The Stephen King super-series hits Lightbox in its entirety tonight, and thankfully, it’s come with A Plan and An Answer to all its mysteries. Uther Dean reviews.
In the small town of Castle Rock, shit is going down. The head warden of the local prison kills himself. The new warden discovers a haunted, silent man locked in a cage in an abandoned wing of the same prison. A woman buys Percocets from a high-schooler to silence the voices in her head. A death-row lawyer is called home and is inexorably drawn into the many mysteries of the town.
And yes, I’m being slippery about names because there are a few twists related to names. This is that kind of a show.
Shit isn’t just going down – it’s gone down. In the past, the lawyer went missing as a kid and lost his memory. His father died and no one can agree on when or why. The woman who hears voices watched the lawyer from a distance. She’s guilty about something and we don’t know what.
These and more are the various threads of mystery that Castle Rock is braiding together. This is very much a show with A Plan and An Answer. This is a show that wants to be theorized about and obsessed over. It wants to be Lost to the degree that the first full face you see on screen is Terry O’Quinn (y’know, from Lost). Which is not always a good thing.
It’s 2018. We’re well into our second decade of every TV show needing to have a myth-arc and puzzle-boxes. Not every show rewards the loyalty required of them. But the small pay-offs and deft knitting together of plot points in the first half of the first season of Castle Rock (available on Lightbox) shows that it has both actual answers planned and knows how to deliver them.
The cast is strong. André Holland (of Moonlight fame) plays the lawyer and has found a bunch of interesting ways to flavour the by-design bland role of the prestige TV viewpoint character. Melanie Lynskey (of being a GOD DAMN NATONAL TREASURE/WHY ISN’T SHE ON MONEY ALREADY fame) steals the show as the woman who hears voices, finding just the right amount of clarity in a role that could easily alienate audiences.
Castle Rock has a lot of legacy behind it. The logline of the show is that it is set in the shared universe of the work of Stephen King focusing on the town of Castle Rock. The prison is, for example, Shawshank of Shawshank Redemption fame. Even the cast is dotted with Stephen King veterans: Sissy Spacek (Carrie herself) and Bill Skarsgård (It itself) being the two most obvious cases.
It’s a show riddled with hat-tips to King’s work and while I’m not exactly a massive fan I picked up enough to realise just how many I must be missing. They are, more often than not, innocuous. Five episodes in, I’m yet to hit a plot point that requires a wider understanding, which is the risk of a show like this. That said, there are a couple of occasions where the big works of King are alluded to which had the odd effect, at least for me, of diminishing Castle Rock. It suddenly felt like there was no reason to be here. The big story. The one you know about it was over there.
At its best, Castle Rock gestures towards King’s strongest work: the creeping unease of everyday life. Supernatural terror as a natural extension of all the pains of living. That’s the King I want Castle Rock to dwell on. Not just the plot of the big hits. I wish Castle Rock was more confident to just be itself.
And King isn’t the only legacy hanging over Castle Rock. The show is aiming squarely – at times, cynically – at the prestige TV market. It’s a Hulu-made adaptation of a popular genre novelist’s work, like The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a subtly supernatural work done in the margins of pop-cultural heavy-weight stories, like Hannibal.
As much as much as Castle Rock has been in various bits of King’s work since the late 70s, this weird small US town where everyone has a secret and people can’t go two seconds without giving each other a meaningful look smacks very heavily of Twin Peaks. The almost sarcastic degree of mystery that hangs over everything makes you wonder why J.J. Abrams isn’t in the credits, until you realise that actually, it is.
These aren’t in and of themselves bad things at all. But we’ve seen them before. And so the question is: is Castle Rock doing them differently or interestingly enough to warrant your time? Well, like most things, the answer depends.
Beyond the King connection, there’s not one huge point of difference leaping out. I couldn’t help feeling that Castle Rock needed to learn from of Hannibal (also on Lightbox) and find a visionary director to give the show a distinct visual style to set it apart from its competition. I can tell you what happens in Castle Rock, but I can’t tell you why I care yet. But I do. God knows I’m finishing the season – I gotta know what happens. I bet they’ve got some good stuff lined up.
So, I guess, that’s a qualified recommendation. But I suspect that Castle Rock is the kind of show where you already know if you’re going to like it, and I’m happy to tell you that if you think you’ll like Castle Rock, you’re probably right.