Thursday, August 8, 2013

I Am Filled with Ennui and Can't Go On (Hemlock Grove)

I just didn’t like it.

This is the part where I would normally say something clever about Netflix and their entrance into the content creation market, and why that signals big changes for the television industry, and Hemlock Grove’s Emmy nominations are a great step for speculative fiction in general, and so on. 

While all of those things are true and I would very much like to discuss them with you, right now I’m distracted by a much more present problem: I really didn’t like Hemlock Grove. Not even a little bit.

This surprises me. Not just because it was recommended by a good friend whose taste I trust, but also because on the surface this is so totally my thing. It’s a tense ensemble drama that mixes elements from Teen Wolf with Twin Peaks, and I love both of those shows. A lot.

So why the hell don’t I like this one? Well, let’s talk about that.

For starters, Hemlock Grove, which is based on a book by the same name, is about a sleepy little town predominantly owned and ruled by a single family, the Godfreys. Obviously, something is very distinctly unkosher with the Godfrey clan, and we can tell from the first episode that much of our time will be spent unraveling their weirdness.

Our hero is, I think, Peter Rumancek, a gypsy who rolls into town with his mother and takes up residence in an abandoned trailer just outside the Godfrey property. Peter is a loner, scruffy bad boy type, who seems just oh so mysterious and snarky. In reality, he’s a werewolf, and a teenage boy. Other than that I’m not entirely sure what his motivation is, but whatever.

Peter falls pretty quickly into the company of Roman Godfrey, heir apparent to the Godfrey fortune. Roman is a tortured rich boy, caught between urges he doesn’t understand (because apparently he has never read Dracula) and his mother’s controlling clutches, Roman rebels by befriending Peter. When a couple of nice girls get brutally slaughtered in the woods, Roman and Peter go off on adventures trying to find out who did it.

It’s all very…expected?

Now I did say that this is an ensemble show, so there are a variety more characters, and happily, quite a few of them are female. Less happily, most of them are pretty bad characters solely defined by their lady bits and the choices they make romantically. Also, though I didn’t actually manage to make to the end of the first season, I have it on good authority that almost all of them die.

That in and of itself would be worthy of a great article, but I really want to focus on the first part here: I couldn’t make it to the end of this show. It’s not a massive commitment, only a thirteen episode run for the first season, and I started watching it last week, so I should be well done by now. I just…can’t.

I think it really comes down to the characters for me. Well, the characters and the storyline, since that builds logically off of the characters. It’s not badly written, exactly, it’s that it’s missing something essential to my enjoyment of any series or movie or piece of art: joy.

Okay, that sounds totally hokey and Precious Moments, but take me seriously for a sec. Joy is a fundamental human thing. How many monkeys do you know that express joy? Deep, abiding joy that comes from the interaction of meaning and happiness? It’s what makes a character worth watching – either their attempts to find joy, or their longing recovery of past joy, or their joy along the journey. Joy is what makes us care.

It’s also what makes us able to empathize with a character properly. Because anyone can be sad. Sad about certain things, sure. We’ve all been sad. But we feel more connected to characters when we feel their joy. When we know what they actually like. When we get a chance to see them find meaning and happiness, or just think about what would bring them those two things.

Joy matters, and a show without joy is a show that has a lot of trouble holding my interest.

It’s not so much that Hemlock Grove is dark. It’s a little dark, sure, but not David Lynch dark. The problem is that the show is unremittingly depressing, with no spots of light to bring out the feels. Everything is on a sliding scale of suck. It just gets worse from here, and frankly, it’s exhausting.

And it’s not great writing.

I don’t object, in theory, to television that shows us our own baser impulses. I actually think it can be amazing when properly done. Breaking Bad, The Wire, and even shows like Twin Peaks and Game of Thrones show compelling portraits of characters stripped of the courtesies of modern life struggling to survive. The characters are cutthroat and scary and more than a little ugly and we eat it up.

The difference is that those characters, they still find joy in things. Little things, sometimes, like a properly skinned deer, or a fine cup of coffee, but it’s joy. Actual joy. And it’s what makes those stories even more heartbreaking and compelling.

By contrast, Hemlock Grove doesn’t have any bright spots. Roman and Peter are so mutually disaffected and unhappy that it’s hard to imagine either of them ever enjoying anything. Christina, Letha, Olivia, Clementine, they’re all characters whose cynicism or depression or world-weariness has beat any spark of life out of them. The two characters who do show tiny sign of happiness even, Shelley and Destiny, are barely given a chance to speak, and often silenced by the unhappy characters surrounding them.

I don’t hate the show on principle, and there’s nothing precise that made me stop watching it, but as the series progressed and I realized there was no light at the end of the tunnel, I kind of thought about it, and had a revelation: I don’t have to keep watching this.

So I didn’t.



  1. Thank gods we're not the only ones! I hated it. The acting was just awful. So very very awful. Really awful. Unbearably awful

    Did I mention awful?

    The acting killed me - but the world was just too full, the storylines overwhelmed by too much going on at the same time, some of it needed to be cut. And the acting was awful.

    And they made leaps that made no sense - suddenly everyone new wolfy was a wolfy and there was no reason presented why anyone would agree with this or believe this - but, hey, everyone decided to jump on the band wagon.

    And the acting was awful.

    The relationship with the characters make no sense. Roman and his mother made little sense there was just unexplained conflict. Roman and Peter as friends made little sense, it just happened. And the girl who wanted to be a writer made little sense at all. And pregnant angel girl? I just have no clue

    And the acting was awful.

    Throw in a bucket load of dead evil women (taking with them any other minority representation along the way) and constant unchallenged anti-ziganism and it was a hot mess. A hot mess with awful acting

    Did I mention the awful acting?

    1. Hmm, I seem to remember you saying something or other about bad acting...

      Actually for me the real sticking point was the plot and writing. How there seemed to be big gaps between storylines and jumps in character action and motivation. And you're definitely right about the storyline being way too crowded. It was crowded enough that I couldn't figure out if I'd missed something or if I just couldn't remember what was happening or if it was new, and that's never a good sign.

      But mostly, it was so incredibly bleak, you know? I can take bad, but make it campy at least!

    2. I kept thinking I'd missed and episode because we'd be wandering along and BANG Peter and Roman were friends. When did that happen? Did I miss something? And then BANG, Roman knows Peter is a werewolf and wants to watch - wait, what, when..? I found myself backtracking constantly trying to figure out WHY when inevitably there WAS no why. I recapped over and over - no whine

      Bleak I can kinda deal with - but it has to be sold to me (with good acting. This wasn't sold - the reason why everyone was a sad!panda wasn't truly explained. So it became less "bleak" and more "emo-whiney-teenagers-who-need-to-get-over-themselves" especially since the writing was poor so I couldn't follow the REASONS behind the various persecutions/ostracisms/sad-panda-ness.

    3. I think I ragequit before it could shift over into whiny teenagers. But the lack of backstory and character explanations was one of the things that bothered me. Well, that and everyone about Olivia and Shelley. Just made no freaking sense.

      Oh, and how Roman could be totally on board with Peter's wolfiness, aware of all the other weirdness in teh town, but not be entirely sure what he is? How dumb are we supposed to think he is?

    4. "I believe in werewolves" "I have seen a werewolf shift" "I know werewolf legends"

      "Hmmm, I seem to have the ability to control people with my gaze and a desperate hunger for blood - I totally have NO IDEA what that could mean"

    5. "And sure, my sister is completely bizarre and inexplicable, and my mother clearly has some kind of supernatural powers, but this has absolutely nothing to do with me. Nor do my giant pile of issues have any relation to seeing my father's dead body and my mother's apparent lack of care as a toddler."

  2. There were so many places where they seemed to really up the bizarre just for the sake of being strange. No, really... the angel baby. The implied incest. Why why why. And the episodes weren't really "cut out properly" I don't even know how to say that, but some episodes nothing happened, there was no climax at any point in the episode. So many things unexplained.

    But also, that was the coolest werewolf transformations of all time. His skin fell off, eyes and teeth fell out and he ate himself.

    And why did what's her name, the writer, Christina? kiss a dead body. I get that she didn't know it was dead... so much was like "Look at me! I'm weird!" that show, like winy teenagers, was trying too hard.

    1. THE ANGEL BABY, OH MY GOSH. Like, I thought it was intriguing at first, but then it turned into random pregnancy with delusional elements, and she was so weird, and then so horny and I just...whaaaaaat?

      I did think the transformation was cool, but I watched it through my hands. Little gross for my tastes, like the Skinwalker in S1 of Supernatural.

      Christina was one giant BLAM all the way through the series. I mean, yeah, I've heard there's some explanation at the end, but seriously. She never made sense. Gah.

  3. I totally see your point here--the show was dark and elements of it didn't make sense.
    Reading the book after seeing the show, however, it made sense. The screenplay was written by the novel's author, and he wrote it to specifically fit the style of his book. The book is choppy, jumps around, and doesn't necessarily explain itself. You have to put the pieces together. It's mood piece. If you want something so you feel dark and depressed, Hemlock Grove is your spot.
    I kept watching because I had enough questions that I wanted to see them answered, but it wasn't an enjoyable watch. You're right--it very much MISSED joy. Shelley was the most intriguing and "joyful" character, but even her situation just sucked. By the series end, you almost love her and then BAM! Depression all over again.
    I liked it's Eastern European take on vampires and werewolves (kind of refreshing after crap like Twilight), but, yeah, it wasn't a spectacular piece of viewing.
    Captured a dark and creepy mood? Sure. Made sense? yes, and no . . .It certainly wasn't concerned about being clear and to the point. It wanted the viewers to put all the pieces together, and, even then, you need message boards and other viewers to ATTEMPT to get the full picture.
    Great acting? Eh meh . . . in the beginning I hated it. As time went on, I couldn't decide if it was the fault of the actors, the writing, or the direction . . . probably a little of all.

    However, you're correct--it was missing any and all rays of light.

    1. I think that was the one thing I appreciated: an attempt to actually keep to an established folkloric tradition. The Slavic mythology is really rich and very dark - hence the popularity of vampires at all, really. And I liked some of what they did with it. Though the whole thing about everyone being racist towards gypsies in present day America? It was weird. I don't know anyone who could identify a gypsy on sight or care.

      Surprised that it was adapted by the novelist, but at the same time not. Writers are typically unhappy about changing their original work to fit a new medium, so that does explain a lot.

  4. But that Skarsgaard kid is so damn cute.

    1. Dude, that is one crazy talented family. I loved his brother (Gustav) on Vikings. Floki was easily one of my favorite characters.

  5. To prove I got there first, here is MY blog entry about Hemlock Grove. Though it seems I had similar dislikes.

  6. An interesting take; I wasn't sure whether you'd like it or not, so I'm not too disappointed, but I'm glad you made an attempt. ^_^ Like I said, it's pretty frickin' weird. What was intriguing to me was that it had a very strong tone it seemed to be going for, a sort of Lynch-ian surrealistic dark weirdness, and it pretty much stuck to that to the point of subordinating other elements, including plot and characters. Because tone tends to be one of the most important things to me and because I like this particular tone I stuck with it, but I can also see how that sort of thing could be really off-putting.

    Ironically I have stopped watching better series for similar reasons; I couldn't keep watching 'Battlestar Galactica' for instance, even though I really wanted to like it, because everything just seemed so darn hopeless. It seemed like one big scream against the inexorable entropy of the universe, and I just couldn't handle it. ^^; So I totally understand.

    1. I do agree that it had a touch of the Lynch to it, but I guess it just wasn't weird enough for me to love it like Twin Peaks, and it wasn't cohesive enough for me to love it for any other reason. I can see the comparison.

      Yeah, tone is nice and all, but it's definitely not what does it for me. After all those years in school? It's story or nothing!

  7. You make an excellent point, one that eluded me. The two happier characters I noted as part of the usual slasher routine, but I didn't even think about how downers the rest of the cast was. I enjoyed it a lot more than you did, but for much (shallower?... Ahem.) different reasons. And it certainly is no Twin Peaks, although it does wear the same cologne.

    1. I'd be lying if I said I'd never watched a show for shallow reasons. ;) But for some reason this show just really bugged me. Which was sad, because I really do love Twin Peaks.