It’s hard to imagine what new ground can be broken in the “Exorcist” universe, which has spawned five movies and two William Peter Blatty novels. But creator Jeremy Slater, who penned last year’s solid horror movie “The Lazarus Effect,” is giving it a shot anyway with a TV series version of “The Exorcist” (9 p.m. Fridays on Fox). While there’s no sign after one episode of what that new ground will be, the pilot itself is enjoyable for what it is.
The first thing I noticed – and the reason I’m giving this show a chance – is the style. As with the film saga (to which this TV series is a sequel), we follow two priests – a younger one (Father Tomas Ortega, played by Alfonso Herrera) who doesn’t believe in demons and exorcism, and an older one (Father Marcus Keane, played by Ben Daniels) who has encountered many demons and performed many exorcisms.
We start in a Latin American city where the homes seem to be built atop each other, and where a visitor would be hopelessly lost. Screams emanate from the top floor of one of these cobbled-together structures. Especially in the nighttime scenes, as Marcus wanders the dim and dirty alleyways, it looks great. Throw in a 1970s-esque title card (“The Exorcist” in huge letters) and music of the same vintage, and it’s a blast from the past.
Marcus fails to exorcise the demon from the Latin American boy — in a nice expectation-dodge of the 360-head-spin from the 1973 film, the demon simply snaps the victim’s neck. But a year-and-a-half later, in present day, Tomas comes calling. In Chicago, a teenage girl (Kat Rance, played by Brianne Howey) seems to be possessed. Her mom, Angela (Geena Davis), has called on Tomas for help. I know it’s present day only because Kat makes a reference to liking a Wicca group on Facebook; overall, the show has an out-of-time quality with its muted tones –in the color palette, the deliberate pacing and the understated performances.
I like the way “The Exorcist” – in a similar fashion to the original film – unspools its information without explicitly making connections. Kat’s dad, Henry (Alan Ruck), lacks his long-term memory as the result of an accident. So he just watches the same fishing show every night, and it’s always new to him. The psychologically troubled Kat was also in an accident, but we don’t know if it was the same one. Younger teen Casey (Hannah Kasulka), meanwhile, tries to put a cheerier spin on life.
Continuing the week of twist endings among new network shows (see also the excellent “This Is Us” and the not-so-excellent “Pitch”), “The Exorcist’s” pilot ends by revealing that it’s not Kat, but rather Casey, who is possessed. In a scene that’s remarkable for being on network TV (although less so in a post-“Hannibal” world), Marcus encounters Casey – moving with limbs contorted in that demon-possessed way – in the creepy flashlight- and moonlight-lit attic, where she crunches a rat’s bones with her demonic power.
While the Rance case will continue, we’re also told that the series will feature many cases of demon possession. The pilot does enough good things that I’ll be back next week, but this is where I worry: If every episode culminates with an exorcism, it could get old fast. The first film, made famous for pea-soup vomit and Regan’s head doing the literal twist, is a classic for its scene of the priest trying to exorcise a demon from a girl strapped to a bed.
But, after Marcus’ exorcism scene in this episode, I’m really not up for another one, let alone one in every episode. As an atheist, I find exorcism scenes more amusing than scary, but the problem is the familiarity of such a scene. It’s one thing to see Buffy staking vampires every week or even Jennifer Love Hewitt whispering to ghosts, but how do you keep exorcism scenes remotely fresh, let alone scary?
I’ll give “The Exorcist” a chance, though, as we wait to see if it can mine fresh material out of this old saga – a la “Bates Motel” and “Hannibal” – or if it just becomes old hat.