Starting Off Strong, But I’m Leery
Reviewed by Jeremy Billingsley
As of this article, I have only watched the first few episodes of Castle Rock on Hulu, but I can honestly admit that I’m hooked already. The show is atmospheric and familiar with the lore of its progenitor: author Stephen King, who has made the fictional town famous in a number of his novels and short stories. The show is quick to reference these earlier works. The retired sheriff, played by Scott Glenn, was the protagonist of the novel Needful Things. Some of the scenes take place at nearby Shawshank Prison, and there is a reference to a violent dog attack years ago. The young high school drug dealer shares a surname with Keifer Sutherland’s villain in Stand By Me, an adaption of King’s work that was originally set in this bucolic town, and Jane Levy’s character’s surname should ring the bell of anyone familiar with The Shining.
But these aren’t wink and nod moments, lip service to fans. These characters stand on their own and serve the greater mystery. Central to all of this is Henry Deaver (Andrè Holland), the prodigal son who has been living in Texas as a criminal defense attorney defending death row inmates. After his most recent case ends in controversy, a strange call leads him back to his home town, back to his senile mother (Sissy Spacek – another King veteran), and back to the mystery that is Castle Rock. It seems, you see, as the new warden was preparing to open a long abandoned part of the prison, an inmate was found, a seemingly forgotten character known only as The Kid (Bill Skarsgård – Pennywise of the 2017 movie It), who had been locked away out of the sunlight by the previous warden. Who the Kid is and what mystery has just been uncovered will drive the show through at least this first season.
Castle Rock is a collaboration between author King and director JJ Abrams, produced by the latter’s Bad Robot label. This is their second collaboration after the James Franco led 11/22/63, another Hulu original. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the first production, and I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen so far of Castle Rock, I’m still nervous.
James Franco’s piece followed an established structure based on a previously published novel. Castle Rock is its own story based only on an idea, formless in and of itself as it pays homage to several pieces of fiction that helped to shape the town. King is, by and large, adept at creating a mystery and filling with imperfect characters on both sides of the scale who are particular to the mystery. Sure, he’s missed a few marks over the years, but in the central mythos of King’s body of work, there is still a measure of strength. But Abrams has been all over the place.
Abrams has written and been a part of a number of movies and television projects since the eighties, from surprises like Regarding Henry and Forever Young, to blockbusters like Mission Impossible III, Super Eight, Cloverfield, and Star Trek. On TV, he’s had his hand in such hits as Felicity, Alias, and Fringe, three shows that were well received and highly regarded. But he was also involved in Lost, a show that, while it had a cult following, became muddled in its own mythology. He executive produced Person of Interest, but had more of a hand in the lukewarm Undercovers and the short-lived Alcatraz. What we see in these weaker productions are shows that get lost in their own mystery, or characters who aren’t well thought out, and must serve the larger story, and hence become flat or contradictory. The stronger stories have a wonderful balance of strong characters and an engaging mystery. The question with Castle Rock is: which do we have here? It has started off strong, and I encourage anyone to give these few episodes a try, as the pacing is better than even the first season of Stranger Things on Netflix, and by and large, there is a stronger main and supporting cast here on Castle Rock.
But we’ve already seen signs of characters acting incongruently to serve the myth. The main character, Henry Deaver, is suspected killing his adoptive father years earlier. The story might be played out if the character had no memory of the event, but when asked about it, he seems confident in his recollection and can easily put to bed the rumor. That a childhood friend also seems to share in his version of events lessens the drama of this backstory. The mother also seems untraumatized by seeing her son again. Her dementia affects her presently but her recollection seems fine. Also, the retired sheriff seems to also know or be aware of the truth. The rest of the town, however, has all but convicted him. Now perhaps there is a greater mystery here to be revealed, but this inconsistency within the first three episodes is still concerning.
Bottom line: Castle Rock is a fun mystery and has started out as a great horror show, and if it keeps up this pace, it could even rival Netflix’s flagship horror series. The key moving forward will be to keep the characters strong and grounded and relevant to the mystery unfolding, and both King and Abrams have at times succeeded and failed at these goals.
Reflecting on my message here, perhaps this article is less a review and more a warning. You guys have a potential for a great show here, so don’t fuck it up.