We were at the special Comic-Con screening of Locke & Key, an attempted TV adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s acclaimed horror fantasy comic. We can officially add this to the list of brilliant pilots that never got series.
The episode is a condensed adaptation of the book’s opening arc, “Welcome to Lovecraft.” Written by Sarah Connor Chronicles showrunner Josh Friedman and directed by Never Let Me Go’s Mark Romanek, the pilot introduces the Locke family - parents Rendell and Nina, teenagers Tyler and Kinsey, and six-year-old Bode - in a moment of tranquility that is shattered forever by the arrival of mentally disturbed teenager Sam Lesser, who kills Rendell. The family moves in with Rendell’s brother Duncan at the Locke family’s ancestral New England home, the Keyhouse, and then some very fantastical, frightening things start happening.
Bode discovers a key that unlocks a door to another world - specifically, one in which he can become a ghost, which allows him to travel anywhere at will. His attempts to tell his family about this are met with concern and bemusement, as everyone else is struggling to keep some sense of normality. Bode also discovers the mysterious woman Echo at the bottom of the Keyhouse’s well. Bode befriends Echo, but this is a mistake - she was behind Rendell’s murder in the first place, and she is tricks Bode into helping Sam escape from prison, which leads to a second brutal confrontation between Sam and the Lockes as he tries again to free Echo from her effective prison in the well.
Like I said, the pilot mostly follows the “Welcome to Lovecraft” arc, so most of the pilot’s plot points mirror those of the original. There are, however, a few key divergences from the comic, both major and minor. While Bode is pretty much the exact same character he was in the comics, Tyler is less of the jocky, hulking presence he was in the comics, and Kinsey has lost the dreadlocks and the piercings - both, basically, read a little more like “normal” teens than they did in the comics. Duncan is a little more conflicted about his feelings toward Rendell, while Nina is more stable here than she was in the opening arc of the comic.
We also jump directly from Sam’s arrival at the Locke’s getaway spot to the surviving Lockes arriving at the Keyhouse, and what happens in between is only partially revealed in later flashbacks. Sam’s escape from prison and journey to the Keyhouse is condensed (and his comics accomplice Al Grubb is excised entirely), Kinsey is a swimmer now instead of a runner (a decision made mostly because it was winter when they shot the pilot, and far too cold to be out running, according to Friedman), and the Lockes’ new town features less of the New England color that Hill put into the original comic. Oh, and Tyler no longer wears his trademark hat, which actor Jesse McCartney explained that he would have loved to wear, but it was a nightmare to light properly and keep his eyes in shot.
There are a couple huge changes made right at the very end of the episode, which set up where the show would have gone if it had been picked up - and, as both Joe Hill and producer Bob Orci made abundantly clear, there’s pretty much zero chance of that happening at this point. Echo remains female at the end of the episode, and at least Tyler is now aware of the keys. The episode repeatedly hints at the idea that Rendell used the keys to wipe people’s memories, particularly those of his brother Duncan. But the big reveal at the end of the episode is completely unique to the TV version: it ends with a zoom inside a big tree near the Keyhouse, and inside the tree we find a hidden chamber in which tiny people are kept imprisoned in jars, each representative of a memory that Rendell stole: and the jar we zoom in on has a tiny Nina inside. I guess we now know why they cast everyone’s favorite creepy man of mystery, Mark Pellegrino (Lost, Supernatural), as Rendell Locke.
So, with all that in mind, how good is the pilot? It’s a very strong hour of television, and it does a valiant job translating an incredibly complicated premise into something that could ever even theoretically work on TV, and writer Josh Friedman and director Mark Romanek deserve a ton of credit for pulling all this together. I can’t think of anything on television quite like Locke & Key, which throws together a ton of seemingly disparate fantasy elements and treats them as perfectly reasonable. Indeed, if anything, the pilot underplays the fantasy elements - I suspect I would have been a bit confused if I hadn’t just read “Welcome to Lovecraft”, and I could see wider audiences having a little trouble grappling with all this.
That said, there’s so much this series gets right and does well that it’s hard to get too worked up over the minor missteps. The entire cast is excellent - Miranda Otto and Nick Stahl nicely balance their own emotional journeys with their responsibilities as adults, Jesse McCartney and Sarah Bolger really get across Tyler and Kinsey’s torment while maintaining a certain sense of humor, newcomer Harrison Thomas is truly unnerving as Sam, Ksenia Solo is a great ethereal presence as Echo, and child actor Skylar Gaertner is pretty much the perfect Bode.
At the panel afterward, Joe Hill praised the memory jar tree, saying that was completely Friedman’s idea but that ti’s so good that he’ll probably have to steal it for the comics at some point. Friedman explained that he created this as a hook for the rest of the series as a way to hook Nina more strongly into the overall mythology. Hill admitted that, because he wanted to focus in on just the kids, Nina tended to be put more in the background, and he did regret having to make that call.
The panelists also explained where the show would have gone if it had gotten a series order. Hill said there’s only about eight episodes of TV to be made directly from the existing comics, so the series would have had to invented a lot of new material. To that end, Friedman explained the show would have adopted a “key of the week” format, in which the Lockes discover a new key and explore its possibilities, and every three or four episodes they would return to the comics source material for an episode to build up the larger mythology. Friedman said the plan was to stick fairly closely to the original comics and not diverge in the way that, say, The Walking Dead has, but the comics would still only serve as a spine for the larger series.
At the end of the day, the creators were realistic about the show, saying that the vast majority of pilots never get picked up and the vast majority of shows get canceled. They argued that, for all the flack that FOX gets, at least they are willing to take risks on out there projects in the first place. As Hill and Rodriguez pointed out, Locke & Key was difficult enough to sell to comics publishers, let alone TV studios - and that they were grateful for the opportunity to show the pilot at all.
At this point, director Mark Romanek broke in: “This is all too gracious. They should have fucking picked it up.” On that point, I would tend to agree.