It was only a matter of time before someone attempted a series like Castle Rock. It’s sort of a “Stephen King Expanded Universe” project, combining an original story with references to the horror novelist’s established works set in and around the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. Andre Holland (The Knick, Moonlight) stars as Henry Deaver, a young adopted boy and one of the town’s only black residents, who disappeared and reappeared under strange circumstances back in 1991 and is now a lawyer representing death-row inmates in Texas. He returns home to represent a creepy young man played by Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise in last year’s film of King’s It), who was discovered in a cage in the basement of Shawshank Penitentiary. The Kid has no known personal history and seems to have been hidden there for the good of humanity by the prison’s previous warden, Dale Lacey (Terry O’Quinn).
This primal good-versus-evil parable forms the spine of the show and echoes several King stories, including The Stand, the 1999 mini-series Storm of the Century, and the pseudonymously written series The Dark Tower. Around it, Castle Rock weaves the stories of other characters, including Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), a real-estate agent and empath with severe social anxiety and a drug problem; Warden Porter (Ann Cusack), Lacey’s successor at Shawshank who wants to keep the subterranean creep’s existence a secret until they find out who he is and what he wants; and Henry’s adoptive mother Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek, star of one of the very best King adaptations, 1975’s Carrie), whose memory is decaying from Alzheimer’s disease.
King is listed as one of the executive producers along with J.J. Abrams, whose Lost ushered in a craze for “mystery box” plotting that animates this series as well. But the main showrunners are Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason of WGN’s late, lamented Manhattan, and at its best, Castle Rock captures that show’s sense of an expansive community buzzing with activity, even if the first four episodes sent out for review are a bit of a mixed bag. As the series unfolds, there are King-like touches aplenty, including spectacular acts of violence, unnerving monologues by folksy keepers of Castle Rock lore, and flashbacks that give you just enough information to chill the blood but not enough to resolve ongoing mysteries.
Like FX’s Fargo, the show struggles to prove itself equal to source material that it wouldn’t exist without, even as it packs the narrative with characters and incidents that connect with beloved King fiction (as well as performances by actors who have appeared in King adaptations, like Spacek). Also like that pastiche of the Coen brothers’ movies, this Hulu series is high-toned fanfiction on a big budget, piggybacking on established intellectual property while trying to do something new that’s in the same spirit but has a life of its own. (As if to encourage the Fargo comparison, Allison Tolman co-stars as Molly Strand’s sister.) But unlike Fargo, you never ask yourself if the creator intended for all the other, earlier stories to be connected, because King has always seeded his own work with self-referential and cross-referential touches. If you read enough of his novels and short stories, you’ll hear characters casually mention the boy who was found dead by the railroad tracks (Stand by Me/The Body), or the St. Bernard who went on a rabies rampage (Cujo), or the kids who disappeared in Derry (It). So you could say that Castle Rock is just doing what King already had established it was okay to do.
Sometimes the references are straightforward (as in Lacey’s narrated montage of the town’s history, which includes multiple allusions to existing King books); sometimes they’re things that only a die-hard King fan would immediately get (Scott Glenn plays Alan J. Pangborn, sheriff of Castle Rock from 1981 to ’91 and a character with connections to both The Dark Half and Needful Things); and other times they’re rib-bruisingly obvious (Jane Levy plays a nosy character named Jackie Torrance, à la The Shining’s family). But they always feel a bit superfluous. I often found myself wishing that Castle Rock were a stand-alone, horror-inflected story of life in a decaying Maine town with a Stephen King–like flavor, as opposed to a tie-in project, even though Hulu probably wouldn’t have green-lit it without the King connection. Fargo does this too, of course, though more sparingly and somewhat more successfully, at least in its first two seasons. I’m not sure why the interplay of existing and original work doesn’t feel as seamless here. Maybe it’s because the Coens are extremely self-conscious formalists even when the material is emotionally affecting, while King at his best jumps right in there and tells ripping yarns that you’re supposed stay up all night reading. It’s as much a credit as a criticism to say that Shaw and Thomason’s original Castle Rock material is King-like yet strong enough to stand on its own without King’s pedigree, and that constant need to connect to his work makes the series seem less confident than it is.
One fascinating point of departure is the way Castle Rock treats race. King cared about the subject as well, but the treatment here is more sophisticated and consistent and seems more informed by knowledge of contemporary life. One of King’s major Achilles’ heels is his tendency to resort to “magical Negro” characters, and at least in the first four episodes, it’s absent here. Deaver is a fully formed, plausible human being, thanks in large part to Holland’s wary, reflective performance, which suggests that the character is outside of himself looking at the world even as he moves through it. He has an inner intellectual and emotional life, and that goes a long way toward making Deaver seem like much more than a mere symbol or token. (There’s a great moment in the third episode where another character drops an unexpectedly thoughtful observation into their conversation, and Deaver blurts out, “Huh!” as if he genuinely appreciates the insight.) The series also turns the periodic racial conflagrations that flare up in King’s fiction into a simmering undercurrent that informs everyday conversations between Deaver and the white characters, who often go out of their way to preemptively establish that they aren’t racists (even his adoptive mother does this). Deaver’s fish-out-of-water status also connects him, subtly, with Skarsgård’s Kid, who likewise seemed to just spontaneously appear in the midst of a world that never asked for his existence.
Castle Rock is also very good at showing the economic desperation afflicting American small towns. Molly’s big plan entails purchasing an old mill downtown and converting it into a mixed-use facility that will spark the kinds of daily human interactions that have been lost since Castle Rock’s manufacturing base collapsed. At one point, the place is likened to Fallujah, with the implication being that capitalism devastated the place so completely that it might as well have been shelled by Marines. More than one character points out that the town now has just one major employer, Shawshank Penitentiary. All the show’s subplots are festooned with references to the prison-industrial complex that keeps the community on life support even as it makes the place feel exploitative and desperate. A few episodes in, Molly chances across a group of children participating in a bizarre mock trial that seems to replicate a parole-board hearing or criminal trial (or maybe just the idea of a trial), and we’re suddenly keenly aware of the devastating impact on children’s lives when their parents go behind bars. All this stuff feels closer to early Bruce Springsteen (whose lyrics are referenced in more than one King work) than to the master himself, and the lead performances are so consistently thoughtful — Holland’s and Lynskey’s especially — that when the supernatural inevitably intrudes, it makes Castle Rock feel less special. The real-life horrors inflicted on these people are as disturbing as any ghouls, vampires, or devils that King might dream up.