Few projects can claim to have so much pedigree and yet such a rocky road to adaptation as the first season of Locke & Key, finally finding a home at Netflix after languishing in pre-production hell. It was kicked around from place to place for over a decade despite the comic book it’s based off being lavished with praise and penned by Joe Hill: the nom de plume of Stephen King’s son who has gone on to chart a path as an accomplished writer well on his own merits. But much like his father, who is no stranger to the disappointing adaptation of great source material himself, Hill’s material has yet to find any real onscreen success.
Last year’s adaptation of Hill’s 2013 novel NOS4A2 failed to capture the imagination of the book and as is the case of Locke & Key, it feels like history repeating itself again. The story follows the remnants of the Locke family who decide to move to their father’s ancestral home in Matheson after his brutal murder to both feel closer to his memory and as a fresh start. In the large mansion, the youngest of the family Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) begins to discover keys hidden throughout the property that unlock powerful magic and inadvertently sets a dangerous woman named Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) free who is intent on collecting all of the magical keys at any price.
Bode and his two older siblings Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and Tyler (Connor Jessup) must find the keys before Dodge gets them while juggling life and school and solving the mysterious past of their deceased father. There’s a wealth of imaginative material to work with: a key that turns the user into a ghost, one that sets everything on fire, and one that turns mindscapes into physical places. Watching Locke & Key is much the same as the experience of watching AMC’s NOS4A2: with all this creativity from the books, why is what’s happening onscreen so dull?
Locke & Key learned nothing from NOS4A2‘s failings and eschews the fantastical for the boredom of teenage drama. There are some episodes that provide the kind of excitement one would expect, but oftentimes the long stretches of Kinsey and Tyler navigating the food chain of high school life take up the bulk of the middle of the season and answers are touched on only towards the very end, with the higher stakes saved for a second season in typical Netflix fashion. It’s not that Locke & Key is terrible, it’s more that it’s frustrating that it takes what should make for a fantastic series and settles for a blandness that makes it indistinct from so many other Netflix shows.
The comic books fall more into the horror category and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that in the process from page-to-screen some things have been sanitized. The children are put in danger (but never too much danger), Dodge is an evil being that never seems to have any grand plan or ability to directly hurt the children, and the keys all have strange powers (that are never too powerful for the Locke siblings to handle). Everything feels like a kiddie roller coaster: any time the series starts picking up a bit of speed, it stops just short of providing any real thrills.
For such imaginative source material, it’s a shame that Locke & Key still manages to feel like something drummed up by Netflix’s almighty algorithm machine. Put Stranger Things, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and A Series of Unfortunate Events all into a blender and taste the uninspired concoction that comes out. Locke & Key‘s flavorlessness should serve as an indictment of the Netflix recipe. A show’s debut should not be a glorified teaser trailer for the second season. There’s a lot of potential in Locke & Key, but unfortunately, the show never fires on all cylinders, never really commits to exploring the farthest reaches of its concepts. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the inevitable second season to unlock some real excitement.