This is not a Stephen King story. It has his blessing. It has his characters. It cites his publishing history, and it is set in one of his oft-visited fictional towns.
But Castle Rock, the 10-episode series now available on Hulu, is not a Stephen King story. It isn’t even really a pastiche of his stories, like Netflix’s immensely successful Stranger Things. Instead, Castle Rock is a moody, intermittently creepy, and ultimately hollow pastiche of recent genre TV.
As was the case with Lost, Castle Rock’s frequent mysteries are extended almost entirely by dint of its characters being remarkably bad at basic communication. As is the case with American Horror Story, inexplicable weirdness is dumped into each episode like a kid overzealously slapping the bottom of a ketchup bottle, blatting a giant red puddle onto now-drowned fries. And like Fargo, it tries to adapt the “feel” of auteurism by proxy—sprinkling sly references to the canon being riffed on as both an elbow-nudging reassurance and a storytelling shortcut.
Unfortunately, Castle Rock—as of, at least, its first four episodes—doesn’t really have characters yet, which is the primary difference between King’s books and what creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have delivered in his name.
King’s plotting is spotty, and his batting average for good endings hovers around the Mendoza line, but he knows how to craft indelible characters. He tends to work in archetype (when he’s good) and caricature (when he’s not), but in either case, he creates identifiable, memorable, and interesting people for his constant readers to accompany on their frequently horrifying journeys.
The fact that Castle Rock doesn’t have any such characters is particularly odd given that the show is cast amazingly well. Hell, Carrie herself—Sissy Spacek—is in it, along with Andre Holland (The Knick, Moonlight) as the lead, Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) as his mysterious opposite number, Scott Glenn as a burned-out version of the sheriff from Needful Things, Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise!) as the wispy, creepy antagonist, and, in a literal marriage of Lost and American Horror Story, the show opens with a charmingly doomed domestic scene between Terry O’Quinn and Frances Conroy.
But in Castle Rock’s first four hours, none of these fine actors get to do shit except goggle at each other in various states of incomprehension until one of them grudgingly coughs up the tiniest bit of exposition, at which point the show’s next bit of supernatural bewilderment paves it over.
To be fair, Castle Rock does succeed in evoking King via mood. But even then, it’s not the mood people have come to associate with King, the sort of loud, semi-comedic, pop-song style of spooky with the synths and the spiky fonts. (You know, like Stranger Things!) Instead, Castle Rock channels Richard Bachman, the pseudonym under which King wrote his meaner, dirtier stories.
The Bachman books do away with King’s sense of romanticism, instead luxuriating in pulped ugliness, and if any argument can be made for Castle Rock earning the hours it asks of the audience, it’s that the show nails how dilapidated the town of Castle Rock is—almost tactile in its disrepair, with rural malevolence hidden under teeming piles of sodden boards and caved-in roofs, with lives collected and forgotten in water-damaged boxes shoved under threadbare mattresses in cluttered, nicotine-stained rooms.
And if it were any other town, maybe the disparity of Castle Rock’s title and its content, its expectation and its reality, wouldn’t be so pronounced. But Castle Rock’s creators chose their own measuring stick, and stuck it at the front of every show—and by that metric, this triumph of mood, and not much else, falls short.