The first episode of Damien is packed with scenes filmed in dim rooms, through obscuring mesh, looking through pebbled glass windows, or shrouded in clouds of dust. These obscuring elements would add texture to a compelling, well-constructed episode, but here they just cement the impression that Damien doesn’t have a clear vision of its story.
Damien Thorn (Bradley James), the sinister child of power and privilege seen in Richard Donner’s The Omen (shown in clips and photos throughout “The Beast Rises”), is all grown up, and he has a bad case of amnesia. He can’t remember anything from his childhood, which is conveyed not just by James’ vague head-shaking, but by his helpful fellow photojournalist and friend Amani (Omid Abtahi) saying, “I thought you said you don’t remember your childhood.” The cloud obscuring his memory begins to scatter during a Syrian street melee when an old woman grasps his face and, in unaccented American English, speaks words from his childhood, triggering a series of flashbacks familiar to viewers of the 1976 film: a lavish party with ponies and a carousel, a cake aflame with candles, a body smashing into the window of a mansion.
Struck by a rock, he scrambles back to Amani and Kelly Baptiste (Tiffany Hines), another colleague and Damien’s former lover, and rambles about the old woman “saying stuff, stuff she couldn’t have known” that jostled free his long-repressed memories, and they nod instead of checking his pupils. The rest of the episode stumbles along less like the story of a man haunted by a dark cloud over his early life and more like a befuddled tale haltingly told by a guy who’s taken a sharp blow to the head.
Kneeling at the feet of a crucifix in the opening, Damien asks petulantly, “What do you want from me? Tell me, what did I ever do to you?” A minute in, and he’s already asking the wrong questions, or at least asking the wrong entity. Damien can’t seem to decide what he believes. Ejected from Syria, he insists he has to return because “something is going on,” but he does curiously little digging into what that something is. His disposable ex, Kelly, does the hard lifting. She reviews footage of the old woman’s speech, has it translated, and connects it to accounts of Christ’s baptism. She tracks down information about mysterious meetings his father had, and mysterious deaths that followed them, and she swallows the implications of this research with hilarious ease.
Though he’s the only one seeing visions—the only one with a compelling reason to believe something mystical is befalling him—Damien’s faith in his own experiences is erratic. He scoffs at Kelly, “You expect me to believe there’s really a God, really a devil, and I’m on the wrong side? It’s bullshit!” Seconds later when she relays news of another mysterious death, he says, “This was because of me. I told you.” They really should check him for concussion.
“Christ was supposedly baptized when he turned 30,” Kelly tells Damien. He responds, “It was my 30th birthday when she grabbed me.” Yeah, we know, because Amani told us. Damien never says something once if it can say it twice, which is why those phony-feeling Syrian street scenes show Damien rescuing not one fallen stranger, but two, as if the show is desperate to convince viewers that he might be the spawn of Satan, but gosh darn it, he’s a pretty swell guy.
Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) underscores that repetition, right down to her name. She introduces herself to Damien, then a sentence or two later, he asks her name again, just to be sure the audience gets it: She knows him, he doesn’t know her. “Truth is, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t keep my eyes and ears open about Damien Thorn,” she says with a steady, faintly menacing smile, all teeth and jaw. When she tells Damien, “Your father would have been proud,” there’s a hint of “He has his father’s eyes!” in the line. Or there would be if it didn’t come on the heels of her reminiscing about Damien’s mortal father, not his supernatural, biological one. Even Hershey’s performance, a fun balance of offering reassuring words and smiles without being remotely reassuring, can’t overcome the weakness of the writing.
The same is true for Igor Reneus (Sam Anderson), whom Kelly and Damien interview—and who tellingly refuses to shake Damien’s hand. “He may not be fire and brimstone, but the devil exists,” Professor Reneus tells Damien. “He lurks in the dark corners of the heart.” Anderson gives his scene as much gravitas as he can, before and after his guests’ visit, but “he lurks in the dark corners of the heart” is a pretty intangible devil for a show whose credits paint the landmarks of New York City with demonic dogs and skeletal ribcages. I wish I could say Prof. Reneus gets a dignified death, but all the towering, ominous chanting in the world can’t make up for the ridiculous watergun effect of the arterial spurt as a pack of dogs tears into him.
In its first episode, Damien aims for epic darkness, but it only achieves blundering, dour obscurity. After a full episode of self-serious stupidity, even the last-act revelation—the mysterious woman from the Syrian streets, the woman Damien sees again outside a New York church, is in the background of every photo he’s taken—can’t land with the impact it deserves. “Ridiculous” is the word I found myself repeating throughout my screening of “The Beast Rises,” and ridicule is hard to come back from, especially in a show that displays no sense of humor.
- Can you really throw hymnals at a crucifix and bellow “Answer me!” without someone emerging to inquire what’s going on? A priest? An altarboy? A cleaning person?
- Poor Kelly, succumbing to the scourge common to every city: quicksand. Wait, what? update: The second episode makes explicit what my (very dark) network-provided screener for the premiere didn’t. That’s a sinkhole, not some weird hot-asphalt quicksand. Still pretty ridiculous, but not quite as cartoonish. Not quite.
- It seems about right that the son of the devil has it pretty good, but come on. His editor assures him his newest batch of photos are sure to be picked up by Time, Huff Po, maybe The New Yorker; “you might be looking at a Pulitzer.” The head of the IMF owes him a favor? I already hate him and he’s not even evil yet.