It was when I'd caught a reflection of myself in the window of the train, wiping tears off my cheek after finishing “Pop Art”—a straight-faced, heartbreaking short story about a boy and his inflatable best friend—that I realized I’d been a dumbass for waiting so long to read Joe Hill.
People had been recommending Hill for years before I saw his debut collection Twentieth Century Ghosts on a shelf at the Midland Library. “Heart-Shaped Box will fuck you up, man,” they said. “Dude, NOS4A2 is so good.” And it’s not like I thought my friends were full of shit or anything, I just… never got around to his books.
Hill is now one of my favorite authors. “Loaded,” from his excellent collection of novellas, Strange Weather, features one of the coldest endings to a story I’ve ever read. His novel Heart-Shaped Box did, in fact, fuck me up! Hill’s sense of character and pacing—and his sure-handed control over a story’s substance—ensure meanings and feelings consistently hit home as the chapters fly by.
But the one thing of Hill’s I still haven’t caught up on is Locke & Key, the acclaimed comic series he created in 2008 with artist Gabriel Rodríguez.
But whaddya know: Netflix just so happens to have produced a 10-episode season based on Hill’s story about a family, beset by tragedy, that tries to re-establish some normalcy by moving across the country to a spooky old house—a house that’s full of magic keys that can open doors, minds, people, and parallel demon universes. You know, the sort of shit that really complicates a recovery process.
And now that I’ve seen Netflix’s adaptation, I’m definitely going to check out the comics. Because I’m pretty sure they can’t possibly be as amateurish and inert as this show.
It’s not like there aren’t talented people bringing this series to life: Showrunner Carlton Cuse’s last big successes were Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Bates Motel, and before that he helped run Lost. The directors include Michael Morris (Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire) and Vincenzo Natali (Hannibal, Westworld). Hill himself helped write the first episode! And that’s what makes this show’s inability to be even fitfully good such a mystery.
Right off the bat, there’s a problem of tone: Locke & Key is a fantasy show that’s also a horror show that’s also a romantic teen dramedy, and that’s a hard tightrope to walk even if the vision is focused and the execution is on point. But Locke & Key’s execution feels like they did two takes of a rough draft, then threw the hard drives and some Spotify playlists at the editing team like, “Good luck, assholes!”
So when scary things just... sort of happen, they’re (not very) scary—and the second the lights come back up, some awkward teen romance trips over itself until the clock runs out on that bit. And then it’s a low-key family drama, with none of it possessing an ounce of solid characterization, and then it all resets so Locke & Key can stumble through that ungainly dance all over again.
There’s nothing this show is trying to do that isn’t being done exponentially better by a dozen other Netflix shows—most of which will probably occupy the same row as Locke & Key when you open the app.
Ultimately, Locke & Key ends up not being the story of a family in a spooky old house, but the story of a forever-expanding cast of cardboard characters gnawing through bad dialogue and then patiently waiting for a scene to end so that the next, almost always unconnected one can begin. The show has a giant people problem, in that nobody behaves like people at any point, but it isn’t the actors’ fault: I’ve seen a lot of these performers in other shows where they do successfully replicate human behavior, where they're allowed to use actorly tools outside of "stammer," "shrug," and "well up but don't cry," and though I’m unfamiliar with the source material, I’ve never read one character in any other Hill story who behave like these "people" do, all sloppily slapped-together out of not much more than simple cliché and catchphrase.
But maybe the show’s biggest problem is that there’s nothing it’s trying to do that isn’t being done exponentially better by a dozen other Netflix shows—most of which will probably occupy the same row as Locke & Key when you open the app. You want a teen comedy? There’s Sex Education or American Vandal. You want a dark teen comedy? There’s End of the Fucking World. You want a dark teen fantasy? There’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or The Umbrella Academy. A scary domestic drama? The Haunting of Hill House. There's Dark. There's Sense8. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The Witcher. Castlevania. Do I even need to mention Stranger Things?
So maybe the best bet for enjoying Locke & Key is to turn off Netflix altogether—and instead dedicate the hours you would’ve spent on this confused mess to tackling a stack of those Locke & Key graphic novels waiting for you and me at your local public library.
Locke & Key streams Fri, Feb 7 on Netflix.