Hemlock Grove: I Don’t Know What We’re Yelling About

After a series of serious and thoughtful posts, I thought I’d lighten up and poke some fun at a show I just finished watching on Netflix. Spoilers are kept to a minimum where possible. Not a big challenge considering I’m still not exactly sure what was going on half the time. For the record this show gets one thumb in approximately the 10 o’ clock position.

So I broke a rule of mine before writing this post. Usually, I avoid other reviews of a subject in order to present my opinion from an unbiased perspective and to avoid plagiarizing some other more talented writer. But the first (and only?) season of Hemlock Grove left me in a difficult position. On one hand, I really enjoyed some aspects of it and on the other I’ve no real idea what the hell was going on a lot of the time. I still don’t understand a lot of things, having gotten through to the end and finally reached the big plot twists and reveals. I found myself a combination of satisfied but somewhat nauseous, like reheating the leftovers of an excellent meal a day or two later than I should have.

So I had to cast about and find some kind of consensus, some barometer that could gauge whether or not I simply wasn’t picking up on the storytelling methods being used or if there just weren’t any there to begin with. It seems like the word mediocre is most commonly used, leaning towards the negative and I haven’t found anyone who outright loved the show, at least not yet. I think that I was fortunate that when I started it I knew Eli Roth was involved and I despise this man, I truly do. Not just because I can’t stand his brand of Torture Porn, but his fake trailer for ‘Thanksgiving’ that appeared in between Planet Terror and Death Proof was like a papercut in my brain that nearly ruined the great experience of seeing Grindhouse in the theater. This resulted in my expectations of the show being the lowest of the low, so by the third or fourth episode I was pleasantly surprised that I was enjoying the experience. It was a refreshing, if derivative, break from all the vampire worship that’s been going on for far too long. Werewolves can be pretty cool too, I think. And I’ll go on record here, one of the coolest moments in the entire series is how this show interprets the transformation. Up until this point American Werewolf in London has been the benchmark but Hemlock Grove takes a slightly different approach and it is totally frickin’ sweet. It showed real potential, in my mind, for actual imaginative horror. When it comes to my opinion, however, it should be known that when I was a kid I totally loved the Lost in Space movie when it came out. Yes. The one with Matt LeBlanc.

About four or five episodes into the series I thought I saw something that I found really compelling: The characters had the appearance of depth and multiple dimensions. Like any pilot should, all the characters are introduced for what is most obvious about their personalities and motivations. HG is pretty on the nose with everyone, I thought I hated every single person from minute one. But characters that seemed paper thin and predictable suddenly started to display completely opposing character traits. The cold manipulative Famke Jansenn displays genuine maternal instinct and concern, the cruel sleazy rich boy becomes a lonely outsider in need of a real friend, and Lily Taylor remains just as obnoxious and cloying as she has in everything I have ever seen her in (sorry, I never forgave her for her role on Six Feet Under). She’s one exception, but other than that I got really excited, and I thought, these writers might have something going.

These writers did not have something going. Because the thing about presenting multiple layers of a character is that their arc has to make some kind of sense to the audience, and this is where the show failed me. These characters don’t have so much of an arc as a roadmap of a town designed by a very drunk and vindictive city planner. Without getting into specifics, here is my train of thought describing one of the main characters from the beginning of the show to the very end of the show:

  • Is this guy the villain? I don’t know but I don’t like him.
  • I hate him.
  • I really hate him.
  • Holy crap, I think I like this character. Maybe he is just misunderstood.
  • I want this guy to succeed, he’s trying to do the right thing. He just doesn’t know how to…
  • ….I want someone to punch his face through the back of his stupid head.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Good, he got exactly what he deserved, the son of a…….oh, goddamnit, how did I not see that coming.

How to describe the plot. I’ll be honest, I don’t want my criticisms to be interpreted as outright hate. I liked this show overall. I enjoyed the ending revelations, they seemed plausible (when I say plausible, I mean in the context of the story and setting, not…..*falls over laughing*….not in any other way that the word could be used….*wipes tears away*…sigh). I think that this would have made a better mini-series than full 13 episode season. Sometimes things happen that really have no meaning or purpose towards moving the plot forward. There is some semblance of an investigation taking place but, like anything involving a werewolf should, it feels like a full month goes by without anything of significance happening. Like the show Lost, there seems to be the idea that adding more mysteries to the show instead of addressing the outstanding ones as they go is anything other than a distraction from the developing story. I mean, once they opened the hatch at the beginning of the second season and that just turned out to be another cornucopia of ‘WTF?’ I knew it was time to check out and move on with my life. What was I talking about?

I want to be clear that although I am picking on the show a little bit I do recommend throwing it on with a bottle of wine (or tequila) and a loved one and seeing if a few episodes have any appeal. There is an underlying pulpy sense of soap opera to HG that I enjoy. Two parts Twin Peaks, one part Twilight, a dash of Dark Shadows and a healthy dollop of The X-Files makes for some enjoyable guilty pleasure television. If gore is not something you find palatable in your trashy TV, it’s still worth a shot. I was able soldier through without too many grimaces. On a serious note, however, at one point one of the main characters crosses a line that I do not tolerate in my main characters (see inner monologue above) and the act is treated with next to no gravity or consequence. If it is meant to firmly establish the monstrous nature of this character, the job is done. But the scene itself is unpleasant and horrifying.

What Hemlock Grove shows is that Netflix is not AMC, with an unstoppable stable of excellent television; at least not yet. Where House of Cards was brilliant and Arrested Development was delightful, Hemlock Grove is….a really good try. And Lilyhammer is something I don’t know anything about because the show is called Lilyhammer. But check it out if you want, it’s a pleasant distraction from all the PTSD invoked by the Red Wedding.

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3 thoughts on “Hemlock Grove: I Don’t Know What We’re Yelling About

  1. Having just completed watching the season, I rather enjoyed it. It was dark and dirty, and does leave you swinging wildly between like and dislike of individual characters similar to Game of Thrones character development. I would watch season 2, if they create one, but they will have the stretch the plausibility yet further since they did wrap up the major story lines neatly with a bow.
    PS…I do believe you mean Lili Taylor. Picturing Lily Tomlin as a character in Hemlock Grove made me chuckle.

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