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If a golden age for Stephen King adaptations can tangibly exist -- his Golden Years, perhaps? -- then we might be in the midst of one. From Mr. Mercedes to IT to Gerald's Game and more, the King of Horror's multimedia reach is returning to the initial heights achieved through the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most unique new project, Hulu's Castle Rock brings familiar locations and characters together for a new story that oozes King's signature flair for evil, both supernatural and human. With multi-tiered mysteries and brooding atmosphere to spare, Castle Rock is a near-perfect substitute to actually reading one of King's books, and it will be incredibly hard for fans to put down each week.
The town of Castle Rock has long sat amongst literature's most disturbing locations, first appearing back in 1979's The Dead Zone and gaining a cursed notoriety in the decades that followed. Seemingly all of that dark history is embedded into Castle Rock, and the sinister power that's been festering is set to rear its ugly head like never before. With J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot behind it, perhaps it's no surprise this show is interested in exploring different points from that timeline, though most of the story is set in the present day, even if it all often feels trapped somewhere in the past.
Moonlight and AHS: Roanoke star André Holland plays Henry Deaver, a former Castle Rock resident whose childhood was mired in controversy largely tied to the death of his adoptive father, an event of which he has zero memory. Now an attorney for death row inmates, Henry is drawn back to his hometown after years of absence by a highly mysterious situation occurring at Shawshank State Penitentiary. His return makes for some uncomfortable moments with his mother Ruth (Carrie's Sissy Spacek), whose mental faculties aren't up to par.
Speaking of Shawshank, the iconic Stephen King prison is going through an upheaval of sorts, in connection Warden Dale Lacy, who is played by Lost vet Terry O'Quinn. Said upheaval is made all the more controversial after the discovery of a man being held in a cage deep beneath the main prison building. The nameless and disheveled man, played by IT's own Pennywise Bill Skarsgård, is a complete enigma to others, lacking communication skills and personal information. His arrival takes a particularly noteworthy toll on prison guard Dennis Zalewski, played by Shameless's Noel Fisher.
As created by Manhattan creator Sam Shaw and Manhattan writer/producer Dustin Thomason, Castle Rock is thick with J.J. Abrams' influence, and often feels like it was created entirely within the "Mystery Box" concept. However, the early episodes screened for critics do a great job of making these mysteries as engaging as possible without raising mountainous expectations for game-changing resolutions. Remember, even the biggest and boldest Stephen King stories live and die by the power of the characters, and Castle Rock can only be boastful in that respect.
Not that the aforementioned residents comprise the entire main cast. Melanie Lynskey plays Molly Strand, a former neighbor of the Deaver family that has a very special connection to Henry that isn't easily explainable. She aims to make a life for herself as a realtor in Castle Rock, even though she knows the horrors that have happened in so many homes. And then there's Daredevil and The Leftovers' Scott Glenn, who serves as another familiar piece of Stephen King's bibliography. Glenn stars as The Dark Half and Needful Things character Alan Pangborn, a former Castle Rock cop who sparked a relationship with Henry's mom Ruth, which becomes problematic, thanks to Alan and Henry's connections in the past.
For a simple assessment, Castle Rock does everything that a TV show of its distinction is meant to. It immediately hooks viewers into trying to understand its layered and emotionally complex story, and expands upon it all with a variety of supplemental mysteries. The performances are all as intense and captivating as one would expect from this talented ensemble. And as important as anything else, Castle Rock makes its central locale feel real and imbues it with the kind of dread and fractured humanity exhibited in pop culture's most famously weird small towns, such as Twin Peaks, Picket Fences, Springwood, Blue Velvet's and many more. (Or even King's other high-profile pit of debauchery, Derry.) If forced to pick one glaring fault, it's that Castle Rock leaves ample room for doubt that the end game will be as satisfactory as the journey. But that might just be my own flashbacks to other J.J. Abrams-produced projects that botched their endings, and not the fault of Castle Rock itself.
On top of being a great TV thriller that general audiences will enjoy just as effortlessly as Stephen King's most diehard fans, Castle Rock does have that unique bonus strength of filling its frames with both obvious and obscure references to the myriad stories that took place in or around Castle Rock. To the point where even the split-second appearance of a random balloon feels like a purposeful nod to IT rather than legitimately arbitrary set dressing. And since it covers far more ground than all of the one-off King adaptations we're used to, Castle Rock is truly one of a kind in that way.
Hulu has delivered yet another original series that stacks up with the rest of TV's upper echelon, and Castle Rock has the potential to continue delivering small screen chaos for years to come. And you can bet I'll be tuning in while waiting for King's next novel to be released.