×

TV Review: Derivative ‘Hemlock Grove’ Goes Down Slowly

Without providing much supporting evidence, Netflix has proclaimed “House of Cards” a success, which is plausible (if a trifle irritating) given mostly favorable reviews and front-page stories about whether the distributor’s binge-viewing format would reinvent TV as we know it. From a subscriber standpoint, “Hemlock Grove” — a horror concept from director Eli Roth — might be an even surer bet, although the series itself is undistinguished, playing like a slightly saucier version of the CW’s supernatural youth-skewing soaps. Disemboweling teenagers is a tried-and-true horror staple, but beyond dedicated genre fans, a few sips of “Hemlock” will more than suffice.

Novelist Brian McGreevy developed his book as a series with Lee Shipman, and the first three episodes rather slowly disgorge secrets, while oscillating between teens and their parents to provide multigenerational froth, much like gothic soaps ranging from Fox’s “Point Pleasant” to CW’s “Secret Circle” to CBS’ “Harper’s Island.”

As is so often the case, a grisly murder sets the narrative in motion, unleashing suspicions in a small one-time steel town in Pennsylvania (OK, really Canada). Soon enough, it’s apparent all is not what it seems, starting with wealthy family matriarch Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen), who dotes on her privileged, skirt-chasing son Roman (Bill Skarsgard).

SEE ALSO: Netflix Series Spending Revealed

“What are you?” Olivia is asked in the premiere directed by Roth, during a flashback sequence filled with striking imagery that feels like an homage to the old black-and-white classics directed by James Whale.

If you’re eager for answers, though, be prepared to wait until well into the second episode for anything approaching a lightning strike, such as finding out more about the gypsy mom-and-son (Lili Taylor, Landon Liboiron) whose arrival seems to coincide with the murder; and Olivia’s tightly wound brother-in-law Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), whose family also figures in the multipronged plot.

Sometimes in these instances, bad can be sort-of good, and that certainly applies to Janssen’s performance. While alluring as a femme fatale, she affects a stilted accent that sounds like a weak Katharine Hepburn impersonation. Nor does it help that Scott’s character is named Norman, so every time she addresses him, you half expect her to exclaim “The loons!” or some other “On Golden Pond”-ism.

Of course, those aforementioned teen-horror TV shows shared a common fate, having all been canceled rather quickly due to poor ratings. Netflix, however, is operating on a different plane and business model, one calculated to serve varied subscriber interests, including those who like gore, nudity and (given the mix of the macabre and high school) rent “Twilight” movies. The series obliges on the second front by somewhat uncomfortably staging most of its sexual encounters in cars, bathrooms — just about anywhere except a bed.

If the underlying formula is as old as “Dark Shadows,” there’s still a need for more narrative momentum than the 13-episode series initially delivers. So while one can understand why Netflix would augment its original slate with this mix of talent, “Hemlock Grove” remains a mere niche confection, one likely to play best among those genre fans who can’t see the forest for the trees.

 Hemlock Grove

(Series; Netflix, Premieres Fri. April 19)

Filmed in Ontario, Canada, by Shinebox SMC in association with Gaumont Intl. Television. Executive producers, Eli Roth, Brian McGreevy, Lee Shipman, Mark Verheiden, Deran Sarafian, Eric Newman, Michael Connolly; co-executive producer, Daniel Paige; producer, Lynn Raynor; director, Roth; writers, McGreevy, Shipman, based on the novel by McGreevy; camera, Fernando Arguelles, Steven Poster; production designer, Drew Boughton; editors, Jim Munro, Ron Sanders; music, Nathan Barr; casting, Denise Chamian, Ania O’Hare. 50 MIN.

Cast: Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Bill Skarsgard, Landon Liboiron, Penelope Mitchell, Freya Tingley, Lili Taylor.

TV Review: Derivative 'Hemlock Grove' Goes Down Slowly

More TV

  • Baldvin-Z

    Iceland’s Baldvin Z Crime Series “Black Sands” Added to All3Media Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    GÖTEBORG, Sweden  All3Media is to handle international rights on Icelandic crime series “Black Sands” which, currently in development, is to be pitched at the Göteborg Festival’s TV Drama Vision confab on Thursday. “Black Sands” marks the first crime thriller to be created by Icelandic helmer Baldvin Z (“Trapped”) since the hit series “Case.” Commissioned by [...]

  • Justin Timberlake performs onstage during the

    Ad Time in Fox's Super Bowl Was Sold Out. Until it Wasn't

    Fox declared in November that it had sold all the advertising time available in its looming February 2 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV. But just this week, it found a little more. After holding nearly two months’ worth of discussions, Fox and the National Football League have devised a way to add commercial inventory to [...]

  • NBC Orders Drama Pilot 'Ordinary Joe'

    NBC Orders Drama Pilot 'Ordinary Joe' From 'House' Alums

    NBC has given out its fifth drama pilot order for the 2020-2021 season. The broadcaster has commissioned “Ordinary Joe.” It explores the three parallel lives of the show’s main character after he makes a pivotal choice at a crossroads in his life. The series asks the question of how different life might look if you [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho 'Parasite' Director

    Listen: Who Will Take Home the Oscars for Best Director and Picture?

    The Oscars are just two weeks away, so it’s time to start making final predictions about who is going to win. On this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, I invited the magazine’s deputy awards and features editor (and my “Pick of the Week” co-host) Jenelle Riley onto the show [...]

  • Dazzler, Tigra, Hit-Monkey, and M.O.D.O.K.

    'Howard the Duck,' 'Tigra & Dazzler' Animated Marvel Shows Not Moving Forward at Hulu

    Marvel Television’s remaining slate continues to dwindle. Variety has confirmed that the animated shows “Howard the Duck” and “Tigra & Dazzler” — two of four animated Marvel projects set up at Hulu — are no longer in the works at the streamer. The other two shows, “M.O.D.O.K” and “Hit Monkey,” are currently still on track [...]

  • Star Wars Obi-Wan Kenobi movie

    After 'Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi Delay, Is the Force Still Strong With Disney Plus?

    The issues on Disney Plus’ Obi-Wan Kenobi series are either a minor stumble or a portent of trouble ahead, depending on who you ask. It was reported on Thursday that series writer Hossein Amini was no longer attached to the project as Disney wished to overhaul the scripts. The move led to pre-production in London [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content