Hemlock Grove is a series brought to us by Netflix; every episode of the first season was released on April 19, meaning viewers who get attached to the series don’t have to wait for the next episode. Eli Roth produces and directs episode one, the curiously named “Jellyfish in the Sky”, a pilot that sets off on a decidedly weird foot without giving the viewer one minute to stop and think about what’s going on. In a way, Hemlock Grove is a flurry of ideas, and this first episode is just a hint at what’s to come.
To simplify what happens in “Jellyfish in the Sky”, a teenage girl is viciously murdered in the park, and the town is deeply affected by the loss. But Hemlock Grove works within the context of families around the area; earlier that summer, a Gypsy boy and his mother move into the neighborhood in an abandoned trailer home in the woods. These are the Rumanceks, and they’re fairly ostracized from the community based on their reputation – and for good measure, too, because the school-age Peter (Landon Liboiron, from Terra Nova) drinks and smokes in front of his mother without much care.
But there’s also the very wealthy Godfreys that make up the higher-class portion of the town. There’s Olivia (Famke Janssen), the arrogant bitchy mistress of the castle, along with her son, the serious-looking Roman (Bill Skarsgard), and his sister Shelley. This episode of Hemlock Grove doesn’t really shed light on how the others of the town view the Godfreys, although their wealth doesn’t keep them from mockery, at least in Shelley’s case – she’s a giant woman who wears her hair over her face to hide a disturbing hole of an eye.
Everything’s a bit weird in Hemlock Grove; nearly all of the characters are developed in a way that makes them appear every bit as strange as the town thinks they are. Roman and his family have a distinct Cruel Intentions vibe to them; the kid does what he wants, and they can rent out Pennsyl-Mania if they want to. There’s a haughtiness to Olivia, too, along with an indication that she’s sort of evil, that sets them at odds with the normals.
But the Rumanceks are strange in their own way, too. As Gypsies, they’re mocked throughout the town, and it’s quite clear that prejudice plays a large part in the relationships cemented in Hemlock Grove. The way “Jellyfish in the Sky” splices the two families together works very well, at least in this first episode, to distinguish the differences and the similarities between the Rumanceks and the Godfreys. Whether this will play out in a sort of tete-a-tete between families remains to be seen, but there is certainly something brewing beneath the surface. It’s not clear who’s a werewolf yet, but the end of this episode seems to indicate that we’ll soon get there.
Everyone is playing their part well, yet Roth makes a few stylistic choices that are somewhat questionable. Why show the murder in the fall, then go back to the summer when the Rumanceks arrive? Why cut between the Rumanceks and the Godfreys, then throw in Letha and her family for only a couple of minutes? Still, the elegance of the direction here is mostly fresh and intelligent, and the settings are by far the most interesting pieces of Hemlock Grove.
The plot certainly has a lot to divulge; as of yet, we’ve only gotten hints of werewolves, but that will surely come with time as Hemlock Grove explores the darker sides of its characters. It’s difficult to say where the series goes from here, but its first episode is an oddly good time of weird and laid back. Viewers will definitely have a bone to pick with this series, and thanks to Netflix, we can watch whenever we want. Stay tuned as I cover the rest of the episodes in the series.