Thanks to ambitious, complex shows like The Wire, Mad Men, and The Sopranos, the way we watch TV has changed. One episode a week often doesn’t seem like enough; we’d rather jump straight into a boxset, tearing through an entire season in a weekend. Modern TV is designed to be devoured.
So Hemlock Grove should be a feast, especially because all thirteen episodes were released at once, and all you have to do is press play on the first one to get Netflix to feed you all thirteen in a row, with teasing little twenty-second countdowns in between. Unfortunately, even if you manage to choke down the first episode, it’s unlikely you’ll want to come back for seconds. Hemlock Grove is a tasteless, half-baked, completely rotten mess of a show.
Enough of the food metaphors. Hemlock Grove is Netflix’s third original series, after Norwegian crime drama Lilyhammer and political thriller House of Cards. Based on the novel of the same title by Brian McGreevy and executive produced by horror director Eli Roth, it’s a kind of supernatural whodunit: someone, or something, is killing teenage girls, and though suspicion falls on the gypsy family who’ve just moved in, pretty much everyone in town is weird enough to be a suspect.
All the horror archetypes are present and correct, from mansion-dwelling vampires to werewolves to oversized Frankenstein’s monsters to evil corporations doing bizarre biomedical experiments on the townsfolk. There’s a creepy old man who mutters ominous nonsense, and a precocious little girl whose curiosity gets her into trouble. And, just for good measure, there’s a virgin who’s fallen mysteriously pregnant after a visit from an angel.
That sounds like a lot to pack into thirteen hour-long episodes, but Hemlock Grove manages it by not bothering with anything as apparently non-essential as a plot, characters, or any kind of momentum or intrigue. As a result, it’s almost painfully dull. The first two episodes throw all the characters at you – or, rather, all of the actors show up and say some lines – and then, nothing. The show drifts aimlessly from one episode to the next, with no actual progress towards solving the mystery ever being made. In the end, no-one solves it: the culprit just turns up and confesses everything.
The lack of a driving plot might not be disastrous in a show that had anything else to offer, but Hemlock Grove doesn’t. Its unexceptional cinematography is spoiled by the dingy filters applied to every scene, making it ugly to look at. Despite the number of familiar faces in the cast (including Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Lili Taylor, and Battlestar Galactica alumni Kandyse McClure and Aaron Douglas) the acting is pretty terrible. Janssen comes off worst due to the bizarre Romanian/English accent she’s attempting, which leads her to pronounce some words in ways they’ve never been pronounced before, but no-one really manages a convincing performance.
Maybe it’s not entirely their fault, though, because the dialogue they’re forced to deliver is abominable. There’s a possibly apocryphal Harrison Ford quote from the first Star Wars movie that goes “You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it,” and since most of the worst lines seem to have been taken directly from the novel, it’s not hard to imagine the cast of Hemlock Grove thinking the same thing. Some prime examples: “Your smile makes flowers grow and your tits make them bloom,” “If the dynamite’s already on the track, you think twice about stepping on the train,” and “This woman is what she says she is like a Mexican hates fireworks.” It’s embarrassing.
Actually, embarrassing is a good way to describe everything about this show. It’s cringeworthy. You can tell that the creators thought they were being edgy, because they threw swear words into every other line and included lots of sex scenes, but it comes off as impossibly juvenile. There’s not a single character that acts like a real person would. They just do things, because the script says so. It’s hard to shake the impression that the whole thing was written by a child, just guessing at how the adult world works. If this had been shown on an actual TV channel, it would’ve been cancelled after three episodes.
Hemlock Grove is idiotic, tedious, and frequently offensive, and it has absolutely nothing to recommend it. If this is the best Netflix can do, then I hope it’s working on expanding its film catalogue, because crap like this won’t justify the subscription fee.
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