Hemlock Grove is the second of Netflix’s original TV shows. Netflix, for those not in the know, is a site for streaming films and TV shows. You pay a monthly fee of £5.99 (UK) and have opened to you a bewildering array of things to watch. As a media addict I’ve been in on it since it came to the UK and they’ve built up an impressive catalogue. What’s more, Netflix has been a massive success in the US for quite some time, so much so that they have achieved the unique position of being able to move from streaming content produced by others to commissioning their own series. The first to be released was House of Cards, an American remake of the British 1990 political drama of the same name. And they will soon be releasing a season of the critically acclaimed Arrested Development, which has gained cult following since being cancelled in 2006.
It’s an incredibly interesting time, and with Hemlock Grove being the first truly original* Netflix programme, and the first with sf/f/h content, I was intrigued. One of the things that Netflix have consciously done differently is to release the whole season at once. The way that streaming allows viewers to watch just as much or as little of a show at once as they like must have revealed to Netflix the shifts in viewing patterns amongst viewers who have come to value the ability to mainline a show, watching episode after episode back to back. Netflix is not a TV channel, necessarily catering to the tastes of a loosely grouped demographic, carefully schedule content. Their audience selects what they are interested in, and whilst I have to wait until Monday for the next Game of Thrones, I can stream the next episode of Hemlock whenever I want.
This was a trend that started with DVD box sets. Buying a season to watch at home was the preserve of nerds and fanatics alone in the 1990s. I owned a handful of episodes of Doctor Who, Star Trek, a chunk of The X Files – I didn’t even start buying Buffy box sets until the naughties – and anyone who has seen my video collection would concede that I was something of a film and TV fanatic. A box set was an expensive item and could set you back £80. Few were inclined to buy more than the odd episode here or there.
In the naughties, though, we turned a curve. First videos became massively devalued by DVDs, then DVDs came down in price. Then sites like eBay and Amazon Marketplace made it possible to buy DVDs second-hand much more easily than had ever been possible before. Suddenly a season that would have set you back £80 in the 90s could be had for £30, £15, £10. And the sort of shows we watched changed with it. An audience watching week on week has less tolerance for convoluted plots and rich character development that could mean missing an episode entails completely losing the thread. The X Files and Buffy (which became steadily less episodic) also had something to do with the shift, but even die-hard fans like me lost patience for The X Files’ conspiracy theory eventually. Lost probably represents the real turning point, as a show where you could easily fail to follow what was going on if you missed a week. I did not enjoy it when it first came out for that very reason. But later a friend leant me the DVDs and I was hooked – marvelling at the immersive and complex development that would not have been possible outside of a miniseries in the 20th century. I have friends who don’t want to watch Game of Thrones or Dexter as the episodes come out – they want to wait for the box set.
The world has changed. Storytelling has changed. And Netflix knows it.
The ‘release a whole series at once’ thing is an experiment. It’s bad enough waiting for the next series when the series you’re watching now comes out over two or three months. We may be able to watch Hemlock Grove in a weekend, but a full TV series still takes the same time to produce. Nevertheless, I suspect Netflix are on the right track. Illegal downloaders seem perfectly happy to snag a whole season at once and then move on to the next thing. Give people what they want when they want it and they’re actually happy to pay for the service most of the time. I like a little bit of anticipation, week to week, but if we’ve learned one thing over the last decade it’s that whilst anticipation is titillating, most of us want what we want right now it if we’re given the option.
But on to reviewing the show itself.
In small town USA people are weird. The rich people in the big house are weird. The Gypsies who’ve just moved into the trailer in the woods are weird. Everybody’s weird. So when a teenage girl is gruesomely killed whilst her girlfriend listens over her mobile, by something that might be an animal, but left no animal tracks, everybody throws accusing glances around.
Actually, these people are more than just weird. At first it seems like it might be a bait-n-switch where everyone’s sort of ‘Yeah, they might be a vampire… but actually they’re just a bit odd’, but around half-way through the episode it becomes clear that there is something very definitely out of the ordinary going on. A girl who walks around with bandages all day unwraps them at home and reveals that one half of her face very definitely looks non-human. A flash-back suggests her father suspects her mother of being other-worldly, and possibly that the girl is some kind of experiment. A teenage girl who declares herself a novelist superstitiously suspects the Gypsy boy, Peter Rumancek (Landon Lioiro), of being a werewolf because his index and middle fingers are the same length, but there are indications that he may really be one. In turn, Peter comments to his mother that Roman, heir to the Godfrey estate, is
… some word I’m unfamiliar with, but one assumes to be a Romani word for something supernatural. I hate to be so non-specific in a review, but there’s actually so little information about this show online at the time of writing that I haven’t actually been able to look this up! Even the wikipedia page is kinda sparse. an ‘upir‘.
Meanwhile, Lynda Rumancek (Lili Taylor), Peter’s mother, appears to be dealing (?) some strange liquid in oddly shaped clear vials. And Olivia Godfrey (Framke Janssen), Roman’s mother, is seen with some of the vials, although we presume she did not get them from Lynda, as hints are dropped that there is some kind of bad blood between the two families.
How was it?
Better than I thought it would be.
The show opened badly. It’s an uncomfortable and hackneyed premise to have your inciting incident be a young girl being horribly murdered. Feels very women in refrigerators and is an uncomfortable reminder of the horror genre’s history with sexism. Add to this that we see a pair of breasts (but not the head to which they belong) before we hear a line of dialogue, and as far as I can tell this objectifying shot added nothing at all to the plot… let’s just say I was not feeling well-disposed towards the programme, and was still feeling mad and annoyed at the ‘let’s all assume girls aren’t watching’ feel that left in my mouth when I should have been being afraid for the girl who was running for her life. I have no problem with nudity, I have a problem with needless objectification and the incredibly slanted treatment of nudity (lots of breasts, not a lot of manflesh). The show had to do a lot to win back my trust.
And yet almost against my will I did become intrigued. The baseline premise – grisly murder of a girl in a town where everyone has a secret – has little to interest, but as the show continued I became more and more perplexed and curious as to what was going on. There were hallucinogenic dream sequences that were clearly meant to be significant of… something. Whatever Shelley Godfrey is it is not out of the familiar stock of werewolves and vampires. Is Peter a werewolf? Is Roman a vampire? Is Olivia? Or is Olivia fae of some description – something about her felt very Sidhe, and I can’t help but note that her daughter’s name, ‘Shelley’, bares some similarity to the name of the court of the fair folk. But I’m clutching at straws – I have no clue!
There are also a wide variety of female characters. With the exception of Shelley they are all extremely slender and of the familiar Hollywood style beauty, but they do have personalities and opinions. In fact, there are probably more female main characters than male, which is very unusual. And it’s good to see a lesbian couple presented on-screen with no overt criticism of their sexuality (although, one of them almost immediately dying a grisly death is not 100% awesome).
I have some concerns about the representation of the Romani. I’d say it’s notably more favourable than in most popular media. Less stereotyped than in Buffy or My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, for instance. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the high levels of racism against Romani people around the world, and about their anger at widespread cultural appropriation. And I must confess I know little enough myself about Romani – I try to educate myself but I’m probably not the best judge. There’s very little information about writer and producer Brian McGreevy online – for all I know he is Romani, or has done a great deal of research. But I honestly can’t tell. I can say that Peter and Lynda seem to be possessed of a rich culture which does not prevent Peter from interacting sociably with other people his own age. And prejudice against Romani people is acknowledged and challenged. On the other hand one of the first things Peter does is steal a jacket, which plays somewhat into the Gypsy stereotype. I don’t know. I am ignorant myself. But of the two families who feature most prominently, the Rumanceks are given the more favourable presentation.
Overall I am intrigued and willing to see where this goes. More than that, I would encourage others to see where this goes. It has potential, and despite the poor directorial decision early on, I think it has won me over.
*The term ‘original’ is variably open to interpretation. Hemlock Grove is based on a book by Brian McGreevy, but it has never been presented as a television show before (although, I keep thinking we’re going to need a new word for this kind of thing – ‘webisode’ doesn’t seem to cut it for something whose format is otherwise identical to shows like Dexter, Weeds, Firefly and countless others that are also hosted by Netflix).