Locke & Key

5 out of 5

Developed by: Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill, and Aron Eli Coleite

covers season 1

I’ve never had interest in reading a Stephen King book.  I think I’ve tried – I don’t actually have memory of this – but either the size of the books was too daunting, or descriptions of sections that sounded ridiculously boring or silly put me off, or when I sampled some pages, the writing actually seemed rather rudimentary, or, perhaps first and foremost, my major introduction to King through films has never provided me with the “I need to read the original!” inspiration, especially when a lot of what I’ve liked has, apparently, been unique to the interpretation.  And when I don’t like something (moreso found in TV adaptations), well, turns out, it’s ‘true to the book.’

So consider that a gap in my reading experience, and after a few decades of life, nothing I’ve heard anecdotally or seen has swayed me otherwise.

One consequence of that: King’s son, Joe Hill, automatically got lumped in the same pile.  I’d read a summary of something, think “yup, that sounds like something a King would write,” and so insouciantly judge an entire person’s oeuvre by an even more extreme version of shallowness: like, by my opinion their dad’s work, which I haven’t read.  Awesome job, me.

Unfortunately, judgements piled on.  I thought it was dang cool that Hill started to work in comics, but those that I did sample never really convinced me to change my takes.  One thing I’ll say of Stephen King is that he’s proven quite brilliant at finding simple, core concepts and sussing out some twist to make them more fantastical or frightening, and his son’s ideas are the next generation of that: they’re often just that bit much more odd or unique.  They sound cool on paper.  Locke & Key, which started as a comic, sounds great on paper: kids find magic keys, each imbued with specific powers.

In the hands of developers Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill, and Aron Eli Coleite, turns out it can look great as well, and now I’m wondering if it isn’t time to give Hill an actual appraising.

But having wasted your time with my delicious drawl of preamble, I’ll focus on the show, which, first and foremost, nails what’s key with any series that’s going to center around kids: you’d better get actors who are engaging to watch, because one small drop of annoying-kid behavior is often enough to send our eyes rolling.  The three Locke children – Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, the youngest, portrayed by Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, and Jackson Robert Scott – are all perfect.  Connor Jessup already caught my eye in Falling Skies and American Crime, and shows off his range here once more, swinging between sensitivity and douchiness as befits his character’s attempts at playing both sides of the nice guy / popular-at-school-guy role, before being subsumed by the key drama.  Emilia Jones is new to me, but shows similar emotional mastery at a relatively young age, portraying one of the story’s more brilliantly inspired plot points – she literally is able to adjust her emotions – without the kind of pantomime such a concept could easily have inspired.  She also turns what could have been a cheap stereotype of the problem-causing sister into a role filled with humanity, and strength.  But even with these two great actors, the real find here is Jackson Robert Scott.  Scott’s Bode is the first to discover the magic keys, and while the show’s writers need their due for giving these kids smart things to say and do, Scott’s wielding of his written words and actions is amazing.  He’s definitely a kid, and though he’s given that sort of over-smart edge that’s been worked and reworked as failed Kevin McCallister variants over bunches of shows and movies, the way Scott presents it, it’s not only wholly believable, but it actually comes across as a completely logical way for a kid to behave.  He makes kid decisions, but he’s smart about it.  He’s limited in his words and understanding, but is guided intelligently by his imagination.  And this wouldn’t work if Scott couldn’t bring that subtlety to the screen, and he does.  To compare to another kid-centric show: I’ve certainly praised Stranger Things, but I don’t know if I’d watch episodes focused on the kids without the titular ‘stranger things’ carrying the story.  With Locke & Key, I was just as pleased watching Tyler, Kinsey and Bode go about their day to day business as I was with the magic stuff.

Locke & Key’s writers also impress by knowing what to focus on, and what to shimmy past.  The kids find magic keys, and instead of wasting time hiding them from one another, they team up.  Yes, older brother, younger sister and brother dynamics still apply, but we’re spared the padding episodes where someone’s just secreting something from someone else.  They even try to rope in their mother (Darby Stanchfield) – who’s moved them out to “Keyhouse,” their father’s old house, after his death – as well as their Uncle (Aaron Ashmore), but once the magic is out of sight for these two adults, it’s instantly out of mind as well.  Bode nails it in one: adults can never see this stuff.  It’s a one line explanation, the kids all accept it because, yeah, it’s how this stuff always works, and we move on.  The same goes for other instances of passing on knowledge of the keys: Here’s how it is; here’s one example of the keys working; now you believe me.  Saving us from the labored exposition bits that wouldn’t serve much purpose except to run the clock, we can spend our ten episode TV time instead on seeing how dad’s death has affected each member of this finally – in relation to themselves, to each other, to others – deepening our interest in them as characters, and raising the stakes when Locke & Key shows that it’s quite willing to make good on those stakes when things – as they do – go wrong.

The keys are accidentally used to unleash something foul, and that foul thing is gathering up other keys to do more foulness.  Twists a’plenty are found, and the series paces out the appearance of other keys and the doling out of “how’s it all work” knowledge so that we never feel like we’re just being led along for reveals.  And once more, whatever we see or learn is presented with, when needed, appropriate flourish, but is never indulgent: the show respects our time, and accepts that we get it, and we can move on.

Locke & Key could be an excellent fantasy series just based on its premise.  Take out its adversarial force, and you’ve got a fun idea that could easily be serialized.  But it has this adversary, smartly woven in to the emotional undercurrents of the series and characters, giving the show even more thrust and drive.  And on top of that all is a brilliantly portrayed trio of kids, each given deep roles to dive in to that make for a gripping character drama besides all the magic business, made even more effective by, as mentioned, tying thematically (and, like, plot-wise) in to that magic business.

As I often ironically lament when seeing something quite fantastic that’s based on some other medium: the problem is, now I potentially have a ton of comics to catch up on…