Hemlock Grove Series Premiere Review: What a Beautiful Mess

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Hemlock Grove S01E01: "Jellyfish in the Sky"

Oh Hemlock Grove, what to do with you? Netflix's newest original series is guaranteed to get its entire first season out to the masses because of Netflix's distribution model of "just throw it all out at once there no matter what." But if the show were subject to the typical network model of looking over its shoulder and relying on results-based performances from week to week, I'm not sure it would live to see Cinco de Mayo. We should all be thankful Hemlock Grove is in the Netflix family, because even though it's the television equivalent of pieces from several different (and incomplete) jigsaw puzzles thrown into the same box, we'll at least have the option to find out whether the pieces come together to form some comprehensible story by the season's end. Not getting closure from a television show is a travesty. The Netflix model guarantees we'll get closure from its series, even if they suck.

And yes, Hemlock Grove, an adaptation of Brian McGreevy's novel of the same name, kind of sucks. The horror is set in a small steel town in Pennsylvania where a young woman's murder—no, that's not good enough—a young woman's brutal disemboweling (that's better) shakes up the entire city. Though police are convinced the attack is the work of an animal, most of the skittish townfolk are convinced it's the work of a local gypsy boy named Peter (Landon Liboiron, who played one of television's all-time worst characters as Josh on Terra Nova but is much better in this) who recently moved to town. Now's probably a good time to mention he might be a werewolf. [Editor's note: He is, and widespread trailers for the series blatantly flaunt this fact, so don't call me Mr. McSpoiler.] 

The mysteries continue with the second main character, a blood-sucking rich kid named Roman Godfrey (Alexander Skarsgard's younger brother Bill), who's the heir to the town's big steel company. Roman is a deviant, and in the first episode he cut his finger open in the middle of doing the deed with a hooker so he could suck his own blood and smear his lady friend with it. Is he a vampire? Maybe. Probably.

The series rockets into the murmurings of a madman from there, with a host of tangential secondary characters full of intentionally unexplained quirks: a scientist who is more than a little mad doing secret experiments at Godfrey Enterprises; Roman's gigantic, shuffling sister who has a single bug eye and could more convincingly pass for the sister of Sloth from The Goonies; Roman's pretty blonde cousin who appears to be more than just friends with Roman (and who gets an even more bizarre storyline in Episode 2); and Roman's seductive mother Olivia (Famke Janssen) who we learned is also a creature of some sort, through a flashback to 2000 that was intentionally filmed like it was in 1950 for no apparent reason other than why the hell not? 

Yet for all these mish-mashed horror threads, Hemlock Grove appeared to be in no rush to exploit them, at least in the two episodes I watched. It's slow. Like, plate-tectonics slow. It also made zero effort to have any of its horror cornucopia (Horr-nucopia? Though I guess that sounds like something entirely different and NSFW) make sense. In many ways, Hemlock Grove seems to be trying to duplicate the delightful madness of American Horror Story, which compresse horror tropes into one solid brick of entertaining insanity with multiple winks and knowing nudges. However, Hemlock Grove is a more serious effort, which is odd given that it comes from horror aficionado Eli Roth, the same man who gave us the extremely and purposefully campy Cabin Fever, a popcorn-munching gore-fest with one of cinema's most bizarre endings. I adored Cabin Fever for it's unapologetic fun. Hemlock Grove doesn't share the same joy. 

The joy that is there seems to have all gone into the look of the series, which can be stunning at points, particularly in the forest surrounding Peter's trailer. But aside from its striking cinematography, Hemlock Grove mostly feels like an amateurish effort. The writing can be awful at times. (Sample dialogue from Episode 2: "How do you explain dancing to a person with no legs?" The response, "I have legs that won't quit." Say what?) That writing leads to several scenes that just happen with little to no detectable importance, and others that end in jarring fashion, as though the editor was in a hurry to beat traffic home. And the last domino to fall apparently smacked the actors on their heads; at times, they look just as bewildered as we do while trying to figure out what they're doing. 

But! And this is a J-Lo-sized "but," the puzzle analogy I used at the start of this review may be the key to the entire show. There might be a whole lot more to Hemlock Grove than initially appears, and that's where the Netflix model might save it. Despite being bored to the point of considering bodily harm to keep myself awake, I'm curious enough that I'm tempted to see where this bizarre series goes. And thanks to Netflix's entire-season dump, I can satisfy that curiosity instantly if I want to. Or at least I can read recaps by someone who's brave enough to spend 13 hours chasing closure.

How much of Hemlock Grove have you watched so far? What do you think?

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