This article previously appeared on Crossfader.
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Do we consider USA to be a “prestige” network? I was surprised to dig down deep and realize that I generally think of it as such, but a look at their lineup of shows suggests they run pretty thin after COLONY, FALLING WATER, and SHOOTER don’t exactly have the people jumping out of their seats. But damn it all if I wasn’t just a little bit excited to tuck into DAMNATION. A promised breath of fresh air after a long time spent in the network dungeon, especially since I enjoyed THE SINNER, I thought that perhaps USA could give me the respite I so desperately craved. Unfortunately, life is continually full of disappointments, and DAMNATION did nothing to subvert or challenge that belief.
Seth Davenport (Killian Scott) is the 1930s equivalent of the Cool Youth Pastor, a young, attractive, and popular Man of the Cloth. Well, at least that’s what many people think; in reality, Seth is a socialist muckraker, travelling across the land to instigate the beset-upon farmers of middle America to rise against the industrialism of the time with his wife, Amelia (Sarah Jones). Raising a stink in Bumble-Butt Nowhere, Iowa gets the disapproving eye of Big Bank upon him, and soon enough, ice-cold hitman Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green) gets sent to town to quiet the growing malcontent. Add crooked sheriff Don Berryman (Christopher Heyerdahl) into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for . . . pretty middling television.
DAMNATION has a cool premise, I think? It’s certainly not the most glamorous period of US History to spin yarns that aren’t Depression-related in, and Iowa tends to not rank among the most desirable locations for a story to take place. In addition, the concept of the harried working class banding together to topple corporate fat cats is, perhaps accidentally, oddly relevant to the times we’re living in. So where does DAMNATION go wrong? It’s actually somewhat difficult to put a finger on. Most set pieces exist in an Uncanny Valley of quality; it’s clear the creators and cast cared, but not quite enough to sell it. A supporting cast of entirely interchangeable townspeople all aimlessly wander around, stating expository information that feels stiff. Violence is ever-present, but nobody ever really reacts to it, rendering it arbitrary. There’s no real buildup of tension priming us for major narrative events; things happen, Seth and Creeley get real red-faced and screaming about it, and then the next thing happens.
But perhaps the most egregious error DAMNATION makes is its assumption that we’re still willing to eat up strong, silent, emotionally unavailable male protagonists. Read a book, USA, it’s 2017! We’ve been there and done that. As Amelia continually reminds Seth, he doesn’t tell anyone, including her, about his past or what motivates him. It doesn’t take a genius to piece together that he and Creeley at least tangentially know of each other due to some unspecified dark period in the rearview mirror, but if nobody wants to tell the audience why they should care, guess what, they won’t! I know nothing about Seth after the pilot apart from the fact that he hates the American capitalist death march. Once again, I suppose that’s mildly spicy considering the time period in which the show’s set, but I’ve got lots of friends constantly sharing articles with similar sentiments and I don’t find them particularly interesting either! It’s obviously fine to wait to dole out character information for later in the season, but there’s nothing more obnoxious than Amelia directly asking Seth the information we want to know, only for him to give her the equivalent of a shrug and a mumble.
Creeley’s kinda cool, I guess, and offers much more of a varied emotional palette than Seth. While his penchant for appearing out of nowhere and murdering strikers in cold blood is shocking and jagged, he also shows a more tender side through his seeming desire to establish a genuine professional and personal relationship with Bessie Louvin (Chasten Harmon), a prostitute. It’s also unexpectedly tasteful that nobody other than Bessie mentions the fact that she’s black, which, while perhaps not entirely beholden to the era’s racial tensions, keeps it from being excessively unpleasant. That being said, the only two characters of any note are a doting wife and a literal whore, so DAMNATION doesn’t exactly dance a merry waltz of equality. But regardless, any goodwill Creeley accumulates is mostly squandered by the cut-and-paste Sheriff Berryman. Although his moral ambiguity at least ticks the boxes of boilerplate emotional mire (we’re introduced to him beating a man for distilling moonshine before recruiting him for his own bootleg operation), a crooked cop is nothing we haven’t seen before.
DAMNATION isn’t egregiously disappointing, but you don’t need me to tell you there’s way, way too much television floating around to waste your time on anything less than Very Good. And Very Good, USA’s latest venture is not. If you have a strange inkling for stories from the 1930s, then I guess the pickings are pretty slim, but for everyone else, don’t waste your time.
DAMNATION airs on USA on Thursdays