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Hemlock Grove – Season One Review

On certain rare occasions, Netflix releases a show that it made in house. Hemlock Grove is their first foray into anything science fiction/fantasy/horror related (that I know of). There’s an evil medical corporation, werewolves, and a gory body count which leads me to think that they tried to do everything all at once for all the already proven audiences for urban fantasy and bloodsplatter horror then decided to go for the gold with scientifically dubious medical experimentation.

Anyway, the plot arc mostly concerns itself with a series of mystery maulings and the machinations of the Godfrey family as it relates to the small town of Hemlock Grove. Young Roman Godfrey (the extremely pale) and Peter Romansek (newly arrived in town) decide to try to find the killer. Cue the hoses filled with red corn syrup and ballistics gel with a side helping of soap opera melodrama.

First, I have to say a little about the structure and pacing. Considering how many flashbacks are thrown at the audience, thirteen episodes seemed like way too much. It dragged in many places. There are big gaps in the timeline and the story doesn’t do suspense well at all. For most of the series, there is no sense of urgency and there is great reliance on the presence of blood and guts to generate a scare. I know that the entire season was released at once and maintaining an increasing level of tension becomes difficult, but the story keeps going off on tangents and squashing the tension like an overripe grape.

Of course the characters themselves are partially to blame. Almost everyone is exactly what they seem and it doesn’t really change. Peter is a mostly nice person who gets picked on due to being Roma. Roman is extremely entitled and clearly the bicycle amongst the high school female population. Roman’s sister Shelly is sweet regardless of her appearance. Olivia Godfrey is clearly manipulative and isn’t burdened with an abundance of scruples. None of these characters end the series with a huge amount of growth considering how long it drags on. All of one’s initial impressions of nearly all the characters turn out to be right and none of them really break their type. Peter probably has the biggest progression arc, but most of that happens in the last two episodes (which I wished I had skipped to much earlier).

Since none of the characters do a lot of changing throughout, it bogs the series down in needless repetition that Roman is a womanizer, Peter is the new gypsy kid, and so on, when one could actually have Doctor Price at the super creepy Godfrey Institute disclose something about what he’s working on or watch Norman Godfrey at the mental hospital document the delusions and dissociations of his patients. Either of those would have been better than the endless rehash of who’s sleeping with who, who has a big secret crush, and which friends are speaking terms.

Heaven forbid the plot lurch forward during the middle sections. Had the characters exhibited some more nuance or some neat hidden secrets or if there was more time spent in the library where they apparently have an accurate book on “how to become a werewolf without the trouble of getting mauled in the process” I might have been more interested. For that matter, if they had dropped the whole “suspenseful horror” presumption and lightened up on the darkity-dark in places, I might have enjoyed it more. Dexter is a really grim series, but it never forgets that life is absolutely hilarious sometimes. Hemlock Grove must’ve slept through that part of how to make a dramatic series. The only really funny thing I can remember is the flailing I did regarding the discovery of one of the bodies (anyone with a functioning nose can tell a dismembered corpse from a manikin).

As a side note, Hemlock Grove apparently subscribes to slasher rules of engagement. If you find yourself stuck in a slasher movie and you are a woman, do not have sex. NEVER SPLIT UP. Don’t be a person of color as you will either be a victim or a villain. I found it pretty depressing to have such tired tropes trotted out yet again. Also, motives for villains would be nice as I find excessive moustache twirling “for the EVLOLs!!” dull.

Trying to put all of the big glaring warts aside, I did enjoy Doctor Price and Shelly. Shelly looks like something fresh from the uncanny valley, but watching her assert her independence in small ways against her mother and the diary she kept made her a far better character in a shorter space of time than all those hours watching Roman and Peter do something or other. I was absolutely crushed that Price was a minor character as he seemed to have the outline of a complex motive and a sympathetic side in addition to the creepy.

There’s a baseball bat of a visual metaphor going throughout regarding a serpent devouring its own tail, but I think that a broken record would have been more accurate for this series…with the exception of Doctor Price’s small subplot. Reanimation and revivification should be both cyclic and transformative (and creepy and unnerving) but it’s so underexplored and such a small part of the over arching plot of “find and stop the killer” that it never made all that much sense for other characters to keep seeing the ouroboros motif in metaphysical visions.

I liked the overall concept of the series and I really enjoy slow burns, but I demand episodes make some sort of plot or character progression in every episode, preferably both at the same time. Instead, I felt that Hemlock Grove spent far too much time chasing its tail like a hyped up puppy rather than do anything about the self-reflexivity that the image of the ouroboros could have been (and probably should have been) used for. Good for them, they caught the tail. Sadly, I don’t think that the series is sharp enough to realize that it did.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Hi LIz,

    I’m about six episodes in so I haven’t read your review yet, but I’m glad someone has decided to review it for the site. It’s a weird show that I am finding truly entertaining, despite some glaring faults. I look forward to reading your review once I finish the show!!

  2. Avatar Patricia Branham says:

    I think “Hemlock Grove” is one of the best shows I’ve watched. I could not wait to see each new episode. I thought the acting was superb. Glad to see that all 7 reviewers who voted gave the series 10/10 stars.

  3. Avatar Alucard Susej says:

    I think the reviewer did a pretty good job of summing up Hemlock Grove. It’s true, the show falls short in the most vital area: the plot, in fact, what was the plot?. The cinematography was pretty good, however I did not appreciate the glossy filter applied to each frame.

    I thought the werewolf and Roman acted decently considering the silly circumstances they were required to act under. I found it difficult to determine what kind of audience the show was made for? It seemed to have the “twilight” thing going on to some extent, but then again there was so much uncomfortable swearing and sexual content, it’s like they tried to grab the “adult” viewers attention too by mistakenly thinking that these things will make us want to keep watching it.

    The biggest problem is that after one episode finishes, there is absolutely no “yeah! let’s keep watching!” feeling that you get. Instead, as I progressed from one episode to the next, I found myself saying: “Okay, maybe THIS episode will capture my attention and become interesting”, but sadly enough that never happened.

    Cheers to Netflix for trying. I hope they can come up with a better horror series in the future, as they definitely seem gifted when it comes to cinematography.

    • Avatar Fellshot says:

      It sort of seemed like the Twilight franchise in the character design (Roman and Edward are visually interchangable) and with its almost soap opera obsession with who’s doing what with whom, but never quite delves into the full on Mary Sue that makes Twilight a commercial success or the full melodrama with twists and cycles everywhere that make soap operas into institutions that go for decades. I cannot agree enough about the pacing dragging like it was carrying a dead donkey on its back.

      There was the potential for a better horror story, but never really got what makes those awesome either. It was simply disappointing in far too many ways and insistently so.

      Regarding the camera filtering, I was left thinking that it had been shot in instagram. It was either orange or blue so much of the time! 😛

  4. Avatar Roman says:

    Good start, 1st episode was awesome, the episode where peter turns werewolf was one of the best transformations ever seen…a lil bit of a slow burn, lots of sex scenes,Roman using Jedi mind tricks and sex kinks were different…kind of took a while to go somewhere…episode 8 was great…cool subplots…I’d like to see a better season 2? I give it a 8 outta 10

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