American TV is flush with genre shows at the moment.
From The Vampire Diaries to Teen Wolf to Supernatural, you could argue that we’ve never been more spoiled for choice when it comes to good-looking monsters. A freshman series needs to make an impression, to offer us something different, and Netflix are hoping that Hemlock Grove will do exactly that.
Following House Of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into the horror genre also represents Eli Roth‘s first attempt at television directing. Roth clearly takes great satisfaction in “presenting” low-budget films in an attempt to broaden their audience, and it was reassuring to see that he also took the reins behind the camera for this first episode.
But the series’ genesis lies in the novel by Brian McGreevy (the credited co-writer of the series with Lee Shipman), about a small town with a lot of secrets. When a teenage girl is murdered, suspicion instantly falls on new arrival Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), who is rumoured to be a werewolf. Peter and his mother Lynda (Lili Taylor) have taken up residence in the caravan belonging to his late uncle, which looks onto the Godfrey estate.
The mysterious Godfreys essentially run Hemlock Grove; matriarch Olivia (Famke Janssen) rules the roost, son Roman (Bill Skarsgård) can do whatever he wants, and daughter Shelly…well, more on her later. Peter immediately recognises Roman as an “upir”, and Roman is instinctively curious about Peter. But who is responsible for the dead cheeleader?
The first episode of Hemlock Grove is a curious proposition in that it’s not a pilot, it’s just episode one of a 13 episode series. Because all the episodes will be available at the same time, ‘Jellyfish In The Sky’ feels like a Chapter 1 rather than an attention-grabbing pilot. We’ve also seen episodes 2 and 3, and reviewing this relatively uneventful instalment on its own merits seems cruel, but it’s still the episode that introduces you to the series, and that’s what this review will do as well.
Apart from the attack on the beautiful and beautifully named cheerleader Brooke Bluebell (Lorenza Izzo), the episode is light on horror. Instead, it establishes the three central families.
We have Peter and Lynda Rumancek (earthy free-spirit gypsies), Olivia, Roman and Shelly Godfrey (old money, sinister, obviously supernatural) and Norman (Dougray Scott), Marie (Laurie Fortier) and Letha (Penelope Mitchell) Godfrey (all-American, outwardly normal, ripe for destruction). The contrast is one of this episode’s most interesting elements and hopefully we’ll see that continue to develop.
The producers have cited Twin Peaks as an inspiration for the show’s tone, which veers from teen horror to Dallas-esque melodrama to classic Gothic, but Dark Shadows seems to be as much of an immediate source as David Lynch and Mark Frost’s classic.
Shadowy secrets are implied frequently, menacing stares are deployed ad nauseam, and there’s even a black and white flashback to a dark and stormy night outside a hospital with Norman having an argument with his brother (who’s called JR, obviously) that makes it clear that Hemlock Grove knows its roots. Meanwhile, a character like young Christina (Freya Tingley), with her exposition-prompting curiosity as a budding novelist and knowledge of lycanthropy, feels like she could have stepped out of one of the more current, self-aware genre series.
The attack on Brooke Bluebell is surprisingly bloodless (although one particular shot made us wince) and it’s interesting that the creators aren’t flaunting their freedom to stuff the running time with gore and boobs, at least not yet. In terms of the writing, the show is aiming for an off-kilter sense of humour that contributes to the atmosphere, although the dialogue’s occasionally clunky. There is also an inelegant timeline jump right at the start, which allows them to front-load the sex and violence before jumping back to earlier in the summer to introduce Peter.
That gothic melodrama tone is also going to be an issue for some viewers. This isn’t a show that’s taking itself too seriously, but there’s a fine line between knowingly arch campiness and straightforwardly ridiculous and it’s going to be interesting to see how well the show can walk it. ‘Jellyfish In The Sky’ certainly wobbles at times.
Thankfully, all the stars seem to be on message. Famke Janssen was the obvious choice for a character like Olivia. Aloof, beautiful, and sinister? She doesn’t so much sink her teeth into the character as tear bleeding chunks from it, with her arched eyebrows and outrageous English accent.
Indie figurehead Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under, High Fidelity) is similarly perfect casting as Lynda, who responds with pride when Peter returns with a stolen leather jacket. “Hey, mom’s little thief!” Of the veterans, it’s Dougray Scott who’s given short shrift in these early episodes, playing Vivian’s concerned and secretive brother-in-law. He clearly knows a lot about a lot of people, but it’s going to be a while since we find out exactly what.
But the main characters are the two teenagers, and they’re both very well-cast. Landon Liboiron’s Peter isn’t a typical tortured teen. He’s an upbeat loner who has clearly been the school outcast before. Similarly his close relationship with his mother is a refreshing change from the norm.
Bill Skarsgård’s Roman is a little more familiar (piercing stare, over-sexed, awesome wheels) but the actor brings a nicely odd sense of humour to the role, and the Netflix production allows for more risque character moments. They don’t meet until the final few seconds of the episode, but the two actors have an interesting chemistry and it’ll be interesting to watch their relationship develop. It should also be pointed out that the opening shot of Bill holding an ice cream is genius. Well, you’ll understand when you see it.
As a pilot, ‘Jellyfish In The Sky’ might not reach the usual high standards you’d expect from a show with such pedigree. But, having seen episodes 2 and 3, we can tell you that it’s a show that you need to settle into.
The wandering tone is part of its charm, and characters like Kandyse McClure’s Dr Chasseur should develop into really interesting characters. Going back to the idea that Hemlock Grove needs to present something different, this episode might be light on originality but the potential is there. Characters like Roman’s giant sister Shelly with her luminescent head genuinely feel like something we haven’t seen before and the werewolf transformation in episode 2 shows they’re striving to bring us something original. Finally, because you don’t have to wait another week for the next episodes, the real question is “Is it worth hitting Play Next?” and, based on the evidence we’ve seen, the answer is yes.
There’s something inherently self-indulgent, even gluttonous, about the idea that all the episodes should be consumed at once, and Hemlock Grove looks like it could be a tremendous guilty pleasure, a gory chocolate box of genre references and soapy clichés. Hopefully it will continue to stretch itself beyond that.