so ludicrous, even Ryan Murphy wouldn’t use her on American Horror Story. And that’s not even taking into account that her name is Shelley.

What more is there to say? Outside of Liboiron and probably young Skarsgard, this is an effort that likely won’t pop up on a lot of résumés. Hemlock isn’t scary. It isn’t creepy. It barely makes sense, much less sense you want to decode. The mutant giant does a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an elementary school play. There’s a girl who maybe got pregnant by a spooky angel. Roman asks whether it was a real angel. The girl says, “How do you explain dancing to a person who has no legs?” And Roman says, “I have legs that won’t quit.”

Is there a bong big enough for this show?

In a flashback, an old gypsy says you can tell the people who actually are animals, not humans. It’s in their eyes, he says. “There is such darkness that it shines.” There’s even a scene straight out of Star Wars. You know, where Obi Wan says, “These are not the drones you’re looking for?” Yep, that scene. Not played for laughs.

“Spooky f---er,” says a cop. Really? It seemed more funny than spooky.

Anyway, Hemlock is stiff where it needs to be fluid in its creative fearlessness. There’s a disconnect to it that is jarring -- as if it was once a puzzle that got dropped on the floor. But the missing pieces don’t create a mystery about their absence. Instead the show just feels haphazardly glued together.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com