'Locke & Key': TV Review

Netflix
Often entertaining, but more often uneven in tone and target demo.
2/7/2020

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's beloved comic finally makes it to Netflix with an adaptation that shows why this story of magical keys and family curses was so enticing and so hard to adapt.

Based on the popular comic series, Netflix's Locke & Key is the story of a group of plucky kids exploring a rambling house filled with magical keys. Those include the Matchstick Key, which starts fires; the Head Key, which lets you rummage around in your brain; and the Ghost Key, which lets you become a ghost.

The challenge for showrunners Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill appears to have been finding the Consistency Key. The 10 episodes of Locke & Key vary wildly in quality and tone, sometimes delivering fanciful fun for all ages built around a solid young cast and sometimes getting bogged down in a darkness to which nobody's quite able to commit. Roughly half the first season points to an entertaining and rich version of this show, but the less successful patches come at frustratingly inopportune times.

After a shocking act of self-immolation (explained far later in the series), the pilot begins with the Locke family — mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield), teens Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones), plus Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) in elementary school — leaving Seattle after a horrifying family tragedy to move to the ancestral home of deceased patriarch Rendell (Bill Heck, in a lot of flashbacks) on a remote part of coastal Massachusetts. The spacious Key House has everything — ample bedrooms, magical keys tied to a family curse, scenic views, a secret walled-off room in the basement, seaside access, a demonic woman trapped in a well. Everything!

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's comic is a horror story with fantastical undertones, but the series has reversed the equation, adding classic horror references — the town's name has gone from "Lovecraft" to "Matheson," like Richard, while Tom Savini references, plus a cameo, abound. These don't always connect with a story that has become alternatingly whimsical and sad, but very rarely actually scary.

The penultimate episode, directed by Vincenzo Natali, has the series' lone good fright as part of a fast-moving installment that is, frankly, sharper and funnier than anything that comes before it, gives our heroes a dose of high energy and finishes on a killer Billie Eilish needle drop. And as seems to be the case every time Locke & Key hits a peak — episodes three and four and seven through nine are the highlights — it's followed by a valley, in this case a rushed finale that manages to be both over-explained and confusing. I'd compare it to a magician explaining the secret of a trick he hadn't bothered to do in the first place.

Overall, Locke & Key struggles to establish the stakes for the series — I still can't tell you what would happen if Evil Well Girl (Laysla De Oliveira) achieved her evil goals — and struggles more to decide who it's intended for. Bode is the initial window into this key party and Scott's giving a telegenic, punchline-mugging performance. But is the audience that's gonna love Bode and his one-liners also going to respond to a show in which one of Evil Well Girl's first signs of evil is to pick up a stranger at a club for sex climaxing in the declaration, "I want you to choke me"?

The teen characters are similarly stuck in a realm where their drama — love triangles, hockey practices, amateur filmmaking — is likely to bore young viewers and feel quaint to anybody older. It's in that three-episode sweet spot toward the end that the teenage characters build a rapport that isn't quite Buffy-esque, but definitely is Stranger Things-y, which is probably all that Netflix could ever hope for.

Jessup is sturdy and earnest as a male lead, though his Emmy-worthy work in multiple American Crime seasons points to how good he might be if Locke & Key were more able to dig deep into the trauma that Ty, and really the entire family, is feeling. Jones shines because she gets to do more of that character excavation, with the benefit of being part of the subtext-made-surface value of a teenage girl who gets the power to tactically remove "fear" from her head and faces serious consequences.

I wish Locke & Key were able to do more with its main metaphors, because what's the point otherwise, and also because Averill proved with The Haunting of Hill House that she's excellent when it comes to using spookified residences to explore addiction and grief. Though Stanchfield is good in a brief arc focusing on alcoholism — one of several nods to Hill's dad's The Shining — it's something the show has to rush through to get to the next key and, again, most viewers will be hard-pressed to explain what the key-related consequences might be other than "Something bad."

The rest of the ensemble, occasionally hampered by the show's fast-and-loose approach to the passage of time, also features good work from Sherri Saum, Steven Williams and, in later episodes, Hallea Jones. Griffin Gluck plays another new kid at the teens' high school and mostly made me sad that we never got a third American Vandal season. Ken Pak and Aaron Ashmore have parts you'll be particularly certain were gutted in the editing.

Watching Locke & Key is to simultaneously understand why folks have been trying so hard previously to adapt it — as a film, as a Fox pilot, as a Hulu pilot — and why it maybe hasn't worked. Its genre leaps are fitful but enticing. You're bound to think how much easier your life would be with one or more of these keys. Its characters are relatable and have some real psychological depth. The fuzziness of tone, genre and pacing come from the comic as well, so maybe with these hints of potential and more narrative freedom — most of the comic run has been covered — a second season might prove more consistent?

Cast: Darby Stanchfield, Jackson Robert Scott, Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, Bill Heck, Laysla De Oliveira. Sherri Saum, Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Griffin Gluck, Coby Bird
Developed for TV by: Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill and Aron Eli Coleite
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)