[This is a review of The Exorcist series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
“You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” That quote more or less sums up the approach FOX has with adapting popular movies into television series. Last year, the network spun Minority Report into a short-lived procedural and this year it has two movie-to-TV adaptations premiering in the same week with Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist. FOX is essentially padding its schedule based on the law of averages. At this point, it almost seems like network execs are just going to green light anything that has been a successful property at one point in time, hoping that success will eventually pan out and one of these new series will wind up hitting the back of the net.
And while the possibility of success is one thing to consider, necessity is another. Yes, you can turn a comic book into a police procedural as the network did with Lucifer, and yes, you can adapt a crowd-pleasing Mel Gibson franchise or Tome Cruise blockbuster into even more police procedurals, but even if Minority Report hadn’t been canceled and even if Lethal Weapon turns into a hit series for the next seven years, it’s hard to imagine the necessity of either would ever be a question that was convincingly answered. While The Exorcist doesn’t quite have an answer to the question of necessity, it makes a better case for its existence than any of those aforementioned adaptations have so far.
The premiere episode, directed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt and written by series creator Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four) defies the low expectations handed to yet another TV adaptation of a popular movie (itself an adaptation of a novel) to deliver a competent, atmospheric thriller that appears to have some ideas for its story beyond mere brand recognition and aping the work of William Friedkin some 43 years ago. That’s not to say the series is a top down reimagining of William Peter Blatty’s tale of demonic possession, but that’s not what it’s going for either. In fact, the series isn’t a straight adaptation but rather more like a continuation of Friedkin’s 1973 film, where Max Von Sydow‘s Father Merrin likely existed and was embroiled in the same sort of dark affairs as Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) is shown to have been through a cleverly layered series of flashbacks that are revealed to be visions linking him to Father Thomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) – giving the series its requisite old priest and its young priest without too much spine-twisting exposition.
In the first hour, ‘Chapter One: And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee,’ Slater weaves several threads together, playing with audience expectations as far as the material is concerned, while also introducing the major players, ramping up the horror and throwing in a few well-timed jump scares for good measure. By the premiere’s end, the audience has a solid understanding of the Rance family dynamics, their relationship with Father Ortega, and that some demonic trouble is brewing inside the walls of their home. The how and why of the latter portion is left for the series to explore as the season moves on, making the first hour the sort of getting-to-know-you exercise that often leaves premieres feeling somewhat flat or half formed, but The Exorcist manages to turn it all into something that comes close to compelling and rings of ominous portent.
The set up is kept fairly simple. Geena Davis plays Angela Rance, a successful businesswoman, wife, and mother to two teenaged daughters. She’s also devoutly Catholic and enjoys the kind of relationship with her parish’s priest – Father Ortega – that he’ll pop over for dinner, berate her eldest child Kat (Brianne Howey) for disrespecting her father Henry (Alan Ruck) who is suffering from the early stages of dementia, and not mind too terribly when Angela creeps around the basement of the church so as to facilitate one of the aforementioned jump scares. It’s an unlikely dynamic but it works in part because Davis’s Rance and Herrera’s Ortega seem equally unlikely as a priest and a devout Catholic businesswoman. The uncertainty each character displays and understands in their respective roles within the world of the series plays into the theme of corruption that’s spooned to the audience like steaming bowls of split pea soup.
That sense of corruption is then underlined with the presence of Father Keane. The scenes with Daniels performing an exorcism on a young boy in Mexico are so intense (even with the limitations of broadcast networks) that they almost feel like they’re from another series altogether. Daniels presents Keane in flashback as a borderline zealot, willing to pull a gun on a colleague, Father Bennett (Kurt Egyiawan), to keep him and the Church from meddling in his efforts to exorcise a demon from a little boy. The scene is so over-the-top and riddled with antihero cliché, the formula reads as deliberate in order to further stress the series’ commitment to exploring the idea of corruption. In this case corruption comes in many forms beyond just a demon inhabiting the body of a young boy or, as is made evident at the episode’s end, Angela’s cheerful, all-American daughter Casey (Hannah Kasulka).
Whether this adds up to something more than a procedural exorcism-of-the-week drama or not remains to be seen. Slater seems to be setting up something a little more serialized by situating the demonic presence inside the already dubious stability of the Rance home and having it unfold alongside a larger thread suggesting some sort of Satanic conspiracy is already afoot within the Church itself. Unlike other recent adaptations, The Exorcist demonstrates that it has ideas and a purpose to its storytelling beyond simply lifting the plot from its feature film namesake and transforming it into 12 or more episodes of television. Beyond its compelling visual palette and network censor-pushing levels of horror imagery, the series is on the cusp of constructing an intricate and compelling world filled with interesting characters. How compelling is it? Well, it’s not quite time to quote Father Merrin, but it’s enough to keep watching.
The Exorcist continues next Friday with ‘Chapter Two: Lupus in Fabula’ @9pm on FOX.
Photos: Jean Whiteside/FOX