The search for established IPs has forced some content creators to craft their own extended universes. Some franchises may not have seemed like an obvious fits for further expansion, but others have the DNA running through them. Perhaps one of the most obvious IPs to dive into was the world of Stephen King. The famed author has often left easter eggs and clues to a connected universe within his stories. Other pieces of the pie don’t add up. Yet Hulu chose to take that gamble with a new series “Castle Rock.” Executive produced by J.J. Abrams and run by former “Manhatten” writers/producers Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason the show doesn’t necessarily take off from the word go. However, with development and time, it holds potential for the future.
“Castle Rock” is an ensemble series focusing on a small town in Maine. A young lawyer, Henry Matthews Deaver (André Holland), returns to the town he grew up in when he’s contacted about an inmate in Shawshank State Penitentiary. The inmate (Bill Skarsgård) has no records, but something is off. After he is found by an officer (Noel Fisher), weird and mysterious happenings begin in Shawshank. While Deaver is rebuffed by the warden of Shawshank (Ann Cusack), he stays with his adoptive mother (Sissy Spacek) as she struggles with dementia.
The show begins at a leisurely pace and this keeps much of the story shrouded in mystery. We’re introduced to various townsfolk, including Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) and Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy). The show may draw from a number of stories from King, but it never really reaches the intensity of his novels. However, the fact that the show is going 10 episodes should give audiences some patience. Novels like “It,” “The Stand” and others are thousand page novels. Not every King novel is instantly gripping. The first few episodes feel like setup, and for my money, the setup feels like it is heading somewhere.
The star-studded cast should draw viewers. Beyond having series regulars like Holland, Lynskey, Skarsgård, and Spacek, the featured actors have their own impressive resumes. Scott Glenn features heavily as a character from Deaver’s past. He clearly has answers, but he’s unwilling to give them to Deaver. Terry O’Quinn, Allison Tolman, and Frances Conroy all appear as well. The deep cast should yield dividends later this season and for future seasons. Even in small moments, each of the actors shines.
The actual quality of the show is rather high. The production design of Shawshank is high, partially recreating the film and yet making it unique to the show. The town where the show takes place feels identical to many from King-inspired movies. The characters of “It,” “Stand By Me,” or “Carrie” would feel at home. The cinematography and lighting are well done. This gives “Castle Rock” some spooky, and cool shots over the first few episodes.
The writing is where most audiences may find some issues. The pace is slow and it strains to create the links between King properties at times. The easter egg game feels overly deliberate at times. Glenn’s character has appeared in several King books. Photos from “The Shawshank Redemption” hang on the walls. Newspaper clippings featuring stories of “rabid dogs” and children finding a body appear. That said, if you’re not a King aficionado, you’ll probably miss these references entirely.
What bodes well for the show is it’s lean into the sci-fi element of the show. Hulu is seeking to keep up with Netflix, and high concept sci-fi certainly helps. Lynskey’s character appears to have a similar power to that of the character in “The Dead Zone,” though she tries to hide it through drug use. The appearance of Skarsgård adds a creepiness to the events. While he’s not reprising his role as Pennywise, something weird is going on. Genre television shows have proven extremely popular in the modern landscape. With a strong cast and King’s genre bonafides, this series will get more leeway to get creepy and weird than others.
The first few episodes of “Castle Rock” are admittedly slow. Yet patience should be necessary with sci-fi shows like this one. Characters will travel some interesting paths, and mysteries will surround the show. Given Abrams involvement, we may never get some of those answers. Despite this, the show holds some promise in exploring a sci-fi and horror bend. For the show to reach its potential, give the show some time.