The good news is that the pilot, which was screened at Comic-Con Friday morning, is excellent. It certainly would have made the list of my Top 10 Promising Pilots for the new season, had it been picked up.
But it was not picked up; that's obviously the bad news. And at a panel after the screening, the show's producers made it clear that they weren't there to get fans to drum up interest from another network.
"We didn't come here to do a Hail Mary and to pull a fast one," producer Robert Orci said.
Hill, Rodriguez, Orci, the pilot's writer, Josh Friedman, director Mark Romanek and two actors (the guys who played Tyler and Sam) were at Comic-Con to show the pilot to fans and to share their pride in the project. It's a drag to report that, as a TV endeavor, it certainly looks like 'Locke and Key' is dead, which is a shame.
I'll divide this post on the pilot and panel into two parts. The first part is safe to read if you hope to read the comic some day and you'd rather not see major plot points from the comic, which has supernatural and horror elements and concerns a family that moves into an old house full of interesting keys. The paragraphs at the end are for those who've read 'Locke and Key' and they contain information about the pilot and the comics.
First of all, the reaction from the fans in the room was generally positive, and I can see why. Romanek did a wonderful job of composing the imagery in the pilot; it was creepy when it needed to be creepy, there were a few funny moments and the cast was uniformly excellent, especially the young actor who plays Bode. (Romanek talked about how hard it could be to find child actors who were not "phony," but all of 'Locke and Key's' young performers, especially the actor who played Sam, were excellent.) The pilot did a good job of recreating the mood and atmosphere of the pilot, and certainly created the potential to give the characters welcome shades of nuance and depth.
If I'm putting myself in the expensive loafers of a cold-hearted TV executive, I can almost see why Fox didn't pick it up. It's certainly nothing to do with 'L&K's' quality, which is high. The nervousness would be more to do with the weirder elements of the comic. It does get quite weird, not in ways that made me less of a fan of the story, but I can see executives getting nervous about some of the stranger developments and about the dark places that the story goes.
But as a TV fan, it's hard not to feel a little robbed. Hill and Rodriguez's comic works because it's largely character-based -- it's not necessarily about the spooky stuff and bloody events that occur. It's about how tragedies affect people's lives, and how the keys help them (or hinder them) in moving on.
(Hill gave a memorable and eloquent rant about most slasher movies, which are full of stereotypical characters who are so predictable and lame that you root for the evil guy to kill them. They "fail as effective horror," Hill said, because "we never care about these people," which he finds "vaguely morally abhorrent." 'Locke and Key' was, in part, an attempt to create a very different kind of horror tale. After building up the world of the Lockes for 30 issues, "then we have the slasher film in the last six issues, and then it's not so funny when people die." )
Romanek's direction, Friedman's script and the performances were all suitably restrained, which only made the scary moments all the more effective. The goal, Romanek said, was not to do a '300' or 'Sin City' shot-for-shot adaptation, but to take the material and keep it emotionally grounded in the real world "without losing the graphic appeal." That was "tricky," as Romanek said, but I think they managed it.
There were a couple of tonally jarring moments in the pilot, especially at the end (more on that later), but all in all, I think 'Locke and Key' was very promising; perhaps it would have worked better on a cable network. I'm betting HBO feels that it has as much genre-related material as it wants just now, but what I wouldn't give for 'Locke and Key' to get picked up by a network such as Showtime, FX or Starz. (I'm not getting my hopes up, however.)
Had the show been picked up to series, Hill said that the season would have had a "key of the week," which would have been like 'The X-Files' monster of the week. Truthfully, I'm not sure I would have been a fan of that structure going forward: The thing about the keys in the comic is that they are special and powerful. The might have seemed less special if there were dozens of them laying around Key House. (And we saw that 'Fringe' became much more interesting when it embraced its mythology and abandoned the freak of the week format.)
Every third or fourth 'L&K' episode would have been more mythology-oriented and the material in the first 36 issues of the comic -- which Hill said would only supply about eight hours of television -- would have been scattered throughout those early seasons. The series also would have gone back and forth in time to fill in the history of Key House and the back stories of the characters.
There was no animosity toward Fox on the part of the panelists, for the most part. As Hill said, "Fox already has a lot of genre stuff," such as 'Alcatraz' and 'Terra Nova,' and he noted that there are also TV viewers who aren't into genre fare like 'Locke and Key.'
"It was a risky project, even in comics," Rodriguez said, and Hill reminded the audience that a dozen comic-book companies had passed on his original pitch.
Friedman, who was the executive producer of 'Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles,' which also aired on Fox, added that Fox took more chances on genre material than most networks. "They've given us a lot more chances and they get berated year in and year out because they don't work out," he said.
Romanek wasn't having any of it. "This is all too gracious. They should have f**king picked it up."
Friedman laughed and agreed, adding that as he watched the pilot again that morning, he'd been uttering expletives and wishing the project had gone forward.
In terms of approaching his adaptation, Friedman said that he'd "wrangled" the first six issues of the comic and used those for the pilot, taking care to end on a note that wasn't too dark.
All in all, "we had a good sense of the first season," Friedman said.
"I remember Fox said, 'You guys have made a movie here,'" Orci said. "They weren't sure how to move on from here because it was so well done," and he said part of the problem was that the network was "skeptical" about whether the show could keep up that level of quality week to week.
Now I'll move on to a couple of paragraphs that mentions 'Locke and Key' plot points - SPOILER ALERT!
Some of the best material of the pilot involved the girl in the well -- all of that was very effectively shot and wonderfully creepy.
Key House and the well house looked very much like they did in the comics; there was a great level of detail and an effective sense of atmosphere throughout.
I was glad to hear Hill say that he'd wished he'd done more with Nina, the Locke's mother, in the comics. She's been pretty underdeveloped, in my opinion. But he said his focus was always on the kids' experiences, and maybe that's why she felt somewhat narrow.
One big change that Friedman made came at the end of the pilot. Nina says in the pilot that she has an affinity for a tree on the Key House property. At the close of the pilot, not long after Sam comes to Key House to finish what he started, the family goes out to the tree and attaches a swing to the tree, which Nina's late husband had told her he always loved. She swings in the swing holding an urn filled with his ashes. The camera moves around the tree and there's a keyhole there. The camera moves inside the tree and down a passageway, which eventually reveals a chamber with dozens of jars in it. Trapped in one of these jars is a miniature Nina, screaming.
Friedman said the goal was to tie Nina more deeply into the mythology. Had the show gone forward, viewers would have learned that she had been to Key House before and had "terrible" experiences, but had had those memories removed by her husband. "The tree is really cool -- it's totally Josh's idea and I've stolen it for the comic," Hill said. (I'm not sure if that means he's stolen the Nina idea as well.)
Truth be told, the way the kids were acting in the final scene -- they were sort of joking around and casual -- didn't make much sense, given that they'd just had another huge trauma when Sam came to Key House. It smacked of a network note -- "end on an up note!" But that was really the only major problem I had with the pilot.