In an early episode of Netflix’s new supernatural thriller Locke & Key, teen heroine Kinsey Locke (Emilia Jones) is invited by her new friend Scot (Petrice Jones) to see a Band of Horses tribute act, one of several cover bands operating in Matheson, the remote New England coastal town where they both live.
“It’s a near-ish approximation of having a formative concertgoing experience,” Scot promises.
The description proves just as apt for Locke & Key itself. The series is a near-ish approximation of a lot of other things — including several Netflix shows in the middle of long hiatuses — without ever quite seeming inspired or essential in its own right.
Adapted by Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill, and Aron Eli Coleite from the comic-book series by novelist Joe Hill and illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key aspires at various points to be a haunted-house story (a bit like The Haunting of Hill House), a story of a group of adolescent outcasts discovering that superpowers can be fun but also terrifying (see also Stranger Things), a more straightforward teen drama with love triangles galore (too many influences to list here), and a mystery series with an elaborate mythology (like the many shows inspired by Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s work on Lost).
The Locke family — kids Kinsey, Tyler (Connor Jessup), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), plus mom Nina (Darby Stanchfield) — moves into the ancestral home of recently murdered dad Rendell (played in flashbacks by Bill Heck), a sprawling gothic mansion known as Keyhouse. The kids explore the place as a way to cope with their grief, and soon discover a bunch of elaborate old keys with magical powers and whimsical names. The Anywhere Key, for instance, will turn any door into a portal to wherever in the world the user wants to go, while the Head Key transforms your mind into a physical place you can visit to see your memories, fears, etc. (Kinsey’s mind looks like a shopping mall that faintly resembles the one from the latest Stranger Things season.) There’s also a menacing woman called Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) who wants the keys, and will gladly hurt any or all of the Lockes to get them.
Bode, much younger than his siblings, is the most enthusiastic about experimenting with the keys. “These aren’t toys; they’re weapons,” Tyler scolds him at one point. “Why can’t they be both?” Bode replies. It’s clear the creative team shares his wish: They want the keys to be fun playthings most of the time and genuinely dangerous when the occasion calls for it. But the series’ heart isn’t into the scary side of things. The horror beats, when they come, are never that frightening, and at least one of them (involving Dodge, a random kid, and a ruthless use of the Anywhere Key) is unintentionally comical.
For that matter, the series can’t seem to decide how anyone should respond to the reality-altering power of the keys. There are brief stabs at showing different people justifiably freaking out about them, but for the most part, the Lockes and their friends shrug off the spookiness as just another part of their new lives. Early in the second episode, Kinsey says, “I can’t believe we’re just going to school like nothing insane is happening.” That is the last time she seems particularly weirded out by any of it.
On the one hand, dwelling more on the kids’ feelings about the existence of the keys, and of magic, would have extended the throat-clearing early section of the season that’s a stumbling block with so many modern serialized dramas. In theory, I can respect the writers’ decision to just get to the heart of the story. But that time is mostly devoted to relationship angst at the new high school Tyler and Kinsey attend(*), a topic way too superficial and generic to justify the number of scenes spent there versus on the keys, Dodge, or even Nina’s drinking problem. (As you might imagine, living in a haunted house is not one of the 12 steps, even if adults tend to forget the magic shortly after witnessing it.) Jessup was fantastic in the tragic high school-centric second season of ABC’s brilliant-but-canceled American Crime. The material here is obviously much lighter, but it doesn’t feel like he or any of his younger co-stars were given material that goes deeper than the shallowest of archetypes (the mean girl, the film nerd, etc).
(*) Early on, we learn that the teens’ school year starts a bit earlier than Bode’s, which is meant to explain why he’s free to explore the house and find more keys while they’re going to class. But time passes, and Bode just … never attends school? Given the blandness of the high school subplots, this is probably for the best. But it’s still a distraction.
But even the show’s supernatural passages suffer from a lack of focus. Beyond the ongoing tonal whiplash, it’s unclear exactly what the stakes are, or what motivates Dodge beyond being fundamentally evil. Some of this was no doubt left to be explained down the road, and the backstory-based ninth episode is one of the stronger installments. But most of the season offers little rhyme or reason for anything that’s happening, beyond someone thinking it would look cool. And while the keys are cool to varying degrees, with the show making particularly creative use out of the Head Key, they’re not enough by themselves to elevate everything else.
Locke & Key has had a long and complicated journey to the screen. IDW published the first issue of the comic back in 2008, and Fox tried making a pilot (with Miranda Otto as Nina and Jesse McCartney as Tyler) back in 2010. It didn’t sell, and the show was redeveloped at Hulu, before eventually landing at Netflix with a mostly new cast. (Jackson Robert Scott is the only actor to survive from the Hulu version to here.) Because of the high profile of both Hill and the comic, the show’s development has played out more publicly than usual, including a fan screening of the Fox pilot at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con. I’d never read the comic, but attended that out of curiosity, and didn’t leave feeling like Fox had passed on a potential masterpiece. This Netflix take is better, if for no other reason than the advancements made in digital-effects technology over the past 10 years. But even after all this time and many iterations, the TV take on Locke & Key can’t help feeling like an amalgamation of ideas that have been done to death elsewhere, usually better.
If you lived in Matheson and wanted to see good live music, you might have to settle for one of the local cover bands. With streaming entertainment, though, you don’t need a magical key to travel to the entertainment destination of your choice. That makes the approximated pleasures of Locke & Key feel much less vital.
Season One of ‘Locke & Key’ debuts February 7th on Netflix. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.