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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Too Old For Angels Part 3: Beyond Good and Evil (Where the Delicious Cheese is)

Here endeth our discussion of angels in YA lit, inspired by Daughter of Smoke and Bone (by Laini Taylor). We welcome your comments. 

Please do read the first two parts: Part 1. Part 2.

Rebecca!

I’ll take your Many Waters golden man and raise you a Wind in the Door tangle of eyes and wings:

hey good-looking.

Thank you for taking my angel angst seriously.  When are we going to Prague?

I think your point about the angel plot in Supernatural begins to hint at where angels start to get interesting. I just read a graphic novel short story collection about angels that I dug – the art was simply gorgeous. It was conceived and illustrated by Rebecca Guay and written by a roster of YA authors (including Holly Black). As the reader you get all of these tales about angels, told by other supernatural beings who are deciding whether or not to help a fallen angel that they’ve found in the forest.

(Side note: I can’t watch Supernatural because I can’t not think of Jared Padalecki as Rory’s first, kinda-dumb boyfriend from the Gilmore Girls, and I have a Pavlovian disliking for him. NO ONE IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR RORY.)

Also: OMG, look at this

Anyway. There’s one tale that’s a re-telling of Adam and Eve, and the angel character says something to the effect that only humans judge between good and evil, and angels don’t have that choice – they’re beyond it. That’s what I want – more characters that are beyond having a black and white morality.  That clash is interesting to me, and it makes me feel like the being is otherworldly.

I’m much more interested in a figure who causes trouble because they can, because they’re bored or because they don’t see humans as people to be saved. I don’t think Akiva falls into that category – I think he’s much more of a human figure and his main influence is his past and the world and war he comes from.  That makes him interesting to me, but it also leads into the love story, and I want my angels to be more severe (see the William Blake-type of luminous severity here at the Tate’s website).

Origin stories don’t bother me because they can give me some insight into the culture that tells them – what parameters they give to good and evil. But I can see where they start to all look the same at some point.

And yes, to your statement that “the idea of a romantic hero who is stunningly attractive, possesses a body honed by the fight to vanquish evil, and who has even a whiff of spiritual righteousness is enough to make anyone over the age of 25 feel resentful, inadequate, and suspicious.” Except for all the Twilight Moms.  Oh, and we’re totally justified in our crushes on V. & M. because they have character in their faces, right?

Please tell me when Viggo and Michael get to your apartment. I’ll be right over.

Angel as Puck figure?

R. responds:

That tangle of eyes is superattractive. I’m blushing because it keeps staring at me wherever I go . . .

We are going to Prague . . . *now* (snaps fingers)!

I think what you say about wanting characters who are beyond the moral compass of right and wrong is super interesting and I want that too.The thing that I find really interesting about angels being in-the-know, godwise, is that their sense of right and wrong is based on a bigger picture—it’s, like, one of the only religious concepts I find interesting. Not the “plan” business, but the notion that when supernatural creatures like angels (or aliens, or immortals like vampires) mix with humans it’s really a clash of scale more than ethics. For a human, the loss of a town (like in that Supernatural episode) is huge, whereas to angels who can see billions of people simultaneously, or have watched trillions of people expire throughout the ages, it’s fairly meaningless. I just want some really great YA stories and characters that manage to dramatize that without making it about religion or that most loathèd of bollixers, fate.

Can you think of any? Mostly when I think of those kinds of characters they’re robots (they calculate what is “good” based on data), aliens (they weren’t taught about our quaint mortal morality), or, well, sociopaths—and, while you know I love a good sociopath, that’s not so much beyond morality as devoid of it. So, I’m trying to think of good examples.

I’ll give you a buzz as soon as Viggo and Michael get here, whatever their moral compasses may be. Let’s hope they bring delicious cheese!

T. responds to R’s response:

It’s funny you should ask me about what characters embody the idea of being beyond a moral compass without being robots or sociopaths, because I’m working on a review of a series that does that for meThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The Old Ones fight for Light and Dark, but it isn’t good and evil the way it’s normally portrayed. Stay tuned for that review soon!

I agree that it’s hard to find those kinds of characters.  Maybe our readers have more suggestions? Tell us in the comments!

Keep the Pile Fed—Vintage Veronica

A Review of Vintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl

Knopf, 2010

by REBECCA, February 24, 2012

characters

Veronica: she finds herself among the detritus of vintage clothes, iced mochas, and solitude

Lenny, aka The Nail, aka Dead Boy Walking: kind and waifish reptile lover

Zoe: mean teen-sociopath who cows all who walk before her

Ginger: seemingly-unwitting sidekick/pale shadow of Zoe

Bill: Veronica’s ally at work, he lives by the Sacred Rules of The Pile

hook

Veronica works in the consignment section of a vintage clothing store the summer after her freshman year of high school. There she discovers pink flannel pajamas from the 1930s, a beaded dress that looks like a flag, and her first real friends. The question is: will she know what to do with them?

worldview

photo, Swank Underpinnings on Etsy

Vintage Veronica is a lot like the outfits Veronica likes to wear: from the ankles up, it’s all “tulle crinolines, full circle skirts, bolero jackets, silk dressing gown jackets, [and] beaded cardigans,” but this “girly stuff” is paired with “stuff like two-tone creepers and bricks, good clompy shoes that go with everything” (9). Most of what’s here is frothy, fun, shiny, and well-worn. If you’re an enthusiast of the “formerly-antisocial character meets new people and has her solitary ways complicated by social drama” plot line then this is right up your alley. At the feet of this familiar glitz, though, is a pretty sturdy (although also well-worn) story about the ways that our perceptions of ourselves can be so strong that we assume others share them, and never give them the chance to know who we really are.

Veronica’s consignment corner is upstairs, away from the bustling Dollar-a-Pound floor at “the largest vintage clothing store in the Northeast: THE CLOTHING BONANZA (HOME OF THE ORIGINAL DOLLAR-A-POUND!), otherwise known as THE STORE CAUGHT IN A TIME WARP!, according to the big neon-pink and black sandwich board sign out front” (6). “It is exactly like it sounds: a huge, towering heap of used clothes (known to those of us who work at the store simply as The Pile), spilling like a giant stain over most of the painted wood floor” (6). Speaking of metaphors, The Pile, in addition to contributing Bill’s philosophy of life, also provides the central metaphor(s) of the novel.

Veronica has been happy all summer, away from the Pickers—the hyper-enthusiastic customers who rummage through The Pile—in her own world, when she is “befriended” by Zoe and Ginger, who work in the retail section of the store. Now: Veronica relates story after story in which she has friends only to be abandoned by them in some horribly humiliating way, all of which are because she’s fat. Needless to say, she has developed quite a paranoia about trusting people, but when Zoe and Ginger seem to be sincere, she is willing to do almost anything to maintain their approval and friendship.

And this is where the novel lost me. Don’t get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the character that is so lonely that the promise of a friend feels like a lifeline. But. I find it unbearable to read about. Especially when the character who basically sacrifices her ethics and lies about their real feelings to keep the friendship of someone who is obviously a friend-eater is a pretty cool girl who is just a bit lacking in the self-esteem department. Veronica, I just want to shake you and scream: why do you even want Zoe to like you when she’s obviously a sociopath (no, seriously dude, she kills animals) and a mean person? I want to sit down with you and have an iced latte or whatever the hell you’re drinking and explain the glorious and not-often-enough used concept of saying: “no thanks, I’m not interested in [talking about this; doing that; being your friend].” I know, I know, it’s easy to say that when I haven’t been a teenager in ten years, but Veronica’s investment in Zoe’s opinion of her was really painful to read.

One of the many things that Zoe disapproves of is Veronica’s burgeoning friendship and romance with Lenny, aka The Nail (it gets explained), aka Walking Dead Boy, as Zoe and Ginger call him. Lenny and Veronica are totally into each other, but Veronica just can’t quite slip the pressure of the Zoes of the world and make peace with her feelings. Does Veronica and Lenny’s relationship glitter like one of Veronica’s vintage prom dresses? No. But it doesn’t quite clomp like her creepers either. There are sweet moments here, but nothing that breaks the mold.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

This is a slice-of-life story, mostly taking place in the store and the doughnut shop next door, and it does the cozy, my-work-friends-are-fun vibe well. My favorite character is Bill, The Pile Master, who gives us such wisdom as:

“Shit is shit.”

“Shit is shit?”

“Yeah,” says Bill, grinning proudly. “I made it up the first year I started running Dollar-a-Pound. I was in the john one day—”

“I think I’ve got it.”

“Yeah, but dig this. It’s a Sacred Rule of The Pile because it’s about clothes, but . . .” He pauses dramatically. Jeez, you’d think he was talking about reading tea leaves or tarot cards or something. His eyes are the most un-drooped I’ve ever seen them. “It’s not just about the clothes. Capeesh?” (188).

My experience has been that most young adult novels with fat protagonists are written from a really fat-negative perspective, whether it’s overt (the character hating herself and the author hating her weight) or slightly more subtle (a fat character tries to lose weight and is rewarded with a boyfriend when she does). Veronica is fat, as she tells us, and she has the attendant feelings about her size that come from living in our society, but overall Perl’s attitude here isn’t one of judgment or shame, which is extremely refreshing. Perl clearly cared about writing a book that wasn’t a narrative of Veronica trying to lose weight. Quite the contrary, Veronica takes pleasure in putting together her outfits (even if she does try to avoid crowds, since they make her feel like the magnetite of nasty comments) and altering clothes to fit her body. For further discussion of representations of fat characters in YA fiction, see, among others: Fat Girl Reading, Shapely Prose, and Rebecca Rabinowitz.

All in all, then, this was a fine read, super-quick and entertaining, but definitely mostly tulle.

personal disclosure

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my friends and I used to go to this internecine little secondhand store in Ann Arbor, where the guy who owned it would have us put up posters advertising the store in exchange for flannels and jeans (it was the mid-nineties). I picked up Vintage Veronica at the library mostly because I liked the cover (and because my love of Veronica Mars has instilled in me the hope that anyone named Veronica will be awesomeness personified). I kind of hoped that it would bring me back to my pubescent days of wandering rainy streets with a tape gun and a bag full of Sharpie-d signs on neon paper, visions of that perfect green-and-navy flannel dancing in my head . . . but, alack, alas, it wasn’t to be.

readalikes

Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen (1999). Extremely similar stories: heavy, loner protag with workout-queen mother gets summer job where quirky employees and summer romance help her become more herself.

Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian (2009). Vivian’s protagonist goes through a very personal transformation when she commutes to a summer art program in Philadelphia (yay!) from her suburban home in New Jersey. Check out my review here. And check out Tessa’s interview with Siobhan Vivian here!

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