Fox’s The Exorcist begins like William Friedkin’s horror classic: at the site of a malevolent spirit’s nesting ground. But if the film, which opens at an anthropological site in Iraq, immediately pledges allegiance to the conservatism of William Peter Blatty’s novel by positioning the evil Pazuzu as an “other” that can only be defeated by the power of Christ, the series bides its time, though only in this one respect. As Father Marcus Lang (Ben Daniels) walks through the slums of an as-yet-unnamed city in the pilot episode, the world around him is rendered as a dark, chop-socky hellscape straight out of a Resident Evil video game and countless filmic jump-scare-athons: shadowy figures running across the frame, dogs of war growling in the distance, a person quickly pulling their window curtains shut. The show’s sensibility is very much of its time—a pander to the comforts of its intended demographic.
Within the walls of a Chicago parish, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) preaches about “finding your own way,” handily telegraphing the show’s major through line: his crisis of conscience and how it will get a further workout when he’s called to become an exorcist. Distracting given that Herrera appears on Sense8, whose major conceit is the psychic link between its main characters, Tomas is mentally teleported to the city where Marcus attempts to exorcise a demon from a young boy. Worse than the failure to rationalize Tomas’s leap into this psychic dominion is the suspicion that the series, considering the priest’s form-fitting clothes outside of work and his sister’s nagging about the women he communicates with, will lean hard on framing the issue of Tomas’s faith around his carnal lusts. One may be excused for thinking The Exorcist is also in part an adaptation of The Thorn Birds.
Throughout, the series suggests that it’s been market-tested to a place where originality no longer has a place to bloom. The pilot, directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Gambler), hints at the presence of whatever dark being will be at the frenetic heart of the series with canned dolly shots approaching buildings and people, as if from the point of view of a paperboy making his rounds; evil has so rarely been hinted at on screen with such banality. As for the melodrama that plays out inside the home of the Rance family, it brings to mind any number of the CW’s niche-oriented programs for how partial it is to the discontents of the young. Early on, Angela (Geena Davis) goes to check on her youngest daughter, Casey (Hannah Kasulka), whom she believes to be gripped by a demon, and we’re asked to contemplate whether the girl really is possessed or simply in the full throes of being a teenager—that her mother simply doesn’t understand her.
The Exorcist’s characterizations may eventually deepen, and its choppy and clumsily grotesque articulations of possession may settle down and come to feel more suggestive, but even after one episode, it’s already clear that we’re already at a place that far stronger shows take an entire season to arrive at. Though it evinces none of the film’s elegant craftsmanship, the series is faithful to Blatty’s story—and for better and worse. Whatever drove Tomas from Mexico City to Chicago may come to shed complicated light on his crisis of faith, but for now, his ethnicity is less important to the series than his sex appeal. Just as the demon’s raison d’être exists at present to suggest, and offensively so, nothing more than a terror hailing from our geographical neighbor to the south is liable to take away more than just your job.