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‘Locke & Key’ Shows the Problem with Trying to Make a Hit TV Show from an Algorithm

Even the season's closing minutes underline the way this adaptation is optimized for easy watching and feeds on people's interests in other shows.


“Locke & Key”

Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

[Note: The following contains spoilers for the ending of Season 1 of “Locke & Key.”]

The week that “Locke & Key” made its global debut on Netflix, there was a set of massive signs at L.A. Live outside the Staples Center. Each of them the height of a decent-sized apartment building, they had only a simple set of images echoing the cover of the comics series the new show is adapted from: Keyhole-shaped marks at the top of people’s spinal columns, ready to be unlocked.

Those giant ads hint at a show with mammoth possibility while offering as few details as possible. It’s a great hook for a series, one that’s destined to grab people’s attention as they’re sifting through options on the main Netflix app screen. Regardless of how well that worked, the 10 episodes of Season 1 that follow once you hit “Play” are also symptomatic of a specific kind of Netflix algorithm-based approach in some of the most glaring ways.

“Locke & Key” has long been a thorn in TV execs’ sides, with thwarted adaptations straddling multiple networks and streaming services. That this latest one made it to the screen feels less of a realization of the vision contained within the pages of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s comics series and more of a chance to manufacture a show with as many recommendation connection points as possible.

It certainly delivers on its title, following the children of the Locke family as they discover not only a magical set of keys that each bring unthinkable power, but the dark legacy that these mysterious tools bring with them. That premise becomes a canvas onto which any number of Netflix hits get tossed. It’s a TV casserole featuring the haunted family dynamic of “The Haunting of Hill House,” an interdimensional threat to appeal to “Stranger Things” fans, a timeline-hopping element that feels like diet “Dark.” Add in the relationship- and clique-based drama of a standard high school-set drama and that’s the “Locke & Key” baseline.

There’s something about the way that “Locke & Key” drives forward that removes most of the tension that you’d expect to propel the show forward. Every development is spelled out on a neat trail of clues. Whispers lead the kids to each key. Characters announce their feelings with minimal complications. It makes sense that people faced with impossible circumstances would try to talk things out with each other, but “Locke & Key” organizes each successive realization like a Wikipedia summary for people who missed everything while they were looking at their phone.

Even at 10 episodes, there’s still a sense that “Locke & Key” glosses over the way that the Locke kids grapple with the life-changing abilities that these keys possess. One can turn any door into a universal portal. One opens a music box that can control other human beings. One is the one hinted on that poster that — to reiterate — is placed into the back of someone’s neck to reveal anyone’s personal memory palace. This is fundamental body horror fodder with its edges sanded down further and further to court younger and younger audiences.


“Locke & Key”

Ken Woroner/Netflix

The increasingly casual way that the Lockes (and eventually their friends) respond to this escalating, terrifying power also points to the idea that this was never intended to be a show that grappled with the immense possibility the source material affords. This is a story of kids discovering magic and the collective reaction of everyone involved is akin to finding a confusing Harry Potter video game. The immediate acceptance, use and resultant shrug that the show and its inhabitants have toward these keys’ power seems more indicative of a programming-based gambit for licensing than a show that wants to explore its own treasure.

Few story decisions in the season reflect this idea more than the final minutes of Season 1, when a twist ending reveals that the main villain of “Locke & Key” has been disguising itself as one of the Locke children’s classmates. Aside from adding to the show’s cavalcade of nightmares, it presents this season-capping information at the end of an ICYMI montage filling in the only gaps in the story that “Locke & Key” hadn’t methodically and explicitly laid out yet.

It’s a cynical move, especially when it’s tacked on to an attempted moment of uplift designed to show that the Locke family has come to terms with the tragic death of patriarch Rendell. All loose ends had been tidily dealt with, every possible loop closed, each key safely tucked away in the music box where all the kids can safely repress the unthinkable body horror to which they’ve all been unwittingly subjected. But that final gambit, with the surprise resurrection of one demon and the fresh appearance of another, is the safest possible window to a Season 2. Either the show ends and the Locke family can live in their forced peace or this artificial new wrinkle just starts the entire process all over again. Haunt, rinse, repeat.

It’s just a shame that some of the more compelling parts of the series get drowned out by the surrounding pandering creative decisions. A labyrinthine hall of mirrors loses its impact when the only other thing trying to build a sense of discomfort is an on-the-nose series of music cues. One of those mind palace sequences is lessened when it’s clear that it’s just mimicking “The Good Place” house style palette. Rather than lean into the wonder of a truly new world, “Locke & Key” is cobbled together from component parts of others.

With shows like “BoJack Horseman” and “The Crown” — series that used to represent the past triumphs of a more discerning Netflix programming age — ending or on their way out, there’s going to be an even greater emphasis on sure bets, of calculated plays at four-quadrant hits. Netflix may or may not be banking on “Locke & Key” to be its new runaway word-of-mouth gem, but if this is the intended blueprint for making the next one, it’s a hollow foundation.

“Locke & Key” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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