Failed pilot review: 'Locke & Key'

Thursday, 16 June 2011 12:00 AM Written by 

lk_logoWhen a pilot for a television series does not get picked up and instead gets tossed into a studio’s vault, the automatic question is, what went wrong? Given the number of lousy TV shows that do get greenlit to series only to be canceled a few months (sometimes just a few weeks) later, what distinguishes these longer-lived disappointments from the immediately discarded?

It’s probably different in every case. For Pittsburghers who were excited by the prospect of a television series shooting locally after Fox filmed the “Locke & Key” pilot in Western Pennsylvania earlier this year, last month’s news that Fox was passing on “Locke” had to be a disappointment. (No cable networks chose to pick the show up either.)

After watching the “Locke” pilot, it’s clearer why those decisions were made. It’s not a bad 51-minutes of television – not by a long shot. But it also is not mainstream or particularly commercial.

Read more after the jump. ...

The worst knock I read about the “Locke & Key” pilot in some pre-upfront coverage was that it moved too slowly, which could be taken to indicate it was boring. I did not find it boring – not at all, actually – but its pace, especially in the first half-hour, is deliberate.

well_houseDirector Mark Romanek chose to use a fair number of wide, distant, static shots that give “Locke & Key” a creepy, spooky atmosphere. It’s an effective device that serves the material – but I could see how impatient network executives might drum their fingers on a conference room table, wondering when the pyrotechnics will kick in.

With a script by Josh Friedman (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), the “Locke” pilot is pretty faithful to the graphic novel (by writer Joe Hill and illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez) upon which it is based.

"Locke & Key" begins with a tragedy in California when a family's patriarch, Rendell (Mark Pellegrino, who played Jacob on “Lost”), is killed by a disturbed young man, Sam Lesser (Harrison Thomas). Rendell’s widow, Nina (Miranda Otto), and her three children – teens Ty (Jesse McCartney, “Summerland”) and Kinsey (Sarah Bolger, “The Tudors”) and grade-schooler Bode (Skylar Gaertner) --move to Lovecraft, Mass,. to live in a family estate, Key House, and to be closer to the deceased's brother (Nick Stahl).

bode_ghostOnce at Key House, evil continues to haunt the family both from across the miles and in their midst thanks to some supernatural keys that unlock doors in the house. Bode finds a key, opens a door and when he walks through it, he falls over dead and his ghost emerges from his body. When the ghost flies back through the door and re-enters Bode’s body, the little boy springs back to life.

Another reason Fox may have soured on “Locke” is the pilot’s focus: As in the graphic novel, much of the first hour is spent with Bode. Gaertner is a terrific young actor and I found his scenes compelling, although I can imagine a few viewers snickering at the Casper-like Bode ghost. (at left).

Bode discovers a woman in a well inside a well house (above, right) on the Key House property. The well woman has some sort of psychic connection with imprisoned Lesser and manages to help him escape in exchange for him coming to Key House and helping her escape the well. (Why she’s trapped or what she intends to do when she gets out, is never explained in the pilot but presumably would have become clear in the series.)

The structure of the pilot is fairly sophisticated. It’s not a straight-forward plot, instead it unfolds, which could also be viewed as a no-no for a broadcast network (overall the “Locke” pilot feels more like something you’d see on cable, maybe on AMC, Showtime or HBO). Early scenes hint at Rendell’s death but flashbacks later in the pilot make it clear precisely what happened. This approach also allows the pilot to develop some of the characters, particularly Ty (Jesse McCartney, quite good in the role), who blames himself for his father’s death. Ty has a bond with his sister that, while true-to-life, is not often seen on TV, which makes an outburst Ty has in the cafeteria of his new school all the more shocking for the embarrassment it causes Kinsey.

houseAlthough the “Locke” pilot was shot in Pittsburgh, nothing in it screams Pittsburgh, except for the mansion at Hartwood Acres (at left), which capably plays the mysterious Key House. The pilot filmed exteriors and some interiors there (others were shot at the 31st Street Studios in The Strip.)

One note I would have given the “Locke” creators: Cut the last scene. After calamity comes calling there are warm images of the family hanging out in the snow in front of the mansion as Uncle Duncan hangs a swing and Nina swings on it while holding an urn containing Rendell’s ashes. For a pilot with a fair amount of mayhem, this moment of calm and general happiness among the family was a welcome break.

What follows is almost like the “Twin Peaks” scene of Josie Packard (Joan Chen) trapped in a door knob: The camera pushes into a knot in the tree and zooms inside to what appears to be a workshop, complete with lighting. Whose workshop is it, the Keebler Elves? And why do they have a woman trapped in a glass bottle on a shelf in the workshop? And is that woman Nina? And if it is, how can she be trapped in a glass bottle inside a tree at the same time that she’s outside the tree?

This scene is not included in the “Welcome to Lovecraft” graphic novel, although perhaps it’s featured in later “Locke” comic collections. Either way, it’s just a little too much weirdness for a pilot that already asks viewers to accept ghosts and a well woman. Rather than making me want to see more, this coda made me confused and annoyed (the graphic novel’s ending – Bode discovers a new key – would have worked better, building on just-established mythology with a hint of what’s to come).

Fox’s decision to pass on a “Locke & Key” series came at a time the network already had an abundance of product ordered (“Terra Nova,” “The X Factor”) and few time slots. Regardless of how the “Locke” pilot turned out, it was probably always facing an uphill battle to get on the schedule. With “Fringe” returning and “Terra Nova” in the works, there wasn’t a great need for one more genre show, particularly once the network ordered JJ Abrams’ “Alcatraz” for midseason.

Once Fox failed to pick “Locke,” the studio that made the pilot tried to solicit an offer from several cable channels. Because “Locke” poses many questions and offers only a few answers, it’s easy to see why Syfy balked. That network has veered away from smart, sophisticated programming (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Farscape”) in favor of easy escapism (“Eureka,” “Warehouse 13”). It’s clear Syfy doesn’t want to challenge its viewers with anything too smart.

In the end, there’s also this:  Does “Locke” really lend itself to a television series? It’s hard to imagine how a TV series would stretch out a story that’s contained in what will ultimately be around 30 issues of comic books, especially when you consider that the pilot covers events in the first six issues. Maybe “Locke & Key” would be better suited to a miniseries or a series of films.

Should any studio re-develop this particular property, there’s a great mansion in Pittsburgh that could once again serve as an ideal backdrop.

UPDATE: Although failed pilots generally never see the light of day, "Locke & Key" comic author Joe Hill tweeted that the "Locke" pilot might be shown at the San Diego Comic Con this summer. In addition, a petition to make "Locke & Key" into a TV show or movie has sprung up on the web.

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