The Problem with Castle Rock was the Town Itself

The titular nexus of darkness in the Stephen King mashup series was more of a nexus of dullness.

Unless you’ve been living under a (castle) rock you know that Castle Rock has been cancelled. The Stephen King anthology series mixed and matched characters, locations, and plot points from the authors’ works for two seasons on Hulu. Essentially, it tried to be a horror version of Fargo but failed to reach those lofty heights. It wasn’t a bad series though. While it always had a tinge of disappointment to it considering the quality of the books on which it was partially based, Castle Rock was an enjoyable genre show that took advantage of the interconnected nature of King’s novels. In fact, I had the idea for a Stephen King shared universe series called Castle Rock years ago.

I’ve only recently caught up with the second – and final – season and it solidified a key issue with the series: Castle Rock itself. The town is boring. So very boring. Shot in the town of Orange in Central Massachusetts for reasons I don’t understand, Castle Rock looks bland and empty. Far too clean and modern. By the time the show begins events from the books are implied to have taken place already, from Cujo to Needful Things, but that’s not apparent from the look of the town. It’s too normal. Other than the church, every building is a big brick block. This is a town supposedly plagued by evil, where every building and street has a dark history and creepy story to tell. It looks more like a town plagued by hipster bars and fast-food joints.

The second season sees Castle Rock celebrate its 400th anniversary but that rich history is not on show. It’s almost as if the creatives were aware of the issue because, despite the name of the series, they move most of the action to nearby Jerusalem’s Lot in season 2. Everyone leaves Castle Rock as often and as quickly as possible. I’m beginning to think Jerusalem’s Lot should have been the show’s title and main location, or even Derry from IT. Most of the scares and creepy visuals come from ‘Salem’s Lot, but even then the location never feels like a complete town but rather a few solitary buildings, such as Marsten House. The same was true for the first season set in the eponymous town. The woods, cliffside, and lake are cool locations, as well as Shawshank Prison and Sissy Spacek’s old house, but none of them feel connected or that they occupy the same few square miles of Maine countryside.

I say this pretty much about every television series but it should have been more like Twin Peaks. Now that’s a fictional town worthy of naming a show after. Twin Peaks has an atmosphere. A dark brooding tone across the landscape, whether natural like the woods or man-made like the Great Northern Hotel. Even in the show’s lighter locations, such as the Double R Diner, it still felt distinctly Lynchian. Some better establishing shots would work wonders for Castle Rock, rather than the same drone shot of the bridge over and over again. Even with all of its craziness across three seasons and a movie, one of the most distinctive and atmospheric shots in all of Twin Peaks was the swinging traffic light shown repeatedly between scenes in the first season. Castle Rock needed something like that. Just a shot of a dark alley wouldn’t go amiss. The town of infinite horrors and a nexus of evil is never scary.

The problem with the show’s location is also connected to its story structure. At least in the second season, the storylines never feel like they are occurring in the same place. They interweave yet feel separate. Each individual location feeling just that: individual. Castle Rock is a backdrop rather than a hub of activity. I wish there were more hub locations where storylines and characters converge, like the Road House in Twin Peaks. Shawshank worked in the first season because the narrative demanded multiple characters return to the prison but the second season was lacking this aspect. The trailer park and Pop’s shop were dull. The show desperately tried to make the Mellow Tiger Bar a thing but failed. Who thought a ten-pin bowling alley would be a good fit? I kept expecting Jesus Quintana to cameo.

Some series might be able to push past a dull setting if their storylines and characters are good enough but it’s a major issue when the name of the town is also the name of the show. With new characters and narratives each season, Castle Rock itself was the star of the show and so choosing Orange as the filming location and doing absolutely nothing with it was a damaging flaw from the very start. Despite this, and the show’s other flaws, I do wish the series had not been cancelled but I’m not surprised the second season will be its last. Castle Rock sadly had a significant flaw from the first time we saw the “Welcome to Castle Rock” sign.

Are you a fan of Castle Rock? What do you think of the titular town itself? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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