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'Hemlock Grove' lands on Netflix with a big thud, as in dud

Not every step in the new TV revolution is going to be a great one.

That's my reaction after wading through three episodes of streaming video pioneer Netflix's latest attempt to redefine television: Hostel director Eli Roth's moody mess of a horror series, Hemlock Grove.

The show itself is a disappointing collision between Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks and True Blood, setting a supernatural series about a bloody killer in a quirky town where the most dysfunctional teenagers on television are attending the gloomiest high school west of Transylvania.

But Hemlock Grove is also an example of what I like to call "too much of a good thing" syndrome in TV. And it's a silent killer felling many promising television projects.

The symptoms are easy to see. Pointlessly explicit sex scenes. Jarring, yet unneeded curse words. Lush, finely crafted visuals that showcase empty scenes. Ace actors trapped in a series going nowhere, hemmed in by its own lack of boundaries.

Once upon a time, critics like me railed about great shows cut low by a lack of resources or network TV's narrow conventions. But with everyone from Netflix and Amazon to the Discovery and History channels trying to get into the quality scripted TV game, the script has flipped.

Projects such as Hemlock Grove, Starz's new drama DaVinci's Demons and HBO's new TV movie starring Al Pacino as superstar producer-turned-murder suspect Phil Spector all have the same, slightly different problem.

Too much of the good things. And not enough of the necessary things.

Like a compelling plot. Characters you can't stop watching. Stories that actually mean something.

Hemlock Grove debuts Friday on Netflix, which will release all 13 episodes of the first season at once. So, with no commercial breaks at hand, Roth takes his time moving through this story. It isn't until the beginning of the third episode that the show's dramatic framework, the search for a brutal killer of young girls in a gloomy Pennsylvania town, is clear.

That wouldn't be a problem if the characters were compelling. Everyone here is a mysterious sad sack, from the poor gypsy kid everyone says is a werewolf to the self-pitying rich kid who might be a vampire and his mother, played by X-Men movie alum Famke Janssen, striding through scenes like the personification of a man-eating demon.

Oh, and the vampire kid has a giant, mutant sister with a bloated right eye and hands wrapped in gauze. Seriously.

The paradoxes are jarring. Dougray Scott, a Scottish actor known for missing out on opportunities to play both Wolverine and James Bond, delivers a note-perfect American accent, while Dutch actress Janssen speaks in British tones so awful she seems to slip out of them in mid-sentence.

There's also an animal attack shot to look like a sex (or rape) scene; the most disgusting (and, admittedly, creative) werewolf transformation in recent TV history; and the fact that the show's only major non-white character doesn't show up until somewhere in the third episode.

Sadly, big budgets and loosened constraints don't always add up to great art. (Imagine how dumb Jaws would have been as a movie if Steven Spielberg hadn't been forced to create mystery by filming around a mechanical shark that rarely worked?)

According to the analysis firm BTIG Research, Netflix's 28 million subscribers now watch an average 87 minutes of streaming video every day. Those are viewing levels that would place it among the most-watched cable channels on TV, including the Disney Channel.

So perhaps it's time the service had a dud after the success of its first series House of Cards and before the highly-hyped return of the rebooted comedy Arrested Development — due to debut in a 15-episode rush May 26. Now we get to see how TV's most disruptive platform handles its first dog of a show.

It's a bitter lesson. Sometimes, removing all the boundaries for an artist leaves nothing to push them toward greatness.

Unraveling a N.Y. mystery

The Central Park Five, 9 p.m.

Tuesday on WEDU-Ch. 3. Why would a group of black and Latino teens, some of whom barely knew each other, falsely confess to one of the most notorious rape and beating cases in the history of New York City?

Filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns are among those who unravel the answer in a sadly absorbing documentary, The Central Park Five, about a quintet who spent between six and 13 years in prison, maintaining they were wrongfully convicted in 1990 of raping a white woman in Central Park.

The biggest piece of evidence against them? Their own confessions, obtained in grueling interrogations conducted, sometimes with a parent present but with no lawyers involved, over the course of 14 to 30 hours. Aged 14 to 16 then, they said they were fed facts by police under pressure and signed statements believing they would be allowed to go home.

Burns spices his deliberate, detail-laden pace with bursts of urban energy meant to transport viewers back to the era. Video clips from news reports of the time and blasts of old school rap set the scene; racial animus was at an all-time high, as street crime and income inequality raged out of control. The teens were arrested coming from an incident in Central Park where at least two dozen boys from Harlem went to the park and attacked a passerby.

The Central Park Five, now men, saw their convictions thrown out in 2002 when another man's DNA was found on one of the jogger's socks (the film begins with his words admitting to the crime). But even though the city hasn't pursued a new trial, it hasn't settled a $250 million lawsuit over the prosecution, either.

As an amazing tale wrapped in the dysfunctional history of New York City, Burns' documentary gets a TiVo for sure.

'Hemlock Grove' lands on Netflix with a big thud, as in dud 04/14/13 [Last modified: Sunday, April 14, 2013 9:19pm]
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