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by Alison Willmore
April 19, 2013 3:01 PM
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Netflix's New Series 'Hemlock Grove' is a Ramshackle, Sometimes Interesting Mess of Supernatural Themes and Teen Angst

'Hemlock Grove' Netflix
Like "True Blood" and "American Horror Story: Asylum," Netflix's new original series "Hemlock Grove" takes place in a world into which a hodgepodge of supernatural elements have been dumped and hastily stirred. One of its protagonists, new kid in town Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), is a werewolf. The other, wealthy princeling Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgård), seems able to control people with his will, and has a taste for blood, both his own and that of others.

Roman's sister, who's named Shelley as a nod to the writer of "Frankenstein," is a wordless giant with a malformed eye and glowing veins who pays occasional visits to a brusque and possibly mad scientist working in a biotech tower in the middle of an otherwise decrepit former steel town. Their mother, Olivia (Famke Janssen), is a white-clad, accented cousin to Morticia Adams. In classic genre fashion, the story begins with a girl who's running through the woods getting murdered by some mysterious and possibly inhuman force. 

The thing with "Hemlock Grove," which like Netflix's last original "House of Cards" was released in its season one entirety today, is that we're never really sure how surprising or odd these revelations are meant to be to the other characters. The obvious elements aside, the show's not particularly heightened in tone, yet the characters never ask the questions that are expected -- really, demanded, when something wild occurs. The show, created by writer Brian McGreevy, has no center -- it's a lurching combination of muted delivery and crazy happenings.

In one of the early episodes, for instance, the apparently virginal and proper Letha Godfrey (Penelope Mitchell), cousin to Roman, tells her parents that she's pregnant, saying that an angel caused her to conceive. They react with mild consternation to this revelation, and rather than explore this alarming claim further they instead disagree over whether or not she should get an abortion. Her father, the psychiatrist Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), reveals to someone later that he thinks the story is one his daughter made up to obliterate the memory of a rape, but he doesn't pursue this line of inquiry either, not notifying the police or trying to figure out when the assault occurred.

It's like everyone in "Hemlock Grove" has a touch of Asperger's, or is working off of far different and harder to grasp priorities than those that guide typical social interactions. "I didn't kill her -- I figured it was you." Peter says when he runs into Roman at the murder site in the middle of the night. "Me? Why would I do it?" Roman responds. "Why would I?" "People are saying you're a werewolf." "You believe every rumor you hear?"

And then they chat about the girl, with Peter musing about how strange it is when someone you know dies. This strange, staccato pacing takes the time for an extended but not terribly clarifying flashback in the middle of the Eli Roth-directed first episode, but doesn't show why everyone reacts to badly to Peter and his mother Lynda (a lost-looking Lili Taylor) being gypsies -- is this a Pennsylvania industrial town or a medieval European village?

As different as "Hemlock Grove" is from "House of Cards," it's done no favors following in the latter's footsteps. It's as rough as the political drama is coolly slick, and not in ways that feel intentional -- the whole show, for instance, has an oddly yellowish cast to it, like an Instagram accident. Despite the series' overall ramshackle qualities, there's a flicker of potential to it, a rawness to its treatment of its assembly of outsiders. "Hemlock Grove" isn't really a supernatural soap like "The Vampire Diaries," but its genuine angst bleeds through its awkward exchanges -- when Shelley, who can't speak but who writes like a prim and eloquent Regency heroine, is getting bullied in the high school hallway, or when Lynda gets the brush off by Olivia at the store, or when Peter and Roman joke over lines from "Night of the Living Dead" while exploring the graveyard at night, having taken on the task of figuring out who or what may be goring young women in the wilderness.

That tenuous friendship between Peter and Roman is one of the few aspects of the show that works, at least in its initial episodes -- they have the supernatural beings' equivalent of two teenage oddballs bonding over a discovered fondness for the same metal band or obscure graphic novel, and they give the show its hints of being a metaphor for adolescent distress.

Liboiron, late of "Terra Nova," is the cast member who seems most at ease with the material and with his place as a remixed, lupine bad boy outsider -- the lanky, pallid Skarsgård may look the part, but he stumbles over his delivery. He's far from the only one to struggle with the show's mix of abruptness and arch, self-referential wordiness -- "Gypsy orphan Heathcliff: Byronic hero or proto-Marxist class warrior?" Olivia asks Peter when he stops by to see her son in what does not in the least slip off the tongue as a taunt of catching him in a lie.

"Hemlock Grove" has the benefit of having Eli Roth's name attached and enough gore -- including Peter's werewolf transformation scene, which memorably reimagines the shift as a grisly one in which the wolf bursts out of his human flesh -- to attract genre fans, but it's moody and removed, more a drama than a horror romp and in no hurry to solve its mystery. I'll take another look at Netflix's latest once I've made my way through all 13 episodes, but a third of the way through, the series is looking like an only sometimes intriguing mess.

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17 Comments

  • Bobbi | February 27, 2014 7:27 PMReply

    Famke Jenssen was born in the Netherlands and moved to the US at 19. She is nearly 50 now & supposedly speaks fluent English, French & some German. The accent she is using in Hemlock Grove is awful. It sounds like she is an American affecting a British accent badly. I can only think she is doing it on purpose as she did not sound this way on X-men or on Star Trek Next Gen. The accent is so bad it is distracting. Really really bad. I can't imagine whose idea it was for a European to speak as if she is a steel town American slightly faking her messed up idea of English spoken with a pretend British/European accent. Her eye job is distracting too - used to be such a beautiful woman. Heck - she played the woman every man fell in love with on Jean Luc Picard's show!

  • Nero | August 26, 2013 9:52 PMReply

    I just finished it and while I was rooting for this show, it simply failed to deliver. Everything from Famke's TERRIBLE accent to her rather large hands made me wish I could get the time I wasted watching it back. Plot holes where there was a possibility of a follow through of a plot, irrelevant scenes and characters that led nowhere, script inconsistencies. This show was all over the place theme wise. One place the show did seem to excel was in his misogynistic view points, and negative racial stereotypes. Gypsies are trash that steal, women are sluts that need raping, and that messenger homeless guy? Well, nobody knows what he and the priest have to do with ANY of this hullabaloo mess of a script. Please, do us a favor netflix and let the series die there. No one needs to waste any more of their time watching this confusing pile of jumbled mess.

  • galaxy1998 | June 7, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    I really wish people would stop going on about how bad the acting is and how "normal" people don't talk and act like that- it's not supposed to be "NORMAL", it's supposed to be warped, dark and just plain weird. If you want a "NORMAL" show there are many plain jane shows out there for you to watch. It's a fantastic mess of weirdness.

  • Ann | April 24, 2013 1:06 AMReply

    Unfortunately, Hemlock Grove is horrible. The acting is really bad, the storyline is a stretch, more so than expected. Famke Janssen's British accent is horrible. Im really disappointed.

  • Liam | May 13, 2013 12:04 PM

    No. No one speaks like that. No one. Not Famke Janssen. Not anyone. And a simple Google search for an interview would have shown you that.

    She said in regard to her role that she "enjoyed affecting an accent" for the character. And if she'd stayed away from British slang ("bloody", etc), willing suspension of disbelief would have let me ignore it - after all, her character has no origin anyone can find, so it would have been fine to write it off as generic. Instead, it's about as bad as Julia Roberts' horrible accent in Mary Reilly. And it hurts the show's watchability. House of Cards was a masterstroke. This is tripe by comparison. And Famke's accent cheapens it all the more.

    Oh well, Netflix. We'll get 'em next time. :)

  • Alexz | May 9, 2013 7:16 PM

    I think it's funny that your saying that she has a bad accent. But guess what?!?! She's European she's not faking any accent. That's the way she speaks.

  • Maria | April 22, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    I know is TV, but somehow showing actors who supposedly represent 17 year old kids being sexually aggressive, smoking pot, snorting coke, getting wasted and in one instance raping another 17 year old makes me sick to my stomach. The writers of this series never thought about the audience they where targeting, did zero research on anything (a grouper trooper doing FBI work!!) and generated poor dialogue lines followed by gore, sex, and addiction... so disappointing and sad.

  • Alexz | May 9, 2013 7:13 PM

    This is based off of a book....so maybe you should look into that before you start talking crap about the writers. Maybe you should do your research.

  • Derek | April 23, 2013 8:28 AM

    That's really realistic Maria. Something which irritates me when I watch American tv and see teenagers is that they never ever act like actual teenagers. British shows always portray teens in a far more realistic way. Despite the bizarre premise of the show the kids acted like actual teenagers bar the supernatural stuff.

    I just finished Hemlock's Grove last night. I actually quite enjoyed it. It's a mess but it was an enjoyable mess of a show. Famke Janssen's accent also grows on you as the series progresses. It actually does make sense for that character.

    The most frustrating thing about the show for me is that it's clearly very much unfinished. But they have as good as said they have second season so maybe some/many of the unanswered questions will be resolved .

  • Mike | April 22, 2013 2:19 AMReply

    This show is ridiculous.. makes little to no sense.. you watch the first episode and are left with a million questions.. well it's the same throughout the entire season. I just finished episode 12 and for the first time something has been answered. Tomorrow I will watch the finale and I doubt it will answer the other 999,999 questions I have.

  • alicia | April 21, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    I thought the show was good, never saw house of cards. Watched the whole season in two days with some friends who liked it also. Sometimes it doesnt have to make sense to be enjoyable.

  • Evelyn | April 21, 2013 10:17 AMReply

    As fantastic as House of Cards was - this is the opposite. I got through 8 episodes as I hoped it would get better. It's just bad - bad dialogue, some bad acting - just bad.

  • Evelyn | April 21, 2013 10:17 AMReply

    As fantastic as House of Cards was - this is the opposite. I got through 8 episodes as I hoped it would get better. It's just bad - bad dialogue, some bad acting - just bad.

  • Evelyn | April 21, 2013 10:17 AMReply

    As fantastic as House of Cards was - this is the opposite. I got through 8 episodes as I hoped it would get better. It's just bad - bad dialogue, some bad acting - just bad.

  • Evelyn | April 21, 2013 10:16 AMReply

    As fantastic as House of Cards was - this is the opposite. I got through 8 episodes as I hoped it would get better. It's just bad - bad dialogue, some bad acting - just bad.

  • Evelyn | April 21, 2013 10:16 AMReply

    As fantastic as House of Cards was - this is the opposite. I got through 8 episodes as I hoped it would get better. It's just bad - bad dialogue, some bad acting - just bad.

  • nia | April 21, 2013 12:37 AMReply

    This is the stupidest show I have ever seen. Go ahead and watch it, I had to. But don't forget for all your life just how stupid shows can get.