I watched all of Hemlock Grove this weekend and I loved it. It’s not great. Everything Lauren Davis says about it over at io9 is completely true. I still loved it. (And I was right to suspect the cat would not make it into the show named “Fetchit.” Onscreen it was “Casper.”) And part of the reason why is that Hemlock Grove seems uniquely designed for a second-screen experience—and to give those of us deeply steeped in vampire lore and assorted pop culture nerddom a particular thrill.
Hemlock Grove, it seems to me, assumes that one of the joys its viewers will take is in catching all the references. It’s not just that there’s a wolfman and a vampire and a Frankenstein’s monster and a mad scientist and all the other horror tropes. It’s that the wolfman is named Peter, as in Peter & the Wolf, the vampire, whose mom is secretly from Romania, is name Roman, the Frankenstein’s monster is named Shelley, as in Mary Shelley, and the mad scientist is Dr. Price, an obvious nod to Vincent Price. And, sure, sometimes the names are a little too spot on–the fortune teller’s name is Destiny, the werewolf hunter is Dr. Chasseur (French for “hunter”), the first victim’s name is Victim 1… no, just kidding about that one. But the point is that this is a show that assumes you will enjoy it more the more you know what tropes it’s playing with and what sources it’s drawing from, so it tries to leave you plenty of bread crumbs.
This brings me to one of the most quietly extraordinary moments in the show. Here’s what you need to know to appreciate it. One of the recurring images in the show is that of the dragon. People are constantly mentioning dragons. Peter and Roman have themselves a little fake Order of the Dragon. Dr. Chasseur belongs to the real Order of the Dragon. Roman’s mother tells him that he is a dragon. Okay, then, so we join Dr. Norman Godfrey, who has just learned that Lod, LLC wants to buy his share in the family biotech business. And he’s researching the company on the internet. He clicks on the Wikipedia entry for the city of Lod and scrolls down only as far as the section titled “The Arab Period.” If there’s anything relevant to the viewer on that page, it’s not really easy to tell on the TV screen.
But, if you watch TV with another screen within reach, it’s easy enough to call up Wikipedia’s entry on Lod and read, “In the sixth century the city was renamed Georgiopolis after St. George, a soldier in the guard of the emperor Diocletian, who was born there between 256 and 285 AD. Church of St. George is named for him.” St. George is most well-known for fighting a dragon. And, in “The Arab Period” section, we learn that there’s a legend that Christ will slay the Antichrist at the gates of the church of St. George, in that city.
So, even before we know for certain that Lod, LLC is tied to the Church, anyone who read the Wikipedia entry he or she saw Dr. Godfrey looking at would have a hint that that’s what’s coming, as well as a hint that the Order of the Dragon, and thus Dr. Chasseur, are tied to Lod, LLC.
Usually shows try to keep your eyes on the screen. I can’t think of another show where viewers are rewarded for jumping to the internet to see exactly what a character is looking at. And I thought it was really cool. I felt like I was watching a show that’s not just comfortable with how people watch TV these days (usually with one eye on the computer or on the smartphone), but exploited that knowledge for their viewers’ pleasure.
But then, that leads me to the one outside reference that’s not heavily telegraphed. Peter and Roman spend a not-insubstantial amount of time saying “shee-it” to each other. They stand around saying “shee-it” to each other like we’re just not seeing the parts of their lives where they sit on a couch together watching and rewatching The Wire for hours at a time. And certainly no one who hasn’t seen The Wire is going to know where it comes from, but no one who has seen The Wire is going to mistake it as a reference to anything else.
I both think it makes no sense (We’re supposed to believe they are such huge a show that went off the air when they were, at most, twelve?), and think it’s a lovely bit of characterization. Why are these two guys drawn together? In some ways, you know they’re drawn together solely because wouldn’t Twilight be interesting if Jacob and Edward mostly ignored Bella and tried to solve crimes together in Bon Temps? (I would be willing to lay money that this was the elevator pitch for the show.) But I like to think that just as Hemlock Grove assumes we’re all busy checking Wikipedia, quoting our favorite shows to each other, and jumping out of our chairs at the sight of obscure references, its characters are too. Hemlock Grove‘s understanding of the way we watch television now isn’t just designed to enhance our viewing experience at home. It’s a means of making us relate to the characters as well.