Why you should be watching The Exorcist TV series
James R | On 08, Oct 2017
Warning: This contains mild spoilers for Season 1 of The Exorcist.
“I can’t emphasise enough the risk you’re taking,” cautions Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) at a key turning point in The Exorcist Season 1. He might as well be talking to writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater, who dares to invoke the holy ghost of William Friedkin’s 1973 movie on the small screen. But from the unsettling first episode, this TV series confidently brushes aside any doubts in the show’s ability to possess the spirit of the feature film for 10 episodes – sometimes, you’ve just got to have a little faith.
Rather than stretch the original story to last 10 hours, Slater comes up with a smart twist on the recognisable calling cards of the classic: a wealthy family here, a mother detached from her daughter there, a conflicted priest in the middle and a veteran exorcist by his side.
The daughter in question is Casey (Hannah Kasulka), the younger sister to the popular Kat (Brianne Howey). Perpetually overshadowed by her older sibling, Casey craves a little more attention, and that’s all the excuse a malevolent spirit needs to sink his claws into her. Her mum, Angela (a remarkable Geena Davis), notices something isn’t right and brings in Father Tomas (the likeably earnest Alfonso Herrera) to play the anti-devil’s advocate. He’s a young, charismatic, progressive Catholic, eager to make a difference in the rundown neighbourhood of Chicago. But as he finds himself having visions of Marcus failing to exorcise a young boy in Mexico, it soon becomes clear that Casey has put this inexperienced man of the cloth on a collision course with the older, tougher padre.
The series takes its time to bring them together, carefully assembling each strand of its story, and it’s this meticulous plotting that makes The Exorcist such a terrifying treat to watch: its not until halfway through that we get to the exorcism proper (the bravura end of Episode 4 will have you clawing for the remote), and by then, we’ve seen all sides of both priests, able to identify their weaknesses and vulnerabilities as easily as their supernatural enemy. Marcus is a tough cookie, unafraid to talk dirty and punch even dirtier, but he’s an intensely caring sort at heart, asking questions of both God and the Devil with a furious conviction. Tomas, meanwhile, is torn between his virtuous calling and the lure of married childhood sweetheart Jessica (Mouzam Makkar). Their exposed depths gives us a reason to invest emotionally in these men, but it also hints at where they’ll be attacked in the confrontations to come – Slater’s smart scripting simultaneously builds character and tension in a way that brilliantly heightens the stakes.
“There is a reason we don’t engage with the enemy,” warns Marcus, as Tomas becomes taken with a devious hallucination of Jessica. “Because it’s dangerous?” he asks. “Because you’re risking your eternal soul,” comes the blunt reply.
A lot of the pleasure comes from seeing them as a double act, not just because of their chemistry, but because it allows the show to do what the film couldn’t: open up the universe’s mythology, or, more accurately, embrace the ambiguities of Christian theology. It gradually becomes clear that there is no right way to exorcise a demon – we’re soon introduced to Mother Bernadette, who leads a convent where they oust demons with kind words and gentle singing rather than aggressive shouting. Away from their rituals, though, she’s just as amusingly tough as Marcus.
“Why do you think God allows his children to suffer?” she asks. “So university freshman can have something to argue over,” he quips with typical sarcasm. “Sometimes suffering is just suffering. It serves no higher purpose, it simply is,” she hits back.
With a bigger canvas also comes a bigger villain, and The Exorcist expands the scales to a national level, as it also brings us into contact with an occult wing of the Catholic Church, where a bunch of rogue clergy conspire to bring about the rise of Lucifer. The more time we spend with this subplot, the dafter it gets, but the villainous cast’s willingness to ham things up – Kirsten Fitzgerald has a whale of a time as Maria Walters, one of the organisation’s more fanatical leaders – ensures that things verge on the enjoyable side of silly, while Kurt Egyiawan as Father Bennett (one of the few senior Catholic figures who hasn’t been corrupted) keeps things gritty and grounded.
But for all its larger ideas, The Exorcist’s strength lies in its focus on the Rance family. Casey and Kat are performed with tremendous dedication, especially as Casey faces growing inner torment from the force possessing her – and the series roots itself in examining the ripple effects of that possession. Alan Ruck brings pathos as Henry, Casey’s dad, who suffered a head injury that may or may not have been devilishly plotted and spends his days struggling to remember who he is – as Casey loses herself more and more, he increasingly finds himself, climaxing in a horrific sequence set on a bus.
It’s Gemma Davis as Angela Rance, though, who really steals the show. Her cool, collected businesswoman keeps everything as repressed as possible – there’s a real sense of festering trauma that’s more real than paranormal, creating an insidious atmosphere that eats away at everyone inside the house. The question of how far parents are willing to go to save their child is one that recalls Friedkin’s classic, and Davis and Ruck mine that moral dilemma to stomach-churning, head-rotating degrees. The show even incorporates the legacy of Regan’s exorcism (watch out for a brief search result on Google early on) in a way that echoes the film’s themes of sacrifice and belief – the brief appearance of Casey’s grandma is an inspired move that elevates the whole show to something deeply disturbing, as it emphasises how far such suffering can reach across generations. The parent-child bond is a sacred one, and the very idea of possession perverts it – but add in the suggestion that it might be the same demon as the original movie at work again, and the possibility of a vendetta to rival that family loyalty is enough to keep you awake at night.
The entire ensemble does an excellent job of moving between loud yelling of Biblical verses and cowering quietly in corners – essential to making the series’ premise believable. Throughout, Robert Emmet Lunney is horribly creepy as The Salesman, the form the demon takes to woo Casey both in her head and outside of it, and it’s his determined presence, which goes from polite and charming to decayed and menacing, that sells every scare and bump in the night. So when the show’s final third occasionally slips into repetition, as Tomas continuously wrestles with his feelings for Jessica (the one weak link in a tapestry of strong characters), there’s enough terror to overcome any trashiness, driven home by the contrasting turns of Daniels and Davis.
Rupert Wyatt, meanwhile, heads a directing team that does some truly accomplished work, finding sinister angles in tight places, referencing the iconic silhouette of The Exorcist’s poster and capturing the internal battle for Casey’s soul with simple yet effective visual metaphors. Combined with the script and the personal focus, the result is a genuinely scary TV show that doesn’t need the power of Christ to compel you to keep watching.