Once one gets past the fatigue of yet another classic film dusted off and condensed into serial TV form under the cover of nostalgia, mounting a network primetime television show based on the groundbreaking, beloved, and harrowing The Exorcist film (1973) begins to feel right, if not downright bold and innovative. William Peter Blatty’s demonic possession story still sits atop many critics’ scariest films of all time lists, still regularly being sought out more than 40 years later. Audiences old and new cannot get enough of the spiritual dread and true body horror of director William Friedkin’s vision.
Of course, the temptation when booting up the show for the small screen would be to go directly to the neck-snapping, projectile vomiting, screeching demon fighting, straight to the horror mine to replicate some legacy jumps and frights. Thankfully, cooler, more thoughtful heads have prevailed and rather than dive into the tired exorcism trope, The Exorcist, premiering tonight on FOX and available tomorrow on-demand, burns a lot of screen time NOT getting to the money shot.
At least in the first episode, the connection to the film is only a tonal exercise, more of a spiritual cousin than a straight remake or retelling. The Exorcist gets out of Washington, D.C. and into Chicago where we meet “rising star of the Catholic Church” Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera). Tomas delights his flock in his Sunday sermons, privately counsels his parishioners in personal and family matters, all while in his down time refurbishing his imposing yet crumbling church. But all is not well with Tomas: he’s having disturbing visions of an exorcism, he’s questioning the legitimacy of his calling to serve, and appears to have no support system in place for his own needs.
Tomas is soon visited by one of his parishioners, Angela Rance (Geena Davis, in an exciting career move), a high-powered and practical executive who seeks help as she believes her house and possibly older daughter are possessed. Tomas visits the Rance house for dinner and to speak with the suspected possessed daughter. While there, Tomas has a terrifying experience in the attic and is given a “clue” by the mentally compromised Rance patriarch, Henry (Alan Ruck). Tomas sees in the clue a possible answer to the dreams that have been plaguing his sleep and sets out to find an audience with the man in his visions whose name he now knows: Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels).
As we get to know Tomas, we also get interspersed glimpses of Father Keane’s troubled life. He is the rough, grizzled opposite to Tomas’ soft features and gentle demeanor. We see him tirelessly fighting to save a child from possession (in one of the premiere’s more harrowing moments), clashing with the power structure in the church, and as Tomas reveals when he tracks Keane down, spending his days cloistered in an institution, painting and reflecting.
Father Keane is an exorcist. During their initial meeting, Tomas reveals he has been seeing Keane in his dreams, explains that he was an observer in an exorcism of the young chid Keane attempted to save. In essence, he verifies that he and Keane are now linked by a new threat. Tomas explains his problem to Keane, who essentially shuts him down, telling him to return home to Chicago and forget all of this. After Tomas departs, however, we see Keane have a few words with God, don his hat and coat, and walk out of the facility, off to Chicago to join Keane to fight the possession together. It’s on.
Beyond the story, the most interesting and watchable aspect about The Exorcist is its commitment to setting and tone. All throughout the first episode, there is a pervasive sense of angst, an autumn silver gray to the skies, and the feeling that something dreadful is about to happen. The experience is as unsettling to modern audiences as the film must have felt some 40+ years ago. This vibe, along with reserved yet powerful performances from Davis, Herrera, and Daniels, cements The Exorcist as an original.
Yes, The Exorcist exists in the shadow of its cinematic namesake, but it does not linger long. If the show can keep up the tension, deliver 3-4 adequate frights a week, and continues to respect the audience’s sophistication around spiritual conundrums, we may have a hit on our hands.