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‘Castle Rock’ Ought to Be a More Exciting Place

July 29, 2018

By Hank Stuever

The Washington Post

What you’re looking for in Castle Rock may not be what Castle Rock is prepared to offer. The Hulu series, inspired by Stephen King’s recurring fixation on the mysterious goings-on in a fictional Maine town, has everything except a clear purpose.

If it’s meant to frighten, it’s not very good at that. If it’s meant to ruminate on the nature of evil, then that message never gets through. If it’s meant to creep you out, then it barely registers. And if it’s meant to be this summer’s 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle discovered in a cobwebby corner of a lake cabin -- well, there’s no law that compels you to spread it out and solve it, even if J.J. Abrams is billed as executive producer.

Castle Rock is great at one thing, though: It provides the latest opportunity to marvel at the surfeit (some would say glut) of promising, expensively produced, darkly themed television shows that turn out to be not nearly as interesting as the concept first sounded. Mediocrity is once again the real monster here.

The first three episodes spend too much time laying groundwork, meting out clues and references at such a sluggish pace that they’re not worth noting, unless the show considers its mission to act as a Stephen King book club. Castle Rock and its surrounding forests, lakes and mountains will be familiar to fans of King’s copious oeuvre -- references to past stories are supposedly there for both the casual reader and the die-hard fan.

The show opens with the death of Dale Lacey (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn), the longtime warden of Shawshank state prison (see?). He kills himself in a gruesome fashion at the local, very murky lake -- itself the scene of past unpleasantness.

Shawshank’s corporate overlords descend on the prison to avert a PR crisis, which broadens into a potentially bigger scandal when a conscientious corrections officer, Dennis Zalewski (Shameless’s Noel Fisher), discovers a young man (Bill Skarsgard, who played Pennywise the clown in last year’s “It” remake) trapped in a cage in an underground cellblock that’s been abandoned for years.

The prison has no record of the guy, and it soon becomes apparent that Warden Lacey may have been keeping him there for some possibly perverse reason. Seemingly mute, the prisoner whispers a name: Henry Deaver.

That name is a throwback for everyone in Castle Rock who recalls the mysterious disappearance in early 1991 of young Henry Deaver, the adopted son of a church pastor. Henry was found unharmed after days spent wandering in the winter snows; his father died under strange circumstances while Henry was missing.

Now 39, Henry (Moonlight’s Andre Holland) lives in Texas and works as a death-row defense attorney. A call from Castle Rock brings him back to town to represent the nameless client, who by all rights should be freed from Shawshank -- unless, of course, he’s Satan incarnate, which the show floats as a distinct possibility.

Henry’s reacquaintance with the crabby, creepy people of Castle Rock (including Sissy Spacek as his mother) moves at a dismal pace, each episode seeming twice as long as its actual running time, while the show tries to decide if it’s a legal drama or a mystery thriller or something more otherworldly and terrifying. The whole enterprise could use a strong dose of Ryan Murphy.

In addition to Spacek and O’Quinn, Castle Rock features a surprising number of veteran film and TV actors in what seem to be bit parts, as if they’d been lured, like some viewers, to a project that would be flashier and more fun: Scott Glenn is the former town deputy who rescued young Henry; Melanie Lynskey is Molly Strand, the girl next door who uses opioids to quell her empathetic superpowers; and Frances Conroy is the late warden’s blind widow.

They’re all meant to convey a town tapestry of sinfulness and secrets. “Bad s happens here because bad people know they’re safe here,” Officer Zalewski tells Deaver, but by that point, Castle Rock has talked itself into a corner, all portent and little intent.

Why is this show here, looking a little too much like A&E’s Bates Motel, Fox’s The Exorcist, CW’s Riverdale and a dozen other relatively recent TV offerings? What is Castle Rock telling us? Where does it want to take us?

Sometimes the answer is frightfully simple: It’s here because someone pitched it, and then someone bought it.

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