'Locke & Key' Tries to Be the Next 'Stranger Things' and Fails

Starring Jackson Robert Scott, Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, Sherri Saum, Griffin Gluck, Darby Stanchfield, Laysla De Oliveira, Petrice Jone, Thomas Mitchell Barnet
'Locke & Key' Tries to Be the Next 'Stranger Things' and Fails
Locke & Key, the ten-episode Netflix adaptation of the horror-fantasy graphic novel series by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, hits our screens after a decade of languishing in development hell. It's exactly the type of content Netflix tends to pick up: adapting a piece of intellectual property with a small but devoted following; big-name creators (the series is helmed by Carlton Cuse of Lost and Meredith Averill of The Haunting of Hill House); plucky teens facing a mysterious supernatural force; and a forward-moving plot designed for binge-watching.
But it's this format that makes Locke & Key suffer — Netflix seems so certain on a second season being an inevitability that most of the real answers have been prolonged, leaving us with hours of lead-up with little payoff.
Locke & Key opens with the murder of guidance counsellor Rendell Locke (Bill Heck). Confronted by a student who demands to "know about Key House," Locke is shot when he refuses to divulge the information. From here, we follow Locke's family as his widowed wife Nina (Darby Stanchfield) moves with her teenaged children Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and 10-year-old Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), to the aforementioned Key House, a massive Victorian mansion in Massachusetts, and the Locke ancestral home.
As Tyler and Kinsey attempt to navigate through their sense of loss and the awkwardness of a new high school, Bode stumbles upon a mysterious set of keys with magical powers like transportation, mind control, and the ability to travel inside your own head. Bode soon enlists the help of his siblings as dark forces from within the house rise up to take back control of the keys, including a menacing and seductive shadow-demon named Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira).
Something of the graphic novel's beautiful visuals get lost in translation from page to screen, watered down to scenes lit with a blue-tinged sameness. While the set decoration is certainly a standout, and the house is packed with little details that make it believable as a place where magic and mystery dwells, it doesn't feel special — it feels like a set. Some of the dark, fantastical wonder of its source material comes through whenever we journey inside the minds of our protagonists, but even these scenes feel sort of cold and calculated, like a Netflix-by-numbers template. Even the inside of Kinsey's mind resembles the shopping mall in the latest season of Netflix's Stranger Things, a show Locke & Key is clearly designed to replace while the former is on hiatus.
Locke & Key also suffers from a problem common to episodes made for binge-watching: slow plotting that forces viewers to keep watching to get answers. A fair amount of time is spent on Tyler and Kinsey's high school drama with new friends and new crushes. While Jessup and Jones are both gifted young actors who do a lot to sell their characters' grief and desire to achieve some semblance of belonging despite their strange new surroundings, it's still difficult to care about teen love triangles when so much mysterious weirdness is going on at Key House.
While plot twists and reveals abound, the narrative trajectory itself feels aimless — it's difficult to maintain interest when episodes go by and we're still not entirely sure what these keys do or what the numerous dark forces afoot really want. Once again the actors do the heavy lifting here — De Oliveira is a creepy, intriguing villain, but she more or less shows up, demands keys, doesn't get them, and then slinks off into the shadows.
Locke & Key is the type of show that may raise the stakes and ramp up as it finds its voice, and its unique premise offers many promising opportunities for visually engaging storytelling and elaborate mythology that's only hinted at in the first half of Season 1. But as it stands, it hasn't unlocked that secret yet.