×

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

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

  • Syfy Cancels 'Nightflyers' After One Season

    Syfy Cancels 'Nightflyers' After One Season

    The George R.R. Martin drama “Nightflyers” has been canceled by Syfy after only one season. Based on the novella from the mastermind behind “Game of Thrones,” the show was seen as a big gamble for the NBCUniversal-owned cable network, as it represented the most expensive series it had ever developed. The network attempted to spark [...]

  • Batwoman Arrow

    The CW's 'Batwoman' Pilot Switches Directors, Adds Dougray Scott

    The CW has added veteran Scottish actor Dougray Scott to its “Batwoman” pilot as well as swapped in Marcos Siega for previous director David Nutter, Variety has learned. The pilot, which stars Ruby Rose as the eponymous caped heroine, is being helmed by DC TV head Greg Berlanti, and was penned by “Vampire Diaries” alum [...]

  • OG Review

    Review: 'O.G.' on HBO

    Jeffrey Wright, the most compelling reason to watch HBO’s new film “O.G.,” is among television’s best actors at switching between codes or manners of being. On “Westworld,” his timeline-toggling android swaps personae so delicately that his performance gains in resonance when recalled in retrospect. (Perhaps that’s why Wright has been so oddly underrated through the [...]

  • Nahnatchka Khan Writers Room

    Nahnatchka Khan Exits 20th Century Fox TV for Overall Deal at Universal

    Nahnatchka Khan has signed a four-year overall deal at Universal Television. The deal brings an end to the decade-plus Khan and her Fierce Baby Productions banner spent at 20th Century Fox Television. The move will see Khan exit from her role as showrunner on ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” which she also created. The [...]

  • David Ajala

    'Nightflyers' Star David Ajala Joins CBS Drama Pilot 'Under the Bridge'

    David Ajala has been cast in a lead role in the CBS drama pilot “Under the Bridge,” Variety has learned. In the project, when a scandal rocks the medical practice she runs with her husband and their friends, a surgeon rises to the occasion and takes the lead in trying to mend both the practice and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content