Have I ever mentioned that I started (and then dropped out) of a Folklore Master’s program? It’s true, I aspired to the same degree held by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons (in fact, when we lived in Eugene, Manbeast and I frequented Emerald City Comics, which the rumor mill says it the inspiration for the comic shop in the show, though everyone I ever interacted with there was much more friendly and helpful than CBG). Regardless of what degrees I may or may not hold, this tidbit is relevant because I love folklore, especially folklore as it relates to monsters/religions/the occult. Primary research interests include the Spiritualist Movement, the life and works of Aleister Crowley (while still in grad school I was able to attend an OTO service which was incredible!) and just in general the things that go bump in the night. I manage a tumblr blog called What the Folklore. Despite no longer being an academic in a related field, I still eat, sleep, and breathe the arcane and the esoteric. I love books on the subject (especially Holly Black and Seanan McGuire‘s imaginings of faerie courts), I love shows and movies on the subject (Supernatural was a particular favorite til that went downhill, I enjoy much of Lost Girl, etc.) though they are dealing with a subject matter that can be tricky to pull off in a manner that is both unique and engaging.
So with my fine-tuned interest and Manbeast’s casual interest, it wasn’t that far of a stretch for us to decide that we would try out the Netflix Original Series Hemlock Grove. The show has two seasons available for watch and has been renewed for a third. It features a few actors with recognizable names (Famke Johnson from X-Men, Bill Skarsgard from Alexander Skarsgard’s brother). It features a decent, consistent aesthetic and music that is thematically appropriate and also very beautiful
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW WILL CONTAIN INTENTIONAL SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 1 AND 2 OF HEMLOCK GROVE. POTENTIALLY, IT WILL CONTAIN MORE SPOILERS BUT ANY OF THOSE ARE ULTIMATELY JUST LUCKY SPECULATION.
Initially I didn’t realize that Eli Roth was attached to this project, which explains why everything is so disgusting and loud and why the werewolf eats his own remains after shifting. Look guys, I’m a member of Oh No They Didn’t, I know more about that man then is strictly necessary and I hate all of it. His work blows. Large parts of Hemlock Grove blow. I can extrapolate that at least some of it is his influence because like I said, the graphic violence is very graphic and the show opens with car sex boobs.
There are lots of very loud, drawn out sexy noises. I watch Game of Thrones, I have a high tolerance for useless, gratuitous sex. The first two episodes of this are just outright ridiculous.
The show is also an excellent example of why we need diversity in casting. Yes, the main reason is because representation is important and helpful for formative minds and already formed minds who like to see themselves mirrored and acknowledged in the media they consume. The other reason is that all the vaguely tan brunette ladies this show cast look fucking identical and I have no clue who is who is who. Is car sex girl the one that got murdered? Is she the cheerleader that Roman looks at awkwardly? The teacher that the murdered girl is trying to meet up with looks like her twin. So does obnoxious child, who looks like a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT obnoxious child when she is playing dress up with Andy Bellfleur’s obnoxious fairy children before the Halloween dance. Werewolf kid’s mom and Letha are the only women who look even remotely distinctive.
One of the main frustrations with this show might not be the shows fault, but I could understand almost none of the dialogue. I could HEAR it, but it came out all mushy to my ears. This could be a problem with my ears, with our sound system, with Netflix as an independent streaming service separate from the show, of with the show itself. I admit to having some hearing difficulties in regards to clarity (despite all my hearing checks coming back fine… I keep demanding them because something just doesn’t seem right) so I usually watch everything with subtitles. Manbeast hates subtitles. If we move on to a third episode, I will demand subtitles.
The focus of the show is a boy who is a werewolf and his mother. The entire town knows that they are Gypsies from the second they roll up and frequently complain about them/Gypsies* in general. The show is set in Pennsylvania, a state I spend an inordinate amount of time in. I have never once heard people complain about a Gypsy population/mention they’ve seen or know anyone who is a Gypsy/refer to someone as looking like a Gypsy. So it completely baffles me how this kid (Wikipedia says his name is Peter, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it used) and his mom immediately direct this kind of laser-guided branding. Everyone also immediately assumes and jumps on the fact that Peter is a werewolf (oh shit, I just got that… ha ha Hemlock Grove) based on strange “novelist” girl’s rumors. It is an admittedly strange town, but no one seems to be so willing to acknowledge the supernatural that they believe in werewolves, so again, I don’t know why everyone believes that.
It does make sense that the strange outsiders, whose arrival coincides with a graphic murder, would be treated with suspicion.
There is also Roman, his mother, his sister, and his cousin. I’m getting some serious Lannister vibes from Roman and both his mother and (angelically pregnant) cousin. Letha is totally going to have a demon baby. His sister is some kind of deformed monstrosity with a heart of gold, a la Sloth from The Goonies. She is named Shelley, in a direct homage to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and show-Shelley is given the same kind of lumbering mannerisms often associated with the famous monster. It remains to be seen (at least by me) if the show treats her as a sympathetic character with a nuanced personality and role to play, as inspiration porn, or to further demonize and other those with severe differences, though it seems to be leaning towards the first or second option.
Roman has some weird blood fetish, and his mom is boinking his uncle. His cousin Letha (the pregnant one) is an Aryan poster child. She also shares a name with my deceased Great-Grandmother, which stands out to me because I’ve never heard the name used anywhere else. He is also an Upir, a nod to Slavic folklore that I appreciate, but only because I looked that shit up.
Which leads us to primary frustration. I know I’m only two episodes in but this show has, so far, explained diddly-poo. It’s as though someone forgot to mention that there is a difference between mystery/tension and just lazy show-nothing writing. I’m an Orphan Black fan, I’m a fan of Carnivale, I am capable of a show that raises more questions than it answers. Orphan Black at least had the decency to answer enough questions in the first two episodes to convince me that my questions would receive a payoff, that the show had a direction, and that it had the potential to build up something big. Hemlock Grove is giving me none of that. It just keeps piling on the identical characters, throwing out words with no explanations, making gross sex noises, and mumbling at me.
The only show I’ve ever hate watched is Glee (unless you count the Kardashians but I enjoy the show because I hate them… I feel like it’s a thin line). I don’t want to keep watching Hemlock Grove because I hate it. I would be willing to give the show one more episode before quitting. I’m afraid Manbeast may actually like it though, and then I’m stuck. I’m also afraid he might hate it also but feel like I like and encourage us to keep watching it for that reason.
What a waste of such interesting potential.
*I am aware that Gypsy is often used as slur (hell it’s used as a slur in the show) and is generally an Un-PC thing to call someone and throw around. I chose to use it here because it is the terminology used within the show and the show’s mythology, for better or worse.