5 Reasons You Should Watch Hemlock Grove!

A Review of Hemlock Grove, Season 1, created by Eli Roth & based on the book by Brian McGreevy

Netflix, 2012

Hemlock GroveNetflix debuted its third original series on Friday: Hemlock Grove, a tale of a small town with big secrets. Now, nearly every news outlet and reviewer has panned Hemlock Grove. However, lest you find yourselves without my opinion on the matter, here it is: I TOTALLY ENJOYED IT!

Hemlock Grove is set in a small Pennsylvania town where girl has just been violently murdered—torn apart by . . . is it an animal? a crazed killer? We don’t know. But, in the crosshairs of the rumor mill surrounding the murder are the newly-arrived Peter and Lynda Rumancek, a Romani mother and son who the suspicious town calls filthy gypsies, and the Godfrey family, most notably to-the-manor-born Roman, who uses his beauty to get what he wants (and, when that doesn’t work, his gaze, which compels obedience), his mother, Olivia, the “most beautiful and hated woman” in Hemlock Grove, and his sister, Shelley, a lurching, seven-foot-tall girl who can’t speak and glows with strong feeling. The first murder, of course, is no isolated incident; they are occurring every full moon, giving rise to rumors that it’s a werewolf committing them—and that Peter is the werewolf.

Is Hemlock Grove the smartest, least misogynist, most disciplined, least derivative, and most sex-positive show that’s ever aired? Em, no. But it has a totally awesome opening credits sequence. And here are five reasons why I think Hemlock Grove is totally worth watching.

1. Genre Feast! If you’ve ever read Crunchings and Munchings or met me (or, really, talked to me for, like, two minutes) then you know I am a fool for genre; especially interesting combinations of genre. Well, Hemlock Grove has . . . all of them, really. Its main genre is a kind of horror-light supernatural mystery. It’s a werewolf story, complete with its own set of werewolf lore, from a Romani perspective, and what is probably my new favorite human-to-wolf transformation method. Hemlock GroveIt’s gross and cool and the effects are done really well. Then, there’s the small-town gothic, one of my favorite genres. Hemlock Grove is a creepy place, complete with secrets, cliques, only one high school (which we all know can tip any show into horror!), and an eerie combination of woodland and broken-down industrial wasteland. In addition, there are definite notes of the fairy tale, the 18th-century novel (hello, Shelley, anyone? p.s., she lives in the attic . . .), and good, old-fashioned camp. There is also a bit of a science fiction twist: Godfrey tower, the town’s only skyscraper, houses secret medical experiments, run by the sociopathic Dr. Pryce (yet another nod to classic horror). This storyline is less developed, presumably to keep our interest for season two . . .

2. Binge! Netflix has gotten a mixed response to their experiment of releasing all the episodes of their original programs at once—folks seemed to love what it did for House of Cards and hate what it did for Hemlock Grove. Well, I say, bless you, Netflix, for finally acting on the behalf of people like me who would rather wait a year to be able to watch a whole season of a show at once, rather than wait around week-to-week and watch one episode at a time. Now, the critiques of this strategy are that without the necessity to compel an audience to come back each week, Hemlock Grove writers and producers were not nearly as disciplined with their cliffhangers and structure as they would otherwise need to be. But I really liked the feeling of chugging through all at once, not just because I am a binger, but because many episodes picked up exactly where the last left off, giving it a novelistic  or filmic feeling. Also, it allowed them to avoid one of my all-time pet peeves of serial tv: when the “previously on” recap totally gives away what’s going to happen in the episode based on what clips from previous episodes they show. WHY, for the love of god, has no one solved this problem, yet, I ask you!? But Hemlock Grove doesn’t need to do this, so I was never taken out of the story. It uses flashbacks where necessary, which aren’t the most graceful thing ever, in terms of filmmaking, but totally serve their purpose. And, at thirteen episodes, it was the perfect length for a weekend binge (#don’tjudgeme).

Hemlock Grove3. Depressed Industrial Town! Hemlock Grove‘s setting is a small town in Pennsylvania that used to be home to a booming steel industry, a downturn in which threw the town into a depression, only saved by Roman’s late father, who turned to the biotech industry, but in the process laid off many people in town. This made the Godfrey family many enemies and resulted in huge, abandoned factories and broken-down machinery for bored teenagers to smoke in, have sex near, and search for bodies in. It also created a stark disparity of wealth between the Godfreys and nearly every other family in town, especially the Rumanceks. Roman wears tailored overcoats, does a lot of drugs, drives a fancy sports car, and has perfectly coiffed hair while Peter is scruffy, with long fingernails, vaguely dirty hair, persistent two-day stubble, and grimy jeans. Class, then, is always subtext in Hemlock Grove, and while the show does a shitty job with gender, it’s more savvy in terms of economy. Plus, abandoned industrial shit is awesome-looking.

4. Wacky Casting! One thing that amused me about Hemlock Grove was the fact that its casting directors clearly didn’t give a good goddamn about realism in terms of casting, so the show is kind of accent soup. But it really worked out well (except for Famke Janssen who plays Olivia Godfrey, doing a British accent like she was barely even trying). Peter, played by Landon Liboirin, is charming and not smarmy and doesn’t overdo things, for the most part. I do not know what is in the water over in Sweden, but Roman is played by Bill Skarsgård, another in the seemingly endless line of extremely beautiful children sired by Stellan Hemlock GroveSkarsgård. Like, seriously, I’m starting to think that every time I clap my hands a Skarsgård cheekbone sharpens. Anyhoo, Roman is totally delightful as the mercurial heir apparent: he’s fucked up for sure, and you can see exactly how he got that way. He also does my favorite thing a character can do, which is that he sometimes makes really terrible decisions and sometimes makes really good ones. Because, you know, that’s what people do. Also delightful is first-timer Nicole Boivin as Shelley, who is expressive when not speaking, but also really touching and funny in her voice-overs as she writes Jane-Austen-inspired emails to her uncle (Dougray Scott!). But the you’re-awesome-why-weren’t-you-in-every-scene award goes to the always-amazing Lili Taylor, who plays Peter’s mother. Ah well; maybe next season.

Hemlock Grove Brian McGreevy5. A Real, Season-Long Plot! Hemlock Grove is based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, who also wrote some of the episodes. As such, the whole season was already plotted out for the creators/writers. This is such a good thing, I think, because with so many elements at play (genres, mystery, murder, relationships), Hemlock Grove is a mixture that could quickly have gotten out of hand and turned crazy. And if there’s one thing I will argue to anyone about the show it’s that it does not go off the rails, plot-wise. There are definitely things that aren’t tied up completely or explained fully—possibly because we’ll get more about them in the next season, if they make one—but for the most part, this is a well-plotted show. It’s not particularly tight, which has been a critique of the show but which I found thoroughly enjoyable: this is a show that sits back and stretches its legs, sure the next thing will happen pretty soon, not a show that chases every speck of dust. It’s not particularly invested in action, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t suspense. There is; it comes from having a mysterious plot instead of trying to building a cliffhanger before every commercial break. So, for me, the fact that the show was confident in where its material was going allowed for it to take the long way, something that gave the show texture and mood, even if it didn’t make every second count. I was never bored and I felt like I got the time to get to know the characters.

So, there you have it: five reasons I really enjoyed Hemlock Grove! There are, of course, negatives as well, and it will likely come as no surprise that they’re nearly all to do with misogyny. The show—and I don’t know if this is the book or creator Eli Roth—just can not stop punishing women for having sexual desire, so that’s a total bummer. There is a plot point (no spoilers) that goes Hemlock Grovetotally unacknowledged, but which makes me feel wretched for still liking Roman. Olivia Godfrey/Famke Janssen is a “strong and beautiful woman,” which apparently now is synonymous with a cold borderline sociopath with incestuous tendencies where her son is concerned. I’m so deathly sick of this character (and Famke Janssen seems to play her in 4/5 of her movies). I haven’t read the novel that Hemlock Grove is based on in order to know how much of that is the show’s interpretation of the character. Either way, I want to go on record as providing future novelists/tv and film creators with the following cheat sheet:

It is possibly for women to be strong without being evil; it is possible for women to be evil without being sociopaths; it is possible for women to be strong and evil in ways that are not fixated on their children!

SO, have you watched Hemlock Grove? What did you think? Are you going to watch it? Why or why not? 

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30 Comments

  1. Mont

     /  October 16, 2014

    Could someone please explain the caul, and also Shelly being like she is…….

    Reply
    • Andre

       /  October 17, 2014

      Shelly is basically a modern day Frankenstein monster created by that one neurotic doctor, as suggested in the show.
      When you are born with the caul in the Hemlock Grove universe you become a upir, at first latent, so to say, and when you die you get resurrected automatically as a full fledged upir.

      Reply
  2. Okay so I gave this show a really good go, like 8 episodes, then I couldn’t deal with it any more! It was just so random. I hoped after the first few episodes that some answers might emerge but it was just more questions all the time and far too much gore! I tried really hard to like it but it just didn’t happen :(

    Reply
  3. nunya bizness

     /  July 14, 2014

    Peter needs to bathe and wash his hair and so does the psychiatrist. They are gross!!!

    Reply
  4. Unbiased Observer

     /  June 7, 2014

    Is it so common to focus only in areas that suggest misogynism that people are blind to misandrist stereotypes when they are present? I found those to be rearing in nearly every episode whereas there were only slight and less direct misogynist references spread out thinly across the season. I guess it’s a time-held truth though that people only see what they want to see, which holds no exception in this post or the replies.

    Reply
  5. Gary L Canterbury

     /  March 31, 2014

    Bummer that Space: Above and Beyond got hosed over by Fux, but wonderful to seen Joel de le Fuentes playing a character that’s a polar opposite to his norm and pulling it off with just enough egomaniacal aplomb mixed with four or five other psychosis we’ve barely gotten into…not to mention the whole science experiment and all.

    I hate the man-wolf thing. I’m all about the biped/quadreped bad-ass werewolves. The Howling had it right. That being said; the transformations are great. Special effects are also great, as when Peter gets his face…uh…anyways, they’re great!

    I’m late to the party, but recommend this show.

    Bummers: Shelly (but for good reasons), The Mother.(sorry, should have gone with someone else; don’t find her attractive at all, bad accent, horrid acting, low point of the show).

    Reply
  6. Andre

     /  March 13, 2014

    The language stuff is one thing, but the look is another. Over here there are plenty of Sinti and Roma looking no different than other Central and Eastern Europeans. So that is not a a problem. It is typical colorism but nothing you wouldn’t find.
    As for the rest: It was clearly established that they are not normal Roma, they are outsiders. Shunned by others.

    Reply
  7. I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t know if it really is misogynistic. There are complex female characters who relate to one another and progress the plot, more females than men, even. And though the series does take the horror-genre “kill the slut” convention and run with it– all the hostility lumped onto women for their sexual activity comes from other women. Either teen slut-shaming, Letha’s mother verbally assaulting her in public for morning-sickness puking, or (spoiler, even if it’s months old) Christina biting other girl’s vaginas out of them, it’s all women. It’s smart commentary, in that sense, that misogyny isn’t the sole domain of men.

    Reply
  8. Ree

     /  July 6, 2013

    I hadn’t heard much about it, and what little I’d heard was either bad or just “meh” so I’m really glad I read your review. I’ll definitely give it a try. And @Andre, I prefer the wolf to the man-wolf too. :)

    Reply
    • Andre

       /  July 7, 2013

      Hallelujah, and I thought I was the only one. :) Seriously, would these man wolves at least be mansized I would say, ok, have them thin and run on all fours they could be mistaken for canines, but these giant hulkwolves, no way.

      Reply
  9. Andre

     /  June 26, 2013

    I haven’t seen the show yet, but I plan to give the first three episodes a try. We will see how it goes, no matter what it can’t be worse than the last two seasons of The Vampire Diaries or the crap Cassandra Clare puts out. Of course for me it helps that unlike most werewolf fans I actually prefer the wolf over the man-wolf, since man-wolves are not only highly unusual in folklore but to hide these things today is next to impossible, not to mention that they are on average dumber than the dialogue in The Last Airbender and After Earth together.
    So like I said, I will give it a try and see how it goes,

    Reply
    • The wolf transformation is pretty awesome . . .

      Reply
      • Andre

         /  June 27, 2013

        Yeah that was generally agreed, people just seemed often dissapointed that he didn’t transform into a man-wolf. But like I said, I don’t like the man-wolf much anymore. Too many bad films.
        I had a sneak peek into episode 2, when Peter stands at the door to the girl’s room when all that sex sounding noise comes out of it and I like how responds when he was caught. And to be honest, despite being gay, at that age, and maybe even today, I would have put my ear on the glass as well out of sheer curiosity. :D

  10. Martin

     /  May 9, 2013

    What a well thought out and articulated review! I suppose I was one of the people who felt like the show was kind of all over the place, but I have to admit that I didn’t realize this was based on any type of an existing story (the books). The points you make in this review have sort of swayed me from my slightly negative reflection to a slightly positive one.

    To the freaks bitching about misogyny, jesus fucking christ, get over it. It’s a fucking TV show you twat. You fucking people suck the warmth out of everything and make me want to beat the shit out of someone. Piss off!

    Reply
    • Martin, your comment looks like it’s from two different people, did you have Brian or Eli there with you? Here’s the thing, when a write puts a ‘writer’ character in their story, that screams proxy. And since the writer states he was using his own high school as the background, it really paints things as using a monster proxy to metaphorically get revenge against the girls in high-school who wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. In fact the series has an undercurrent of misogynistic doucheyness throughout, from the weak and useless male characters, the classic stereotype female villain (who only exists to produce a son), The single strong female protagonist who is killed to make Price sad, The ‘idiot ball’ being passed around from character to character. I could go on because that’s enough, really. Oh, yes, yet again, the hooker with the heart of gold… seriously.

      This isn’t to say I didn’t watch the whole thing, I liked the Kubrickesque style, and I was never bored, regardless of how slow it got a times. It had great mood, and some very interesting background stuff going on that I hope is explored later. But it is what it is.

      Reply
  11. *spoilers warning* Seriously? You thought the show wasn’t misogynist? Over the course of the show, The murders and rape – only happens to women. Lesbians? Murdered. Get a teenage preganancy? You die? You’re a woman who is shown having sex? All dead but one. The only disfigured character on the show. Yes, a woman.

    Lots of femaie characters die, so that the men can feel sad or vengeful.

    Intriguing, yes. Misogynist,.God yes.

    Reply
    • Yep, as I said, I thought it was quite misogynistic.

      Reply
    • Kevin

       /  June 8, 2014

      Do you even know or understand the definition of misogyny, or do you, like a lot of people today, twist the word to a meaning that supports what they think it should mean? Reading your comment strongly suggests the latter. Misogyny: hatred, dislike, mistrust of women. Let’s examine what happens in the show. The main antagonists are both women, Olivia and Chrissie. Olivia is “the most beautiful and most hated woman of Hemlock Grove”. She uses JR, Norman, and any other man she wants for her own pleasure or uses her powerful position to twist situations that work best for her or her name. Nothing misogynist there, just a powerful person corrupting via their power. Chrissie kills her victims in a disturbing way but outside of maybe one or two deaths, all the others could be linked to a motive driven by her age and what many girls her age go through in highschool…peer pressure, jealousy, feeling like an outcast. Still, no misogynism present. If anything, this show leans more towards having some hints towards sexism but nowhere near misogyny. If anything, I’d have to agree with Unbiased Observer that the show is more misandrist than misogynist. If you need evidence yourself, count the amount of multiple stabs the show has towards men in general…countless references to male genitalia in a negative or “comical” sense, the man-bashing from female characters, the stereotypes generally directed towards men that are present. I’m not declaring there isn’t any form of sexism towards women in the show but perhaps you and others claiming misogyny should watch the series again and accept what’s really there….more misandry than misogyny, if anything.

      Reply
      • Andre

         /  June 9, 2014

        At least I am not the only one thinking that. This focus on mysoginy is especially troubling when you consider how many shows, films and books get a free pass on the topic.

  12. This series is definitely not like Twilight. I am surely enjoying this series. I have a question though, what do they keep calling Peter? And what does it mean?

    Reply
    • Hi, Bandloverhal! Welp, if memory serves, they call Peter things like “gypsy filth.” If that’s what you mean, gypsy is a slang term for Romani people. But maybe they call him something else, too, and I’m forgetting?

      Reply
      • Yeah, they also call peter something that sounds like opere, but i am sure i am nit spelling it right. :/

    • Oh, yeah, they call Roman “upir,” but don’t look it up before you’re finished with season 1 or you’ll get spoilered! :)

      Reply
  13. Ashley

     /  April 23, 2013

    I also loved it and find myself very disappointed by the negative reviews. How could anyone not love it?? Now, I could not stomach “Twilight”, so I find it ludicrous that so many reviewers have thrown it into that camp. I think I’m a picky person and I fully went into watching this expecting the worst, only to find I could not turn it off. And definitely the most amazing werewolf transformation. I hope more people ignore the negative reviews and give it a shot because I’m counting on a second season. I’m completely enthralled with the “sci-fi” aspect unfolding at Godfrey Towers and by Dr. Price.

    Reply
    • Yes, I totally agree, Ashley! Had I read so many terrible reviews before watching, I might not have bothered, so I’m glad I was so obsessed with the poster that I was hell-bent on watching it. Dr. Price is sooo creepy!

      Reply
  14. I’m gonna watch just for your comment on cheekbones. xo

    Reply

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