Hemlock Grove & Why Netflix’s “All at Once” Model Might Not Work


Frequent television commercials made it difficult for me to ignore Hemlock Grove, Netflix’s newest project in their fledgling original/exclusive programming line-up. Whereas Lilyhammer might be their answer to The Sopranos, and House of Cards a more adult West Wing with the cynicism cranked up to eleven, Hemlock Grove is more along the lines of True Blood with a heavy helping of Twin Peaks thrown in. Based on the debut novel by Brian McGreevy, Netflix’s newest original series follows a creepy town and its creepy inhabitants while they flail in the face of a string of teenage girls being (gruesomely – no, seriously, this is premium cable levels of gore) killed. Also there might be werewolves.

Honestly, after watching the entire series over the course of about a week, I’m not sure if it was awesome or awful. The AV Club gave it an “F”, which is pretty impressive, and other critical reviews have been mixed, but Netflix viewers have been rating it on average 4 out of 5 stars. If you like gore, you’re in for a treat, and you might be familiar with executive producer Eli Roth. Also, hands down, probably the coolest werewolf transformations you’ll ever see.

Despite the trailers having convinced me that the show was straight-up horror, it’s really much more spooky and atmospheric than scary.  And when it is frightening, it manages to often be equal parts ridiculous.  In terms of actors, if you’re a fan of True Blood, we’ve got yet another Skarsgård (Bill) playing a beautifully brooding potentially sociopathic rich boy. We’ve also got not one but two Battlestar Galactica alums in Aaron Douglas as the well-meaning sheriff way over his head, and Kandyse McClure as a “predatorologist” (who happens to have a lot of ties to the church) called in to help. And Famke Janssen, we love you, and your character is seriously creepy, but that accent. That accent. Cringe. I kept hoping there would be a plot twist that your character was actually an American just pretending to be British, but no such luck.

But that meager review aside, part of my issue with the show has to do with Netflix’s new model for giving us television – all at once. Now, in theory, this makes perfect sense. After all, Netflix’s bread and butter is the new trend towards binge-watching television. Why wait a week between episodes or half a year between seasons when you can just take a month and watch all six seasons of Lost or four seasons of Battlestar Galactica? (Just make sure you don’t do it like the folks on Portlandia.) The truth is that you miss something.

Lost is a great example, actually. If you watched the show while it was airing – how much of your experience was mulling over the WTF-ness of it all? Online forums exploded with theories that were hotly debated, and it was often a hot topic of conversation the next day. The experience was social, because you were watching it along with everyone else being forced to wait another week to find out what the hell was going on. And even for shows that aren’t quite so head-scratching, there’s something to be said for having some time to think about an episode before the next one.

Now, Hemlock Grove is nowhere near Lost levels of “what the heck is going on?” but there are definitely mysteries, and definitely the potential to form and debate theories (the central one being, of course, whodunit?). When seriously binge-watching (it’s 13 episodes – you could easily do it in a weekend if you’re hardcore), you miss the opportunity to form solid theories, because you’re often immediately confronted with the answers. Alternately, if you spread it out and watch the show over several weeks, you miss the social aspect and the debate of those theories, because you’re not watching it at the same time as everyone else, who are all watching it on their own timetable.  I actually deliberately avoided looking up anything at all on the Internet about it  until I was done with the whole thing (even though I was super curious about some theories I had) because I was afraid of being spoiled since people could have already watched the whole thing. Meanwhile, Netflix also misses out on a huge amount of the buzz and word-of-mouth that builds just from people talking about a television show as they watch it – granted, they’ll still get reactions, but it will last for a shorter period of time.

All that said, I’m not sure that I think that Netflix should change their model – particularly having started this way, it would just seem silly to start arbitrarily putting time in between episodes. I think it’s just the inevitable downside of this distribution method, along with the advantages. And for Hemlock Grove in particular, I think that the show would have been more enjoyable, and perhaps more successful, in a traditional episodic form. Maybe the takeaway here is just that Netflix should choose its programming more carefully, and leave the spooky WTF mysteries to cable.

Also, in my opinion?  Definitely worth a watch.  I genuinely enjoyed it, even if I was rolling my eyes with some frequency.  If you’ve already seen the show, what did you think?  And what do you think of Netflix’s programming model?

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