In the Netflix fantasy adventure series “Locke & Key,” a family moves into a Victorian mansion and soon discovers the cavernous house is filled with magical keys.
The Head Key allows you to explore your own mind and memories. The Ghost Key turns you into, yes, a ghost. The Anywhere Key instantly transports you to another locale. The Identity Key allows you to shape-shift into another person’s form.
The Identity Key. That’s the one the showrunners could have used in settling on a tone and target audience.
Is this an adult series with a group of kids in the lead roles, a la “Stranger Things”? Or a show for older kids with some adult themes? Both? Neither? Somewhere in between?
Based on the acclaimed comic book series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, “Locke & Key” is a great-looking show with first-rate production design, but despite an intriguing premise and some well-crafted episode-ending cliffhangers, it still seems to be in search of a tonal identity all the way to the 10th and final chapter of Season One.
One minute, it’s as if we’re watching a Harry Potter adventure or a scene from “The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe.” The next, a seductress in her bra and panties is wrestling with a stranger she has just picked up at a sex club, and is commanding him to choke her before saying, “Now my turn.”
After a gruesome little prelude involving a man, a key and an exploding house, we get a “THREE MONTHS LATER” graphic as the Locke family makes its way from Seattle to move into their ancestral home in coastal Massachusetts — the aforementioned mansion, painted in mint green and looking like Tim Burton was its chief architect.
“It’s a lot bigger than the pictures,” says one of the kids. “It’s also a little more Norman Bates.”
Meet the Lockes. There’s Nina, the mom (Darby Stanchield, “Scandal”); teenagers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and 10-year-old Bode (Jackson Robert Scott, who was Georgie in “It”).
No dad. Dad is dead. As we see in flashbacks, Rendell (Bill Heck) was murdered in the Lockes’ home in Seattle. Nina decided the best thing for the family would be to leave Seattle behind and move across the country and into the museum-sized Locke family mansion, which has been gathering dust in recent years.
Bode is the first to discover there’s magic on the grounds — magic that can be unlocked by using the keys hidden around the house. He encounters a friendly voice at the bottom of a well that turns out to be the not-so-friendly Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), a demon who looks like an international supermodel and can be quite charming — but is all about collecting the keys for nefarious purposes, because that’s what demons do.
Bode’s early experiences with various keys are whimsical and touching. He transports himself to the local ice cream parlor and gets a cone. He climbs inside his own head, which looks like an arcade. He looks in on a memory of his father telling him a bedtime story.
Once Tyler and Kinsey learn about the keys and start using them, things get more … complicated.
We alternate between Seattle-set flashbacks leading up to the circumstances of Rendell’s murder; high school drama involving Tyler and Kinsey making friends and meeting potential romantic interests; scenes of the kids battling Dodge for possession of the keys; Dodge’s exploits in other locales, and yet another series of flashbacks about Rendell’s teenage years.
And other stuff.
To say there’s a lot going on is putting it mildly. The writers do an admirable job of blending and connecting those multiple storylines, but not all of the subplots are all that involving or exciting. From time to time, the overall momentum slows to a gloomy crawl.
The younger actors all turn in lively, empathetic performances. Emilia Jones is particularly notable as Kinsey, who grows from sullen, frightened, closed-off teen to someone who finds the strength to literally slay her fears. (Remember, the Head Key allows you to get inside your own mind.) And Laysla De Oliveira has a grand time hamming it up as the ravenous, murderous, sadistic Dodge.
Unfortunately, many of the other adult cast members turn in underwhelming work. Bill Heck’s Rendell looks and sounds like a stiffer version of late 1990s Edward Burns (who wasn’t exactly Sean Penn), while Darby Stanchfield comes across as a bit understated and a bit clueless for a widowed mother whose kids are in mortal danger. (Granted, some of that is in the writing, but still.)
Hollywood has been trying to adapt “Locke & Key” for a decade. In 2001, Fox developed a feature film but never went into production. A few years later, Universal announced a movie trilogy, but that never happened. A planned series by Hulu died.
Netflix finally brought the comics to streaming life and clearly made a major investment in doing so — but based on the uneven, unsure tone of Season One, they’ve inadvertently illustrated just why so many others tried but eventually abandoned ship.