Tuesday, December 24, 2013

HEMLOCK GROVE: Netflix's not-so-hot but very well-cast original series proves mostly vamping

Various dictionary definitions of "vamping" tell us that it is something patched up or refurbished, maybe rehashed, as in a book based mostly on old material. All this could easily describe HEMLOCK GROVE, the original Netflix series that you are likely to have heard the least about, what with House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Lilyhammer and even Arrested Develop-ment (not entirely original to Netflix) stealing most of the thunder. But the definition of vamping that most applies to this odd and derivative series is the one that comes from music: an introductory musical passage commonly consisting of a repeated succession of chords played before the start of a solo. Its purpose: to keep that solo at bay for as long as possible.

This solo, in the case of Hemlock Grove -- written/developed/executive produced by Brian McGreevy (at right, below) and directed (six of the episodes, at least) by Deran Sarafian (at left) -- is the question that anyone watching the series will be asking from the very first episode in season one (the series has already been renewed for a second season): Who's the creature that's doing the killing? To avoid answering this question, the series simply vamps. And vamps. And vamps.  There is at best maybe two hours of content (or, say, one full-length movie) to this 13-part show, each part of which takes nearly one hour to unfurl. What this means is an incredible amount of vamping. So much so, that you may very well take

to screaming "Get the fuck on with this!" any number of times during any number of episodes. Because of this vamping, some very good actors are left twirling in the wind, as it were, having to repeat their actions, if not their exact words, again and again, just to keep that solo at bay. This is especially true of Famke Janssen (below) and Dougray Scott, as, respectively, the matriarch and patriarch of branches of the family that control the titular town. (The Janssen character really has the town under her thumb; Scott is simply a sex toy/in-law.) The series has been organized and written very much in the style of soap opera, with all the neces-sary over-writing/under-acting that goes along with this tiresome genre.

TrustMovies actually stopped watching the series twice, then went back to it after a time. As with most soaps, it was quite easy to pick up again. (There is so much vamping going on that nothing much happens. Consequently, anything you've forgotten won't matter much.) Lots of characters are introduced along the way, a number of them pretty young girls who get "offed" by the beast, but two young men finally prove to be the heroes of the piece: Bill Skarsgård (below, left), who plays Janssen's creepy son, whose character broadens a bit during the 13 hours, and sensitive lunk Landon Liboiron (below, right), who plays a new-in-town, gypsy type, high school student with his own mom (Lili Taylor) in tow.

Though the Janssen side of the equation is clearly pretty weird (read supernatural), we learn fairly quickly that Liboiron's family are, uh, werewolves, and we see the special effects department in full force for one major transformation (below) early on.

There's an investigator from the Fish & Wildlife department snooping around who has some connections with a certain branch of the Catholic Church, various police officers who behave crassly or nicely as the script necessitates, and various other family members, each possessing his or her own sad story.

Oh, yes, and the family owns and operates a hospital/medical/
experimental center with another bizarre character (Joel de la Fuente) in charge, and a very secretive, big box inside of which resides... (another question viewers will want answered).

Not to worry. The nasty beast is indeed unmasked in the penultimate episode (this is not one of those keep-the-answer-out-of-reach series like The Killing), and the final show answers some more question but mostly keeps things open for season two.

As I say, there is only enough content here for a couple of hours, but if you're particularly taken with any of the performers or characters, you may give in to the ongoing blather, which certainly succeeds in keeping the series going but not in making it exciting or especially interesting.

By Episode 9, a little suspense and anticipation are engendered, and we get a funny/lovely/creepy story about a fairy -- which shows how some decent writing can suddenly bring a whole series to real, detailed life. But then it's back to the same old tired stuff, mostly family arguments. There is one pretty interesting character: A strange young girl (Freya Tingley, shown center, above) who's determined to become a writer. McGreevy, I am guessing, must have based her on himself.

We do eventually learn the name of the beast -- it's a vargulf, for anyone interested. Some of the directors here seem overly fond of handing us suspenseful moments that come to absolutely nothing. More vamping, I suppose. The pacing is often glacial, due to all the gazing into each other's faces, while pronouncing the strained dialog. There's a good deal of sex, too, but it's nothing you won't have seen elsewhere and better.

It often seems as if, in Hemlock Grove, the creators simply tossed everything they could think of into the mix, feeling sure that something would stick. Something does. But too much else stinks. The show can be streamed only on Netflix, where you can see as much or as little in one sitting as you can handle.

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