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At this point, film and TV viewers have stared down enough thwarted apocalypses that we’ve all become amateur scholars of eschatology when it comes to the number of the beast or Death’s arrival astride a pale horse or the cavalcade of disease and pestilence that will herald the End of Days.
While hardly a trailblazer in blending theological warnings with demonic thrillers, Richard Donner’s The Omen rode a star-studded cast, an eerie demon child, a giddily graphic beheading and Jerry Goldsmith’s “Ave Satani” to blockbuster status, three sequels and an unnecessary, nearly shot-by-shot 2006 remake. Premiering on Monday, A&E’s Damien joins the franchise, offering spooky and violent moments through its first five episodes, but struggling to find the narrative momentum necessary to work as an ongoing series.
Air date: Mar 07, 2016
Adapted by The Walking Dead and The Shield veteran Glen Mazzara, Damien builds off the Donner film, featured frequently in flashbacks, to pick up the story of Damien Thorn (Bradley James), now a 30-year-old war photographer. Damien has repressed all of that stuff with suicidal nannies, killing his mother and the death of his father in the act of trying to stab him with a holy dagger. In battle-torn Damascus, an old lady approaches him and utters those famous words, “It’s all for you,” and faster than you can cue Celine Dion, it’s all coming back to him now. Helping his journey is the shady Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey, simultaneously nurturing and scheming), a powerful business woman and the leading collector of Damien Thorn memorabilia.
Damien is consistently well-produced, starting with a pilot helmed by Shekhar Kapur. The Elizabeth director carries over many of his trademark visual affectations, including a love of high angles and shooting through cloth, windows, railings or anything to flaunt a distorted perspective. Following Kapur in the rotation and sticking to those cinematic tropes are experienced genre stylists like Ernest Dickerson, Guillermo Navarro and Mikael Salomon. The directors and cinematographer Luc Montpellier can’t make the Toronto settings feel authentically New York-y, but at least it’s a moody urban grunge.
The big question of Damien, and one that I still cannot answer, is what exactly Damien Thorn’s journey actually is. We know that Damien is unambiguously the Anti-Christ, but what does that actually mean, other than the regular support of a fleet of rottweilers? In The Omen, Damien is largely unaware of what he is or why awful things keep happening around him, and the movie’s great achievement is in making viewers root for the death of a small kid who doesn’t willfully do anything wrong. Damien is a passive antagonist and the movie’s heroes are the various well-meaning people who, in earnest hopes of stopping the apocalypse, keep trying to kill him, but keep falling victim to Final Destination-style contrivances of death.
It’s a repetitive structure that Mazzara brings over to the small screen, with often graphic execution. Show too much interest in Damien, Death shows an interest in you, whether you’re a positive force with the potential to steer him toward good or an assassin with the potential to finish the job Gregory Peck started in the movie. This happens enough times, generally accompanied by a Bear McCreary score I’d describe as “industrial Gregorian,” that Detective James Shay (David Meunier) is able to notice the pattern. It also happens enough times that some viewers will say, “Get to the point.” The point, in this case, probably needs to be the rules of this fictional universe, rules that remain underdeveloped. (It’s unclear if the early wheel-spinning relates to the decision to expand the initial episode order as Damien was shifted from Lifetime to more appropriate corporate sibling A&E.)
How much urgency does Damien’s rise have if nobody is telling us the mechanics of what Damien’s actual role in the Rapture is? Is it willful? Passive? After he accepts his destiny, does he flick a switch and the horsemen saddle up? Does he build an army? Ann has cohorts who know things that have to be done, but they only discuss plans in abstractions, so most of the first five episodes involve Damien walking around confused, people dying around him to raise the confusion and Ann popping up at opportune minutes to frustrate him by not telling him anything. There’s no drive from episode to episode.
There’s also no drive to stop him, which is peculiar. Robin Weigert appears in two episodes as an exorcist with a ridiculous accent and the halting support of the Vatican. Church officials tell her at some point that her job is just to collect data. Nothing lowers the stakes like telling a character her mission is to eventually report back. Also taking a meandering interest in Damien are Detective Shay and Simone Baptiste (Megalyn Echikunwoke’), but they don’t know what they’re doing and we don’t know what happens if they fail, which feels differently stagnating in a series that could go on for 50 or 100 episodes than it does in a movie you know ends after two hours.
It’s a conundrum similar to Damien‘s A&E partner Bates Motel, also an extension of a beloved horror brand. What is the week-to-week story you tell about a creepy son who’s eventually going to kill and stuff his mother? At least Bates Motel has its end theoretically in place and, despite a lot of storytelling missteps, has made a reasonably decent series of itself by concentrating on its two core characters.
In that respect, Damien has one of the character pieces in place with the very solid James, effectively pulled between compassion and ghoulishness in his professional life. Is he a photographer because he’s driven to expose and ameliorate suffering or does he just feel safest when other people in the most danger? James is playing angsty ambiguity well, but even though he’s a much older, presumably more decisive version of the dark-eyed boy Harvey Spencer Stephens played in The Omen, he’s still stuck in the “watching weird things happen” stage.
One of the things Damien does best is contrast between the heightened violence inflicted by the death force around Damien and the real toll of war and our sometimes callous response. There are good and surprising scenes in which other photographers share stories that convey the true horror of conflict. The fifth episode shifts much of its action to a VA hospital and juxtaposes one veteran’s grounded struggle of wounds and rehabilitation against the supernatural uncertainty that Damien is experiencing. There’s an ambitious meditation on humanity’s capacity for both evil and also courage here that could be impressive if the engine of the show were more stable.
Mazzara was showrunner on The Walking Dead when it best articulated its “Men are the true threats, not the zombies” themes, and I sense there’s something similar that Damien is going for beneath the surface. But until Damien can figure out how to make audiences invest in the apocalypse, either rooting for it or finding somebody we want to see stop our anti-hero, it’s the end of the world as we know it — and I feel curiously uninvolved.
Cast: Bradley James, Barbara Hershey, Omid Abtah, Megalyn Echikunwoke
Creator: Glen Mazzara
Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (A&E)
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Robert De Niro