Or Nah? is a feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
What’s It About?
On its face, Damnation is a show about small town politics in 1931 Iowa. There’s a preacher, there’s a cowboy, and there are poor farmers being ripped off by wealthy businessmen. Nothing is as it seems, of course: the preacher’s not a man of God, the cowboy’s not just riding through town, and the entire rich vs. poor motif is an allusion to modern society.
The preacher is Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), and he’ll be playing the part of a revolutionary trying to help the striking farmers. The cowboy is Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), and he’s here to put a stop to all that. Easy enough, right?
Logan Marshall-Green. He’s not the only good thing here, but he’s certainly the best. USA Network, on which Damnation airs, bills the show as “an epic saga”. I don’t know that I would use those words exactly, after one episode, but you can tell this series is being made with those words in mind. This pilot is impressively ambitious in the amount of plot it attempts to put into motion, and for the most part, it does succeed.
Marshall-Green, however, is the clear standout. Part of the ambition on display here is illustrated by the series’ 12-minute cold open, but the first 8 minutes sort of stagnates. Not plot-wise; the plot moves rather swiftly, actually, in those opening moments, but it’s the energy that almost meanders its way forth. That ninth minute, though? That’s when Creeley Turner shows up and commands the screen with an electric presence.
Other characters, like Killian Scott’s Seth Davenport or Chasten Harmon‘s Bessie Louvin, develop over the course of the hour and will likely only grow in future episodes, but it’s Logan Marshall-Green’s Turner who owns this premiere.
The show lacks subtlety; like, any. It’s inevitable I’ll eventually mention Quarry, the show that made me a Logan Marshall-Green fan forever, and this is as good a place as any to do so. One of that show’s many qualities was its ability to layer its plot with complementary metaphors and symbolism, be it with music or in-universe news events, or what have you. This show, at least its pilot, definitely wants to do that, but everything is very on-the-nose.
I mentioned the similarities between the plot here and modern-day socioeconomic dynamics. In that regard, the show is obvious, but it’s a lesser problem because its feels intentional; it feels like the show very much wants you to watch this and be reminded of things of which you’re familiar. It’s similar to USA’s hit Mr. Robot, in that way.
The problem is in the show’s use of religious imagery, allegories, parables, etc. In this regard, Damnation feels like it’s trying to hide its seams and is not succeeding. I could be reading the intentions wrong, however, since there is one very overt piece of symbolism you’re meant to notice at the end of the episode, so I’m willing to wait on passing too much judgment–lest I too be judged, right?–until we’re at least one further episode into the series. Here, though, it felt uneven and harmed the intended allusions to current day. Whether it’s intentional or not, the use of religion feels heavy-handed; a morality tale should not feel like a morality tale; it shouldn’t feel like you’re being preached to.
This premiere is not perfect, by any stretch, and it does drag in spots, but there is potential here. The rivalry established between the preacher and the cowboy feels like it can sustain for a while, and the overall plot is healthy enough to not become a bore when those two are not on screen.
While watching, I was reminded of two series. First, the maddeningly dull Frontier. I previously did an Or Nah? for that series, and I’ll let you read more into that if you wish. Frontier, if you’re lucky enough to not be aware, is co-produced by Discovery Canada and Netflix–much like Damnation is co-produced by Universal Cable Productions and Netflix–and tells a story about the North American fur trade of… Hey, wake up! Yeah, I found that show unwatchably boring, and I don’t know how it has a third season on the way, but I digress. Anyway, Damnation is like if Frontier had conveyed any intrigue whatsoever.
The second series I thought of is Preacher, and I think the reasons are obvious; if not, uh, they both have preachers of questionable morality. The glaring difference, though, is the fact Preacher has lots of supernatural elements Damnation does not have, so it kind of feels like a less-intriguing Preacher. So, if you’re paying attention, the intrigue scale goes Frontier————Damnation—Preacher. That is to say, I’m interested enough to keep watching Damnation.
Don’t Watch This If: You are a rich person who thinks it’s cool to lord over poor people, you dislike basic-cable sex scenes, you don’t want to hear basic-cable’s newfound affinity for the f-word be put on full display.