Airtime: Mondays at 10PM on A&E
Episode: Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Tweetable Takeaway: Damien’s pilot fails to provide any reason why you should watch if you’re new to the story
The first episode of A&E’s new series DAMIEN is demonstrates what can go wrong in adapting a popular film into a television series. After years of surprisingly good film-to-TV adaptations, such as Friday Night Lights, Hannibal, and most recently, A&E’s own Bates Motel, Damien shows the potential pitfalls of adaptation due to its inability to make a case for why anyone who isn’t familiar with The Omen’s lore should care about its proceedings.
I’m coming from the perspective of having never seen The Omen or any of the other films in the franchise, but I do have a cursory knowledge of what the story is and what the Damien character represents. Despite never having seen the original film, I will say that on the surface, the conceit of the show was fairly compelling to me and I saw its potential. There is merit to the idea of returning, decades later, to an older Damien who is beginning to remember repressed memories from his tragic childhood. The problem is that the show, at least in this pilot, never gave me any reason to care about Damien as a character, the mythology in general, or really anything at all.
The pilot begins on a bad note and only goes downhill from there, starting with a completely unnecessary in media res opening that provides zero payoff when we return to it later in the episode. We see Damien entering a church, causing all the candles inside to immediately extinguish upon his presence, and pleading with a statue of Jesus Christ to give him answers and explain what he did wrong. It then cuts to three days earlier and we’re thrust into action across the globe, following Damien on assignment in Syria. We learn that he’s a famous war photographer, celebrating his thirtieth birthday on this day, working in the Christian Quarter of civil war-torn Damascus. He runs into Kelly, an ex-girlfriend with whom he seems to have ended on bad terms. Military forces quickly burst onto the scene and begin expelling Christians from the sector. In the midst of the chaos, an old Syrian woman grabs Damien and begins speaking to him in English, telling him, “Damien, I love you. It’s all for you.” The words trigger repressed memories and Damien flashes back to his fifth birthday, when a woman said those exact words to him before jumping off a building and hanging herself, which is seen in a piece of footage from the original The Omen.
These flashbacks to The Omen occur frequently throughout the story. While this should be fun, instead it feels cheap and only reinforces the feeling that much of what occurs in the pilot feels like a weak derivative of events from the original film. Every time we flash back to that film, it becomes more clear that the show doesn’t have a strong enough foundation to stand upon on its own and is entirely reliant on trading on the original’s goodwill at this point.
As the story progresses, we’re introduced to a few supporting characters, none of whom leave any real impression. There’s Kelly and her sister Simone, who appears to dislike Damien because of what he did to her sister; Damien’s friend and fellow war photographer Amani; and Ann Rutledge, a mysterious woman who appears to know a lot about Damien’s past and claims to be in the “protection business.”
Even aside from the main issue that Damien fails to distinguish its own legacy separate from The Omen, what is does offer simply does not make for quality television. The number of plot contrivances and lame coincidences that occur in this 43 minute pilot alone are staggering. It starts with Damien coincidentally meeting up with his ex-girlfriend Kelly in the middle of Syria. When Damien is kicked out of the country and barred from reentering, he asks Kelly for help in identifying the woman who spoke to him. Conveniently, it just so happens that Kelly recorded a crystal clear, high definition video of the moment when the woman spoke to Damien. She also did some research and discovered that the words the woman said to him were from the Gospel of Matthew. They were the same words spoken by a voice in the sky when it opened up following John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus Christ. She’s also quick to note that Jesus was baptized on his thirtieth birthday and that Damien, drenched in blood, received his own baptism of sorts when he spoke to the woman on his own thirtieth birthday.
Overall I found the pilot to be quite difficult to get through because everything about it feels lackluster. Each scene was filled with so much leaden exposition about the nature of the Antichrist that it all ended up sounding like gibberish. Despite two gruesome death scenes, there was no palpable sense of tension felt in any of the episode. And the writers did a terrible job of making clear what the stakes in the story were and what viewers were supposed to actually care about. After finishing the episode, I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about anything I just witnessed. Damien is the Antichrist, that much is clear, but so what? Should we be rooting for him to assume the mantle? Or are we rooting for him to rebel against his fate? Maybe we’re rooting for the authorities to learn the truth about his nature so they can put a stop to him? I have no idea. And the fact that I have no idea means that the writers did not do their jobs well.
There’s little in the way of praise that can be thrown at the Damien pilot. The acting is uninspired, it’s visually unimaginative, and the writing is fairly terrible. The central relationship in the pilot is between Damien and Kelly and everything involving them feels lazy and unmotivated. They say exactly what they’re feeling at every turn, there isn’t an ounce of chemistry between them, and when Kelly is eventually killed in a laughably bad scene later in the episode I was left wondering why I should care about her fate in the least. It could be construed as a surprise that it’s Simone and not Kelly who will end up being the female lead of the show, but since I was never given a reason to care about Kelly in the first place, that shock had no impact.
It’s possible that if I had watched The Omen I would be happy to see Damien back on screen, ready to fulfill the fate that had been written for him decades ago. I doubt that, but it’s possible. But as someone who has never seen The Omen and can only judge what was put on screen in this television series, I’m afraid this story didn’t give me anything to latch onto to make me want to return next week. At one point in the episode Ann Rutledge tells Damien, “The past is like a noose around our necks.” The statement could not be more true for Damien itself, as the show’s unwavering fidelity to the original The Omen, and inability to articulate its own raison d’être, risks choking it to death.
- We see two priests unfurling a dagger from a cloth that they look upon with reverence. One priest then says to the other, “I told you we waited too long.” We can presume that just as Damian has Ann Rutledge and a band of angry dogs supporting his ascension to Antichrist, there will be an opposing side equally dead-set on making sure that doesn’t happen. This is the most intriguing plotline the show has going for it.
- It’s unclear whether or not Damien is ready to acknowledge that he’s the Antichrist, despite the clear preponderance of evidence supporting that claim. The episode ends with him looking at the spot of his skull where a patch of hair had been ripped out by the woman he met in Syria, who happened to show up in New York, and seeing 666 emblazoned on his skin. That’s weird, right?
- Damien also realizes in this episode that the woman he met in Syria has a common presence throughout his life when he sees her lurking in the background of several photographs he’s taken over the years. That’s a worthwhile idea in the abstract, but the idea that an acclaimed photographer like Damien wouldn’t have noticed the exact same woman creeping in the background of several of his most famous shots is laughable.
Eric enjoys watching and making movies.
Eric Colasante | Contributor