Speaking of diversity in entertainment, one of the categories that’s hard for Hollywood to tackle is religion. Religion–particularly Christianity–and Hollywood are often at odds, and yet religion is still one of the huge cultural components of the United States, and religious audiences want entertainment that’s representative of them, too. There’s varying ways to confront this, from the comedic (Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H or Dan Akroyd’s Soul Man) to the controversial (the failed series Nothing Sacred). It’s hard to find a modern take on religion that’s left a lasting cultural mark, with maybe Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ as an outlier.
So FOX is taking a bit of a gamble on a television-based revival of The Exorcist, the novel-turned-series-of-movies which is well known for its creepy soundtrack and Linda Blair’s spinning head. With the leaves turning and Halloween decorations filling the stores, the timing couldn’t be better, but Halloween is done in only five weeks. The trick to making this show last–and it’s in the dreaded Friday night timeslot, mind you–is to present a show that’s universally entertaining and yet doesn’t manage to piss off the Catholic Church in the process. So does The Exorcist television show get there? Well, the finish is strong, but the show struggles to work before that point.
Alfonso Herrera plays Father Tomas, a priest at a financially struggling suburban parish. He’s the kind of character even non-Catholics would enjoy: young, handsome, quippy during his homily, and wears t-shirts off-duty which show off his well-muscled chest. But he’s challenged by strange dreams of another priest half a world away. In his sleep, he sees Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), an exorcist in Mexico City who’s defying the Vatican’s orders in a desperate attempt to save a young boy from a severe and terrifying case of demonic possession. This is the kind of thing Tomas doesn’t take seriously in his priestly duties–he later says that demons are simply an invention of the Church to explain mental illness.
What The Exorcist sets up is a contrast between Tomas and Marcus–the young priest and the old priest–as one man of faith who’s never been tested, and one who’s been broken by his test. Tomas seems to have just fallen into the priesthood out of cultural expectation, as he explains later in the episode. So when his parishoner Angela (Geena Davis) comes to him for help with her college-age daughter, who she swears is now possessed–Tomas has trouble taking it seriously. Except, of course, for the crow which suddenly commits suicide in the glass of his office window. Or the dreams about Marcus. Or his eventual visit to Angela’s home, where her daughter contorts her body in inhuman ways after crushing a rat. Tomas–who’s never really heard the voice of God–is suddenly openly exposed to the voice of the devil.
Marcus, on the other hand, is a man whose faith has been tested and broken. Oh, he’s a believer, but he also finds God wanting after his efforts to exorcise a young boy result in the demon breaking the kid’s neck. The devil’s left the boy dead and Marcus wounded, and he now spends his days in a retreat center awaiting a sign of what to do with himself. When Tomas finally finds him, Marcus furiously yells at the space where a cross used to hang on his wall–he’s frustrated that he’s being called to do something he failed at before.
All of this makes for some great cultural use of Catholicism without getting preachy enough to limit its audience. Catholics may not like the possible laxness of the two main characters–Tomas’ skepticism of demons and Marcus’ defiance of the Vatican–but getting past that, it’s a show about two men of the cloth who are struggling with their vocation. Non-Catholics may enjoy that the show isn’t a conversion effort, but simply a program which uses the cultural and theological aspects of the Church that are familiar to those who aren’t even members of the community.
The downside is that, tonally, the premiere episode struggles to find itself for most of the hour. We never really get into Tomas’ head until later in the episode, and although Angela’s family is a presence, they’re not explored in-depth enough for us to care about them. There’s some attempt at the latter–Angela’s husband (Alan Ruck) suffers from some mental issues which are impacting the family–but despite being a significant chunk of the show’s cast, we don’t get to know them well enough. That’s undoubtedly coming in future episodes since Angela’s daughter is the Linda Blair of this show, but the premiere just didn’t get there.
Also, the show is hampered by that sort of sepia-toned dryness which plagues a lot of culture these days (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman). The Exorcist may have been going for a tonal bleakness appropriate for the subject matter, but this made the overall setting a bit dull. The show is intended to be set in suburban Chicago, but it ended up looking like a generic nowhere, and a few more cultural signs would help breathe life into the series.
Still, the final minutes of the show gave it hope. Tomas’ first confrontation with the demonic Katherine was terrifying enough. The show’s closing montage, which show Marcus putting on a familiar hat while the classic Exorcist theme song plays, really gave hope that the show is going somewhere. So if you’re looking for a decent horror option this fall beyond the bleakness of American Horror Story, consider giving The Exorcist a try and tune in next week.
Rating: Three holy waters out of five.