The Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez Locke & Key comic is a twisted horror series that delights in making its readers unable to sleep after delving into its world. But that's not Netflix's Locke & Key, which can be described as "family friendly," says Caroline Framke. Viewers should think about the show in Netflix terms. In addition to recalling A Series of Unfortunate Events and Stranger Things, Locke & Key leans into the umpteen CW shows perpetually crowding Netflix’s “watch next?” suggestions, says Framke. "That, of course, doesn’t mean this particular adaptation has no value," says Framke. "I had a fine time watching Netflix’s Lockes learn about the keys and their family, fight their own figurative and literal demons, and try to save the day." But, Framke adds, "after watching all ten episodes of the show, I have some sympathy for the preexisting Locke & Key fans who might tune in expecting a shock of horror to their systems. Netflix’s Locke & Key works, but it also feels like the inevitable product of the streaming network’s own algorithm. It feels so calibrated to what’s already worked for Netflix that it ultimately feels more safe than anything else."
Locke & Key struggles to establish the stakes for the series: "Watching Locke & Key is to simultaneously understand why folks have been trying so hard previously to adapt it — as a film, as a Fox pilot, as a Hulu pilot — and why it maybe hasn't worked," says Daniel Fienberg. "Its genre leaps are fitful but enticing. You're bound to think how much easier your life would be with one or more of these keys. Its characters are relatable and have some real psychological depth. The fuzziness of tone, genre and pacing come from the comic as well, so maybe with these hints of potential and more narrative freedom — most of the comic run has been covered — a second season might prove more consistent?"
Locke & Key's limpness begs the question of whether the comic was ever adaptable: "The Netflix series follows this story fairly faithfully, apart from condensing a fair bit of the action, and building out or paring back various ancillary characters," says Tasha Robinson. "But from the start, the story that sang on the page feels generic on the screen. The comic’s nightmare images have mostly been replaced with much more prosaic equivalents, or omitted entirely. The characters have been processed into familiar TV archetypes. And the tone feels more like a mildly dark children’s movie than a horror story." Robinson adds: "The Locke & Key comic certainly gives the showrunners a pile of tropes that would be difficult to manage even on a blockbuster budget. Rodríguez’s illustrations often challenge the limits of the comics page, cramming panels with intricate detail and a riot of strange creatures. The TV version simplifies those effects down into disappointingly simplistic interpretations of the same ideas. Even in cases that wouldn’t need to break the bank, the showrunners make frustratingly generic choices."
Locke & Key can't unlock its most intriguing themes: "Despite Locke & Key’s heavy thematic dimensions, its potential for exploring the interlocking themes of memory and grief is undercut by a host of issues: its pedestrian score, which doesn’t trust the audience one iota to make obvious connections; its light-handed approach to the story’s horror elements; its tone, which renders the show a young-adult-skewed adaptation of the source material; and a lack of imagination in its approach to memory as a plot dynamic," says Angelica Jade Bastién.
Locke & Key tries being accessible by evoking Stranger Things and The Haunting of Hill House: "It’s a series that’s borne from grief and trauma but veers into full-fledged fantasy and mystery," says Kimberly Ricci. "However, this show does make tonal tweaks, mainly in skewing away from horror. This seems possibly counterproductive, right? Well, the shift was clearly a conscious one to make the tale more accessible and friendly to a younger crowd. Will that gamble pay off? Most likely, yes. The spirit of Hill’s story remains alive and well in the translation, despite a perceptible loss of intensity. What strikes me most about this adaptation is a predominant layer, one that pairs standout elements from two other successful Netflix series. I’m talking about a youth-slanted and fantastical showcase that evokes a Stranger Things vibe, which is woven into lush, gothic visuals like we’ve seen in The Haunting Of Hill House. There’s clearly Goosebumps inspiration going on as well. It’s not the worst combination of onscreen influences, even if it isn’t always the greatest. There’s no sly wink to the audience as with The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Further, the loss of the more adult elements in the graphic novel (including gore) leaves the story’s main villain without as much bite. And even when that bite exists, the context may not entirely make sense to newcomers...With all of that said, the show is highly bingeable."
Locke & Key works as an adaptation, but don't expect it to be true to the original comic: "What’s equally impressive and peculiar about Locke & Key is how the season manages to essentially hit the whole of the comics’ major narrative beats within the span of just 10 episodes," says Charles Pulliam-Moore. "On a technical level, the show works; it clearly establishes its rules, introduces its major players, gives them all motivations that bring them together as the series’ action comes to a head, and leaves everyone profoundly changed by the time the credits roll. If you were to go into Locke & Key having never read the comics, you could easily come away from the series with the impression that Netflix finally managed to produce a comic book adaptation that was able to hum along at an even pace, rather than suffering from the middle slump so so many of its other series in the genre have. But when you factor the comics into how this story’s been reworked, you see just how different a beast Netflix’s Locke & Key is from the Hill/Rodriguez series. You can see that simply in terms of how the creators took the time to keep you feeling deeply uncomfortable and outright petrified page after page. Much of the comics’ elements of body horror and Lovecraftian lore have been almost entirely erased in favor of an atmosphere that instead feels more than slightly left of reality."
Locke & Key has the potential to be the next Stranger Things: "Like Stranger, Locke oozes with horror ambience and takes its cues from famous tales of the supernatural," says Kelly Lawler. "It stars precocious kids, is set in a small town full of secrets and portrays adult characters as clueless or conniving. Locke is a mix of fairy tale and haunted-house tropes, fascinating magical mythology and teen drama, and while all are successful at some point during the 10-episode first season, they rarely are simultaneously). Locke is nearly as strong a debut as Stranger Things was in 2016, but it needs a few tweaks to jump the hurdle between good and great."
After endless development limbo, Locke & Key was sanitized into bland mediocrity: "The Netflix phase brought a number of noticeable changes to the franchise," says Aja Romano. "Where the original comic is unquestionably a horror series, the Netflix version leans much more toward the story’s fantasy side, a change reportedly made after Netflix came on board. The show underwent an overall tonal shift to be more of a coming-of-age story for its kid characters — likely appealing to fans of other Netflix shows like Unfortunate Events and Stranger Things, but probably jarring for fans of the much darker comic...Alas, that tonal shift regulates much of Locke & Key’s original unhinged diabolical entertainment, and not for the better. The show may feel more aligned with Netflix’s overall offerings now — but it feels, sadly, much less like Locke & Key."
Right off the bat, there’s a problem of tone: "Locke & Key is a fantasy show that’s also a horror show that’s also a romantic teen dramedy, and that’s a hard tightrope to walk even if the vision is focused and the execution is on point. But Locke & Key’s execution feels like they did two takes of a rough draft, then threw the hard drives and some Spotify playlists at the editing team like, 'Good luck, a**holes!' So when scary things just... sort of happen, they’re (not very) scary—and the second the lights come back up, some awkward teen romance trips over itself until the clock runs out on that bit. And then it’s a low-key family drama, with none of it possessing an ounce of solid characterization, and then it all resets so Locke & Key can stumble through that ungainly dance all over again."
Showrunner Carlton Cuse looks back at the "long and winding road" to bring Locke & Key to TV: "We shot the pilot and started another journey that took us through a couple different companies," says Cuse, noting that Locke & Key had writers and producers before him, going back to 2008. "It’s one of these things where, it just was a hard thing to get the cocktail exactly right. There are a lot of things that are going on narratively in the story, and finding the right tone and narrative balance took awhile. I have to say, it was great when, at the end of a long journey, we ended up at Netflix. My co-showrunner Meredith Averill and I felt like we really had very connected visions with Netflix executives about where the show should go and what it should be. Creativity isn’t a sudden burst thing, it’s a continual process. I think all the twists and turns helped us get to a better place with show, to a place where we’re really proud of what it is: A reflection of Joe’s comic and an extension of the comic."