Monday, April 22, 2013

Hemlock Grove, why can't you be better?

I'm worried about Hemlock Grove. It's Netflix's new supernatural release-at-once series, and it's showing the vulnerability of the format.

Hemlock Grove is set in Pennsylvania, which seems to have the same look as every town on CW shows. There are werewolves, along with other supernatural fauna. There's some class warfare and murder mystery stuff going on there too. The show has the big name draw of Eli Roth. It's what you'd get if you crossed Teen Wolf with True Blood and then treated the material like serious drama. On paper, the plot and character summaries are fun and meaty, which is probably how the show got picked up.

First the good stuff: there's some solid acting (by some), some interesting writing (in places) and some decent effects (once in a while).

Now for the bad: Bill Skarsgard needs acting classes (so many vampires in that family), some of the writing is clunky, some of the effects are cheesy... and the pacing kills everything that the show had going for it. The editing feels as though they shot enough for 30-minute episodes, but then decided to stretch them to hour-longs. There's too much space at the beginning and end of scenes, space that doesn't add dramatic tension or an artistic feel. The dialogue is also slowed down in the same way: there is too much time between one character speaking and the next, making the conversations feel unnatural.

At first I almost liked the odd pacing. The first episode felt very Twin Peaks, like they were messing with the audience on purpose. Now that I'm four episodes in, though, it's just grating.

This exposes one of the vulnerabilities of a release-all-at-once show. A traditionally released show does shooting and post while the first episodes are airing - with some shows, only one or two episodes will be in the can when a season starts. This lets networks cancel or fix shows that don't perform well with minimum losses. For the viewer, it means there's real hope that a show will "get better." When a show releases all-at-once, there's essentially no hope for change; Hemlock Grove is done already, so we can expect the same uneven editing for at least the first whole season.

Netflix is in a bind, too. With any release-at-once show, they've invested the vast majority of their money already by the time something looks bad going through post. I can believe that watching dailies from Hemlock Grove, anyone would think the show was going to be good. But once Netflix discovered the clunkiness, they had a choice: nix the show with big losses or risk the brand by airing something they knew wouldn't review well.

Hemlock Grove has a distinct advantage in its favor: genre. A certain percentage of the critics always hates supernatural/horror fare regardless of inherent quality, which means that Supernatural/horror fans are more apt to ignore critics. And because of the very small number of scripted horror on TV, viewers have been forced to lower standards. It's a perfect storm that's giving Netflix a pass.

Will Netflix learn from this? It's hard to say. They've had a hit with House of Cards, a bit of a misfire with Hemlock Grove... perhaps the decider will be the Arrested Development revival.

(And yes, everyone just pretends that Lilyhammer never happened. Sorry, Little Stevie.)

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