The letters that spell out Castle Rock – Hulu’s attempt to do the same kind of anthology-miniseries tribute act for Stephen King that FX’s Fargo does for the Coen brothers – are made up of pages cut out of many iconic King novels. The cast for the first season (which debuts on July 25) includes Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard, who have played two of the five most famous King characters ever (respectively, Carrie from Carrie and Pennywise from It), as well as a healthy dose of other alums from other King productions like Terry O’Quinn (Silver Bullet), Melanie Lynskey (Rose Red), Ann Cusack (Mr. Mercedes) and Frances Conroy (The Mist). Scott Glenn plays Alan Pangborn, the retired sheriff of King’s fictional hamlet of Castle Rock, Maine, who’s previously been played on screen by Ed Harris (Needful Things) and Michael Rooker (The Dark Half). Key chunks of this first season take place in and around the prison from The Shawshank Redemption; there are references to characters and plot points from King tales like The Shining, Cujo and The Body (which was adapted for the screen as Stand By Me).
As the sheer volume of italicized titles in that first paragraph suggests, Castle Rock is perpetually in danger of being more a dramatized collection of Easter Eggs than an honest-to-goodness narrative. It doesn’t help that creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (late of the brilliant-but-canceled atomic bomb drama Manhattan) take such a slow burn approach to their story, in which attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland from The Knick and Moonlight) reluctantly comes back to his hometown to help a sinister, mostly mute young man (Skarsgard) found in a cage underneath Shawshank. The plot unfolds at such a leisurely pace that, despite strong performances from Spacek (as Henry’s sundowning mother Ruth) and others, the many winks to the official King catalog can’t help initially overwhelming this cover band version of it.
Per usual for Hulu, the first three episodes are being released at once, which very much works in Castle Rock’s favor. It allows the audience to work through the embryonic bumps in one go, and to consume the show’s strongest early episode – a spotlight on Henry’s childhood neighbor Molly Strand – in the same gulp as the exposition-laden hours that begin our journey. (That episode, by the way, is the latest example of how much humanity and grounding Melanie Lynskey can bring to the most surreal and macabre of stories – it’s a tradition that goes back to when she was a teenager in Heavenly Creatures.)
Soon, the show’s narrative tentacles have grabbed onto a half-dozen different supernatural explanations for why our mystery man was held captive beneath Shawshank; where Henry disappeared to during a childhood incident that left him the town pariah; why Molly and Ruth each perceive the world differently from the rest of the locals; and why so many monstrous things keep happening in this one quaint New England town. “I guess everyone thinks they grew up in the worst place on earth, huh?” a stranger replies when Henry tries to tell her just how bad his old hometown can get.
By the time we get to the seventh episode – a Ruth spotlight, directed by Emmy winner Greg Yaitanes (House, Banshee), that’s one of the cleverest, saddest, best hours of TV this year – the series has fully come into its own, and the King allusions turn into treats for those who recognize them rather than distracting reminders of classics this newcomer can’t hope to live up to.
And to answer your question: No, prior King knowledge isn’t required to follow or enjoy. I’ve read/seen maybe a third of his books and their adaptations over the years, and I’m sure plenty of references sailed over my head as I watched Castle Rock. Yet the story always made sense. Shawshank, for instance, is clearly a crummy prison, whether or not you can quote Andy Dufresne’s line to Red about hope. After a while, I spent less time spotting King references and more time trying to figure out whether Alan Pangborn was the slightly saner twin of Scott Glenn’s retired sheriff from The Leftovers. Your mileage will vary.
Still, it does make me admire the restraint of FX’s Fargo, which tips its cap plenty to various Coen films but has only featured one overt connection to them over three seasons. With the phenomenon of Stranger Things – an unauthorized tribute act not only to King, but Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and other Eighties sci-fi/horror staples — it’s hard to blame the people with official ties to King’s work for wanting to make clear early and often that they’re connected to the genuine article. (This includes executive producer J.J. Abrams, who previously gave Hulu the uneven King adaptation 11/22/63.) But Castle Rock would have been better served holding a lot of that stuff until after it had better established why this story’s worth watching, as opposed to all the influences viewers could order On Demand instead.