Streaming TV review: Netflix's 'Hemlock Grove'

Thursday, 18 April 2013 11:45 AM Written by 

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In Sunday’s Post-Gazette, in addition to my “Hemlock Grove” feature story, my colleague Maria Sciullo offered her review of this new series from Netflix. Maria read the Brian McGreevy novel the series is based on; I started to read it but gave up after Gaumont moved production out of Pittsburgh and up to Toronto. So I’m coming at the series comparatively cold. Given her background with the novel, Maria might have had better luck following this fragmented and twisting series.  I found the show close to indecipherable, and would have been pretty much lost without the press notes.

A gothic horror show – except when it’s a murder mystery or when it veers into a teen drama tangent – “Hemlock Grove” gets off to a disjointed and confusing start. The pilot episode – available Friday to Netflix streaming subscribers along with an additional 12 episodes that make up the complete first season – jumps all over the place without establishing characters or their relationships.

Netflix made available three episodes, written by McGreevy and Lee Shipman, for review. But by the third episode the show still hasn’t made clear how one of the apparently central characters, wannabe teenage novelist Christina Wendall (Freya Tingley), fits into the story. This failure to connect the dots is a common problem for “Hemlock Grove.”

Read more after the jump. ...

Christina first appears, unexplained, when she wanders through the woods to the single-wide trailer that’s the new home to gypsy Peter Rumancek (Landon Liborion, “TerraNova”) and his mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor). In episode three, yet more woods wandering leads her to discover a dead body.

Peter’s arrival to Hemlock Grove happens the same day another character gets murdered in a way that suggests an animal attack. Christina suspects Peter may be a werewolf, as does Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard), scion of Hemlock Grove’s wealthy Godfrey family. Eventually and through stilting dialogue, Peter and Roman form an unlikely friendship, causing multiple characters to remark to Peter, without a shred of subtlety, “You’ve never had a real friend before!” Peter also befriends Roman’s disfigured sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), a mute giant, the show’s most intriguing character who’s not in "Hemlock Grove" nearly enough in these early episodes.

Peter also suspects Roman may be Upir, a type of vampire that’s known to terrorize gypsies – not that the show defines “upir” in a satisfactory way through its first three episodes. I had to look to the show’s press notes for a concrete definition.

In addition to jumping around from character-to-character and back in time, too, the “Hemlock Grove” pilot, seemingly filmed through a brown filter by director Eli Roth, suffers from not enough attention to building its characters. Roman’s controlling mother, Olivia (Famke Jansen), speaks with an unexplained, quasi-British accent. Roman’s uncle, Norman (Dougray Scott), is at odds with Dr. Pryce (Joel de la Fuente), who works for the Godfrey’s biotech company, but “Hemlock Grove” doesn’t explain why they don’t get along.

Obviously a pilot episode cannot immediately deliver every character detail, but a pilot at least has to give viewers something to grasp onto, a reason to care, answers to at least a few of the questions it raises. “Hemlock Grove” fails in this effort.

The show also suffers from an embarrassing series of technical gaffes. The opening scenes feature two brunette characters – a teen prostitute and a teen cheerleader. Through a series of poor casting and confusing directorial/editing choices, these two lookalike characters appear to be one-in-the-same. One of these girls flirts with her female science teacher, then is murdered while the teacher helplessly listens over the phone. Then, despite setting up the Sapphic romance, the series fails to revisit this plot point in the first three episodes.

In addition, the first victim is killed while hiding in a play house on a playground. When first shown, the miniature house has a door with windows on either side. Later that night when Roman and Peter visit the crime scene – which is oddly lacking in yellow crime scene tape – the play house has only one window. Is it a completely different play house or just shot from a confusing angle? Is this some sort of clue or a production gaffe?

Another blunder: Naming a primary character Letha (Penelope Mitchell), Norman’s daughter. Every time anyone says her name, it sounds like the speaker is trying to say Lisa but suffers from a lisp. It’s unintentionally funny and a distraction from the mood “Hemlock Grove” tries to set.

“Hemlock Grove” takes place in Western Pennsylvania and includes some local second unit footage, including steel mills and possibly some aerial shots of neighborhoods in the pilot episode. The Godfrey skyscraper looks like it could have been inspired by the design of the Cathedral of Learning.

Episode two includes a road sign that suggests the characters are on Route 19 heading away from 376, although it’s a small road in the woods and a character’s dialogue sounds like he thinks they are actually on 376. A scene in episode three shows a car driving over the Smithfield Street Bridge.

McCandless native Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX company contributed special makeup effects to the show, which includes a character turning into a werewolf (his eyeballs pop out and fall to the ground -- so does that mean in werewolf biology human eyes get re-grown after every wolf-out?).

In another missed opportunity, Roman and the unfortunately named Letha visit the Pennsyl-Mania amusement park, which seems like a Kennywood stand-in. Spelling jokes that play well on the page don’t always translate to film: Multiple characters say “Pennsyl-Mania” but it sounds like “Pennsylvania” every time, which is just confusing.

For folks looking for a Western Pennsylvania vibe, “Hemlock Grove” offers some hints here and there but the show’s universe feels mostly fictional; other series have felt more Pittsburgh in nature. That’s to be expected: “Hemlock Grove” is not mainstream drama, it’s a dark soap with nudity, profanity, drugs and, most disturbingly, too many underdeveloped characters with largely unexplained back stories.

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