Netflix’s next “we know what you want to watch based on what you watch” series is Hemlock Grove, a supernatural thriller based on the book of the same name by Brian McGreevy. The first season will be available in its entirety starting April 19th. I am very excited.
But, I’m also going to admit that it’s a little weird. I know the point is that I’m supposed to feel like this is exactly the kind of show I would want to watch, but it’s a little disconcerting that it is exactly the kind of show that I would want to watch. I like supernatural thrillers. I like a little mystery. I watch True Blood even though it’s gotten progressively dumber. I like to be able to watch shows in big gulps. I like Famke Janssen and Lili Taylor. And Lord knows I love to watch a Skarsgard looking at a werewolf.
It totally has a Skarsgard looking at a werewolf.
Okay, but wait. Can we be side-tracked here just for a second and talk about this Skarsgard-looking-at-werewolves thing? Why are we giving all our staring-at-a-werewolf jobs to Skarsgards? Do we not have American actors who can look at werewolves with a mixture of curiosity, disdain, and detachment? Is this a talent that runs only in the Skarsgard family? Or a special skill Swedes are taught, perhaps as young children, that we Americans miss out on because our teachers are so busy teaching to the test? It can’t be some inherited Swedish trait or some dude from Minnesota would suffice and it seems to have to be a real, live man from Sweden. It’s weird, if you think about it, that Sweden is best known here in the United States for Ikea, ABBA, and men who look at werewolves. But, on the other hand, you don’t hear a lot about Swedes being startled by werewolves, so maybe they know what they’re doing learning young to keep their eyes on them.
Where were we? Oh, right, what Netflix is up to with Hemlock Grove. So, one of the ways it’s being touted is as a kind of corrective to Twilight, which I think we can all agree is scary only in unintentional ways. Screenrant says of Peter’s transformation in Hemlock Grove into a werewolf, “The snout-by-way-of-mouth part of the process makes the Twilight transformation exponentially more cartoonish – if that’s even possible.” According to IGN, at Wondercon Hemlock Grove producer Eli Roth said, “I wanted it to be violent and like a birth. I wanted every teenager who saw Twilight, with a shirtless boy walking behind a tree and coming out a werewolf, to be horrified now imagining what happened behind that tree. It needed to be visceral.” And, yes, the transformations in Twilight are terrible.
But let’s be honest, the transformations in True Blood are worse. Plus, Twilight is over and done. True Blood is the aging, but reigning, monarch of televised supernatural thrillers. It is Hemlock Grove’s true competition. I would argue that putting a Skarsgard in the role he’s in is all the evidence you need to know that’s true — the crown Hemlock Grove wants is Sookie Stackhouse’s, not Bella Swan’s.
Can it take True Blood down? As someone who’s watched and loved True Blood from the beginning, I’m going to admit that, maybe, yes. McGreevy’s novel is a hell of a thing, not just good to read, but the kind of book that sticks with you for days, so you end up talking about it to people who haven’t read it, just to be able to talk about it. He knows his stuff, not just the broad genre myths, from which he draws his main characters, but even more obscure matters. The name of Peter’s cat, Fetchit, as in Stepin Fetchit is, for instance, an oblique homage to the name of Lovecraft’s cat, Niggerman, which he both owned in real life and named a cat in his story, “The Rats in the Walls” (though I’m curious if Fetchit’s name remains the same in the show, since it’s acknowledged as being racist as all get out in the book). He’s easily a better writer than Charlaine Harris, so the source material is better.
Plus, one of the core disappointments of TV Sookie vs. Book Sookie is that one of the things Harris does do very well is make Sookie seem like a real, working-class Southern woman. The show has never gotten that right. McGreevy’s one of the writers on his show, so it ought to stay truer to the characters, even as the plot will, necessarily, be different for TV.
True Blood is full of great actors who should be given interesting things to do, and, instead, we had the embarrassment of Eric’s ruination the season before last and the vampires as boring bureaucrats this past season. (Seriously, they somehow made Christopher Meloni dull!) Hemlock Grove also has a bunch of great actors and it seems impossible that the first season of their show could be as big a mess as the last couple of seasons of True Blood.
Sure, they won’t have the audience of True Blood, but I’m not sure that’s a necessary component of victory. Netflix has around thirty million viewers worldwide and they estimate ten percent of those viewers streamed House of Cards, at least in some portion. HBO has one hundred and fourteen million viewers globally, and the Season Five premiere of True Blood drew about five and a half percent of their viewers. Hemlock Grove can’t beat True Blood’s audience in size, but it may have a real shot at having a bigger share of of the audience available to it than True Blood has of the audience available to it. And that would be interesting. If True Blood had real competition, might it straighten up its act?
Even if not, Hemlock Grove is an important experiment in genre television. I’d love to see more shows done like this — short, coherent seasons available either all at once or, at the least, without weeks (sometimes months) between episodes in the same season, since that completely kills narrative momentum. Plus, if the show is as smart and strange as the source material, it’s going to be great fun, which might encourage more smart, strange, supernatural shows. So, I hope Hemlock Grove does well and I can’t wait to watch it. And then, yes, I’ll be watching True Blood in June.
I’ll have room for Skarsgards looking at werewolves in my TV watching habits for as long as my TV is willing to show me Skarsgards looking at werewolves.