Treating the 1976 Richard Donner-director horror film The Omen as a sacred text to be more fully explored in a weekly TV series is the first problem with Damien, premiering Monday night on A&E. The Gregory Peck-Lee Remick melodrama rode the Exorcist wave of A-level casting with a B-movie plot, as well as continuing the then-popular trend of believing audiences could still be shocked by invoking Satan in a religious context.
By now, being irreligious is so commonplace as to be the stuff of hit Broadway shows (The Book of Mormon). But that didn’t stop Glen Mazzara, a man who knows something about supernatural forces with The Walking Dead, from trying to build a show around a now-grown Antichrist, Damien Thorn, played here by Bradley James.
The adult Damien is now 30 and has the legally-required facial stubble for all studly TV males. He’s a globe-trotting war photographer whose work is so good, an editor looking at his pictures says with a straight face, “I’m sure this will get picked up by Time, HuffPo, maybe The New Yorker — you might be looking at a Pulitzer.” I’m not sure which is funnier, The New Yorker playing third-fiddle to The Huffington Post, or that a Pulitzer is something a 30 year-old still holds as a goal in the current media world.
Anyway, thank goodness Barbara Hershey is around to play Ann Rutledge, a sort of guardian of the damned, who enters the first episode with malicious glee and by the end of the second episode is tempting Damien: “There’s so much death around you… You want answers? Come with me.” I’d follow her anywhere, preferably into another TV show.
The main problem with Damien is Damien: He’s a pretty dull character. Bradley James does what he can, but since he’s mostly just required to look startled, pained, or confused, he doesn’t make for a compelling central figure. And treating the Catholic Church-based culture of a war against Satan as your primary Big Bad is a notion that’s grown thin in the years since The Omen and its multiple sequels were released. Good actors pop up here and there — Robin Weigert (Deadwood) as an exorcist with a distracting accent; David Meunier (Johnny Crowder from Justified) as a nicely skeptical cop — but their roles make little initial impact.
Damien has moments of nicely spooky atmospherics, but it’s neither scary nor fun, and when you’re dealing with this topic and this character, you have to move in one of those two directions, or you’ll just lose the battle to the devil of tedium.
A&E has paired Damien with Bates Motel. In theory, it’s smart programming. Both are based on movies — in the latter case, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But Damien lacks the humor and knowingness that Bates Motel brings to its own, livelier take on extending the life of a pop-culture brand. This is made clear in Monday night’s fourth-season premiere of Bates, in an episode written by its key producers, Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse.
I don’t want to give away too much of the hour, but it’s safe to say that Norman is back after his runaway break from Norma — after all, if he didn’t return, there wouldn’t be a show, right? But the series continues the steady ratcheting-up of the emotional stakes of the show, the way Norman is identifying more and more explicitly with his mother, and how their embraces are increasingly dances toward death.
Not that either Freddy Highmore’s Norman or Vera Farmiga’s Norma comes close to leaving this Earth on Monday night, to be sure. But it’s completely engrossing to witness Norman’s blossoming psychosis, which is frightening in a non-horror-story manner, even as Norma’s prickly personality provides Bates with regular, welcome moments of unexpected funniness. I continue to admire the way Ehrin and Farmiga have Norma respond to other characters in such a natural, not-traditionally-TV way, as when, this evening, she snaps at what she thinks is the rude way Sheriff Alex (Nestor Carbonell) answers the phone (“What’s the matter with ‘Hello’?”).
Now that Norman’s mental instability is becoming more widely recognized beyond the dank hallways of the crumbling Bates mansion, the show is entering a new phase. Meanwhile, Damien is just beginning a quest to find a tone that might enable it to exist beyond its first season.
Bates Motel and Damien air on Monday nights at 9 and 10 p.m. respectively, on A&E.