I’m a Stephen King loser, having read only one of his novels and forgotten the details of those TV and movie adaptations I’ve seen. So as I watched “Castle Rock,” the Hulu series based on King’s stories and characters, crammed with direct and indirect references to the King multiverse, I realized that I am the canary in the coal mine. If a King-noramus like me can follow the drama, which premieres on Wednesday, then my fellow King derelicts will be able to, too.
And I followed it easily, and I enjoyed it, too. “Castle Rock” is a giant basket of Easter eggs for King people, but for the rest of us it’s a decent show layered with supernatural secrets waiting to be decoded. While it has the desolate, wintry look of “Fargo,” with those gloomy snow-scapes transported to the Victorian house-lined streets of Maine, it’s more reminiscent of the King-influenced “Stranger Things.” As on “Stranger Things,” the town where the action is set is besieged by eerie mysterious events with deep roots in the town’s history. Also as on “Stranger Things,” “Castle Rock” is hoping to blend its genre thrills and scares with lots of heart. The human story is always more prominent and, to me, of more interest than the frights.
There are a number of story lines afoot in “Castle Rock,” which was filmed in Massachusetts, and they will likely cohere more and more across the season’s 10 episodes (four of which were available for review). The central one revolves around Henry Deaver, played with a welcome recessive vibe by Andre Holland, who was similarly compelling and reserved in “The Knick.” Deaver is a defense lawyer who focuses on death row cases in Texas, but he is back in Castle Rock, his childhood home, at the request of an inmate who has been discovered hiding in the bowels of the local prison, Shawshank (that one I recognized). That inmate, played by Bill Skarsgård of the recent King movie “It,” hardly speaks and looks like he has either been scared out of his wits — or is about to scare someone else out of their wits. No one knows who this feral creature is.
Deaver is greeted by the folk of Castle Rock with reluctance and worse. He had been adopted by a white Castle Rock couple when he was a boy — he was the lone black in town — and he’d disappeared for an 11-day period during which his father was found at the bottom of a cliff and died soon after. Deaver can’t remember what happened during those 11 days, but many locals have assumed that he ran away after pushing his father. Deaver reconnects with his absent-minded mother, played by Sissy Spacek (who was in King’s “Carrie”), her former-sheriff boyfriend Alan (Scott Glenn), and the woman who lived across the street from him in the old days, a telepath and drug addict named Molly (Melanie Lynskey). In a perfect stroke of casting, Allison Tolman (of “Fargo”) — who looks remarkably like Lynskey — plays Molly’s sister.
The build on the links between these and other plots is slow but sure-handed. The entire town itself is cursed in some way, with murders and suicides throughout its history, and it looks like we’re going to find out why in good time. Surely Deaver’s 11-day disappearance will somehow ultimately connect to Skarsgård’s mystery man. I can’t say “Castle Rock” feels unique, even while it is entirely constructed from King tropes; those tropes — a demonic being, childhood trauma, a creepy small town with hostile locals — have been popularized by King and overused in too many haunting small-town mystery shows to name. At this point, even the Archie comics series “Riverdale” has a streak of King running through it. But still, with its strong cast led by the sympathetic Holland and a script that promises to accumulate into something surprising, “Castle Rock” is absorbing summer programming.
Starring: Andre Holland, Scott Glenn, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek
On: Hulu, July 25Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.