Sometimes there is a pivotal moment when watching a TV show for review that you were on the fence about, one that defines your feelings about it perfectly. For Damnation, USA’s gritty series about farmers and strikebreakers in 1930s Iowa, it came in the third episode when the brothel owner presents a human turd on a platter to the sheriff. Not content to let the work speak for itself, she explains, in part: “I brought this turd here as a symbol of what we’ll all have to eat if this revolution proceeds.” Yeah, we got it. It’s pretty much a perfect way to describe how Damnation functions, which is through a lot of shoehorned exposition, telling rather than showing, and an obvious worry that viewers won’t be savvy enough to understand what’s happening otherwise.
Unfortunately, that tone is something that pervades throughout the series, in which the “simple” farmers of this Iowan town become pawns in a game between a revolutionary masquerading as a preacher (Killian Scott) and a strikebreaker hired by the banks and other monied interests to suppress this sedition (Logan Marshall-Green). The two scheme both openly and behind the scenes to manipulate the unwitting townsfolk, setting up a series that doesn’t pit the poor against the rich so much as sociopaths against people who just want a decent wage for their cow milk.
Created by Longmire’s Tony Tost, the series feels like a pastiche of Hell on Wheels, Preacher, and maybe most especially (thematically) Mr. Robot. It is focused entirely on the mechanism of revolution, which Scott’s Seth preaches from the pulpit, twisting the text to serve his purposes. There’s no desire for any kind of real theological consideration here, either about how the Bible might back up this righteous revolution or how faith can be used as a powerful force. Instead it’s a prop, and Seth’s speeches are peppered with empty Biblical buzzwords, which aligns with the fact that he’s faking his persona, but a different kind of show might have taken that to another level instead of leaving it in the realm of shallow platitudes.
Damnation is ambitious, however, and clearly wants to be taken seriously. But it’s hard to get invested in a show that doesn’t give us much of a reason to care about its characters. Marshall-Green’s Creeley Turner is hiding a secret shared past with Seth, but in the meantime he’s operating at the behest of those who will pay him to enact their dastardly plans, and hires a revolving door of prostitutes to act as his secretaries (by reading his mail and going on errands for him). It’s a quirky trait, but doesn’t fit the tone of the show. As for the opposite sex, it feels like Damnation was given a note about “strong female characters,” and so all of them are, to the point of being one-dimensional. Sarah Jones is Seth’s wife and accomplice, Chasten Harmon is Creeley’s prostitute assistant Bessie, and Melinda Page Hamilton is a widow out for vengeance; while their aims differ, their personalities are interchangeable. Essentially, on Damnation, you are either an intelligent, well-read toughie, or you’re a rural rube. It leads to an unwelcome arrogance and mean-spiritedness as our “heroes” deal dismissively with the very common folk they are supposedly trying to assist (as from Creeley, who is out for himself).
Some of this might be forgotten, though, if the script didn’t lay out its intentions so baldly. “We need all of the unwashed rural masses to fight our wars, mine our mountains,” one evil rich guy says (so that you know he’s an evil rich guy). He then adds that most of these jobs will be taken over by machines soon, a rather futuristic thought for that time period, especially while a nation starves. There’s also literally a man nailed to the bank in a cruxifixction pose with a sign on him that says “Which Side Are You On?” something that other characters comment on. Did you see that man nailed up like Jesus? Seems like it’s sending a message. So, which side are you on? Do ya get it?
Hell on Wheels alumnus Christopher Heyerdahl appears in this series as a disenchanted sheriff, the recipient of the symbolic (and literal) shit platter, and he has his own monologues to give about the plight of the town. But mostly, he’s there as a reminder of a show that understood how to balance action, villainy, humor, and character building better than this one.
There has been something of a Western revival on television in the last few years, but to succeed in this oversaturated TV era your show needs to bring something different and vital to the table beyond genre. Damnation is not all bad, but it never shakes the feeling of being merely a shadow of other, more compelling series that deal with similar struggles of class warfare, brotherhood, frontier spirit, and the like. The Depression was a troubling time in U.S. history that should easily lead to compelling storylines. Though Damnation does present a few scenes of farms being foreclosed on by greedy bankers, even these turn into theater for the more macro manipulations taking place. But the series’ biggest flaw in conflating serious television with misery – drama can and should also handle joy. Damnation prefers to meditate only on the turds, symbolic or otherwise.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Damnation premieres Tuesday, November 7th on USA.