Some of our most engrossing stories share one very specific strand of DNA: They begin with a child discovering the impossible. The Narnia books. The Harry Potter series. Many of the great (or at least, the most enduring) family films spring forth from such a point: “E.T.,” “The Neverending Story,” “The Iron Giant,” “Coraline,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” the list goes on. There’s also, of course, “Stranger Things,” which owes a debt to some of those films and to more adult films that could be called variations on the theme—after all, a magical world in which grown-ups would never believe, and a monster grown-ups would assume is imagined are two sides of the same bewitching coin.
Kids are a magnificent gate through which to enter a story; it can make one feel as though the letter from Hogwarts is in the mail and the wardrobe is really a door. It’s that very gate that saves “Locke and Key.” Netflix’s adaptation of the Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez comic book series of the same name doesn’t match the wonder of some of those earlier titles, and nor is it as rich as the source material, but because we experience the story through the Locke kids—Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), Tyler (Connor Jessup), and Kinsey (Emilia Jones)—we experience their confusion, delight, and frustration with this new world as though it’s our own. There’s magic, and there’s metaphor (though “Locke & Key” struggles a bit with the latter) but most importantly, there’s a sense of adventure. A terrible thing has led these kids to a terrible but marvelous place, full of danger and wonder, sorrow and joy, and a trip down a slightly underwhelming rabbit hole is a trip all the same.
The terrible thing that sends the Locke kids and their mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield) to Matheson, Massachusetts is the mysterious and brutal death of Rendell Locke (Bill Heck), a guidance counselor and devoted dad who was, in life, curiously tight-lipped about his childhood and loathe to return home. The home in question is Keyhouse, which we’re assured is Matheson’s most haunted building, a structure straight out of a storybook. While Taylor, Kinsey, and Nina struggle with the overwhelming grief brought on by Rendell’s death, Bode goes exploring, and what he finds is a voice (Laysla De Oliveira) whispering to him from the bottom of a well in the locked well-house. She's his echo; she knows his name, she knows his story, and she can help him speak to his dad one last time, if only he’ll do a few little things.
Top of that list: the finding of keys. The Locke family estate is filled with magical keys, which whisper from hiding-spots no one has peered into for decades. At first, only Bode hears them, and no one else in the family believes. But as the key-count grows—the Anywhere key, which does what you expect; the Head key, which allows you to step inside someone’s mind; the Ghost, Music Box, and Mending keys; the list goes on—Taylor and Kinsey are eventually confronted with irrefutable proof that the magic of the keys is real, and the three siblings team up to make sure that neither the echo nor any of her agents can steal the keys away. It’s a hell of a conceit, rich in possibility and perfect for serialized storytelling. New key, new world, new rules, new metaphor, new piece of the story to explore. Each time Bode or one of his siblings hears the whispers, a piece of the world of “Locke and Key” unfurls, and it is, each and every time, a quiet thrill.
Unfortunately, the exploration of those new corners can be pretty underwhelming. Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”), Meredith Averill (“The Haunting of Hill House”) and their fellow writers prove themselves to have a deep, empathetic understanding of the Locke kids—and of Tyler and Kinsey in particular—but rarely combine their emotional lives with that magnificent conceit in a way that’s satisfying. The connection is obvious—Kinsey and Tyler’s experiences with the Head key are particularly promising, given all they’re dealing with—but what should be heightened instead lands somewhere more superficial. To say more would give away major plot details, but suffice it to say that the Head key in particular should be a goldmine for any writer, and yet it winds up feeling like nothing so much as a convenient narrative shortcut. Kinsey sitting alone in the cafeteria, for example, proves more affecting than Kinsey stepping inside her own grieving mind; instead, it’s just another plot point and a massive missed opportunity.
The same is true, to a certain extent, of the direction. While the production design is undeniably appealing in a coming-of-age-adventure-story-set-in-New-England kind of way, all turrets and old portraits and huge old staircases, the visual language is surprisingly unsurprising. There are great shots here and there, and considering the roster includes seasoned directors like Michael Morris and Vincenzo Natali, that should come as no surprise, but rarely does the visual storytelling match the heightened emotional experience of our young heroes. When things grow more grim, things improve—episode seven, “Dissection,” is particularly gripping, and Dawn Wilkinson’s work only heightens the tension—but it is, considering the story, an unexpectedly flat and static affair.
Luckily, the solid performances, like the crackerjack conceit, keep things from falling totally flat. Jones and Jessup are particularly excellent, both alone and together; Jessup’s empathetic, subtle performance anchors a storyline that could easily verge on the cliché in something terribly raw, while Jones’s nuanced delivery gives every big moment an extra layer or two. Scott is agreeably endearing, which is a valuable quality in a plucky kid hero. The adults have a lot less to do and thus, for the most part, vanish from the mind in a haze of disbelieving grown-up, though Stanchfeld, in a largely thankless and often repetitive role, draws Nina in more colors and textures than the writing might easily allow. Of the grown-up set, only De Oliveira seems to be having a good time, but she’s having enough of one for the rest of them combined—a solid, slightly jubilant villainous performance that gives “Locke and Key” a much-needed edge.
Edge is exactly what this series lacks, and not in a scandalous way. This is ultimately a story about grief and growing up, two experiences that can be sharp enough to wound, even in memory. When Jessup and Jones are left to contend with those experiences, the pain grows sharper and more layered; confusion wars with joy, embarrassment with anger, shame with gratitude. When the focus turns to the many moving pieces of the story, that edge is blunted. There’s hope that, should it return for a second season, the makers of these Keys will find a way to easily do both at once—but even should they not, there’s still pleasure to be found in the attempt.
All of season one screened for review.