RogerBW's Blog

The Exorcist season 1 02 May 2017

2016 horror, 10 episodes. Suburban family's daughter is demonically possessed; two priests try to do something about it.

Is your teenage daughter moody and sullen, and uninterested in sharing every detail of her life with you? Gotta be a demon. There's no other possible explanation, not even drugs.

My problem going in is that I know what exorcism is in the real world: the torture and often murder of children and adults who fail to conform to the desires of those in authority over them, justified in the name of religion. So I worry about the message that a premise like this sends, just as I worry about the message sent by all those cop shows where rules of evidence and procedure are just an obstruction on the road to getting the bad guys.

This show would be much more interesting if it left some room for doubt. It would be more narratively challenging (if more subversive) for the priests to have no real evidence, nothing but faith to rely on, and for other people to have genuine reasonable objections to the extreme methods that the exorcists feel they have to use. But no, in this narrative world it's immediately apparent that demonic possession is an unambiguously real thing; they have to give us the basso voice (David Hewlett!) and the double-pupilled eye and the impossible knowledge and the suddenly-extinguished light and the overflowing wash-basin and all the rest of it, and that's not even all the supernatural effects from episode 1.

And a smart demon would simply arrange for the priests to be caught in compromising positions with children. But that might feel too political, not to mention relevant to the real world, for a show that wants to be a simple good-priests versus bad-demons fantasy. And a rather generically Christian fantasy at that: yes, there are some Catholic trappings here, but nothing that would be offensive to the Protestant surburban audience, and the victimised family is strictly white Middle American. All right, one of the priests is played by Alfonso Herrera, but that's about as exotic as it gets.

Meanwhile, in the show we actually got: well, you know, the film came out forty-four years ago, and in all that time Hell doesn't seem to have come up with new tricks. I don't mean that it can't screw with people's mobiles; I mean that conceptually all it has to offer is the possession of a teenage girl, with the illness, rotating head, and all that stuff. The Exorcist was imitated endlessly and into exhaustion and tedium, not least by its own official sequels, and pretty much anything that filmmakers had to say about this basic scenario has now been said.

After the front-loading of effects in the first half of episode 1, the pace becomes glacial: we have ten TV 42-minute hours to fill here, over three times the length of the film, so we have not just drawn-out low-grade spookiness (which works quite well) but side-plots and extra characters as we slowly build back up to the fancy stuff. Much time goes on trying to be a family drama and make us care about the victims, where all the show really needed to do was show that they weren't entirely horrible people; at times this feels like soap opera about not terribly interesting characters, with bonus unexplained knocking noises. With the cheesiness mostly turned down (and of course no swearing, this is a network show) there's just not much to enjoy here.

No word yet on renewal. Ratings have been pretty low – the only Fox scripted drama it beat is Scream Queens' second season which had "doomed show" written all over it – and having name actors, even minor ones, must be at least mildly expensive.

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