[This is a review of Damien season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Odd as it is to say about a story that began with The Omen in 1976, the premiere of A&E's new adapted-from-a-classic-horror-film series Damien has one significant shortcoming: In its attempt to call forth the end of days by making the Antichrist TV's newest hunky protagonist, the show starts its story much too early. Watching the premiere, you sort of get it: creator and showrunner Glen Mazzara (The Shield, The Walking Dead) is in the tricky position of developing the continuation of a 40-year-old film, while also pushing forward into territory only hinted at in the original film's ending (the three sequels that followed be damned, obviously). So the first hour is largely spent getting Damien up to speed on who he is – or is destined to become – and to figure out exactly where he stands in terms of the thorny son-of-the-Devil situation in which he finds himself. That puts Damien Thorn on a journey of self-discovery, and while there's no doubt such journeys make for compelling stories, the sentiment is decidedly different when the series itself feels like it's on the same trip.
There is a great deal going on in the pilot episode, and much of it points to how well this show knows The Omen and can simulate its particular beats. Damien has the same ominous tone as its predecessor, and it wisely uses many of the same devices in order to enhance that particular tenor. In the first hour alone the series re-introduces the conspiracy of evil surrounding the title character at almost every turn. It also presents the snarling Rottweiler hellhounds doing the Devil's bloody bidding, the supernatural "accidents" that befall supporting characters who get too close, and certainly, it brings back creepy women prone to saying "It's all for you, Damien." And yet, through all the reminders, the flashbacks, and the photographic revelations, there's no sense the series is as committed to a particular narrative as it is to proving its horror bona fides.
Part of the problem is how indistinct Damien comes across. The character was introduced as the Antichrist forty years ago, and yet he's all but a cipher here. Part of this seems deliberate; presenting Damien as a blank slate leaves a lot of room for the writers to work with. The downside, however, is all that white space leaves former Merlin actor Bradley James with nothing to latch on to, and so the series finds itself in an odd position wherein the road to hell is apparently paved with uncertainty. In other words, by the end of the first hour, Damien has arrived at the same place as those who have seen The Omen, and yet there's no indication he's any closer to self-actualizing than the stone-faced toddler who (maybe) broke the fourth wall in 1976.
Not taking advantage of the film's history by dropping Damien (and the audience) into a situation where he is effecting change, as the (potentially conflicted) Beast he is destined to become, is a missed opportunity to be sure. As an added frustration, the first hour is more concerned with adding conspicuous photos of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick and setting up the supporting players' relationships to Damien than in positioning the Antichrist as a character with a compelling narrative ahead of him.
Still, there are some surprises, like Damien's semi-estranged girlfriend Kelly Baptiste (Tiffany Hines) being introduced only to meet her demise before the hour is up. That opens the door for Kelly's sister Simone (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke of The CW's Vixen fame), which, again is an odd choice given it also demonstrates the writers' preference to work with blank slates than to dive into a pre-existing history – even when it's one they have full control over. There is also Damien's fellow war photographer/assistant Amani Golkar (Omid Abtahi), and the mysterious Ann Rutledge (mysteriously played by Barbara Hershey), who, thankfully, seems to know a thing or two about Satan's spawn and isn't shy about making awkward introductions.
Ultimately, an awkward introduction is what the first hour of Damien boils down to. There's may well be an enjoyable genre series in here just waiting to ascend to the top of A&E's original programming, but like Damien Thorn throughout 'The Beast Rises,' the series premiere relies more on the buried promise of its potential than on actually delivering it. All hope isn't lost, though; the series still has some characters to introduce, like former Walking Dead star Scott Wilson and Justified's David Meunier – both of whom are terrific character actors who can bring a great deal of depth to a series in need of such things.
In most cases, pilots are guilty of bringing too much to the table at once; they feel overstuffed and over complicated. The opposite is true of Damien, which leaves viewers in the rare position of having watched the first episode, but still feeling as though the series has yet to truly begin.
Damien continues next Monday with 'Second Death' @10pm on A&E.
Photos: Ben Mark Holberg/A&E