Shows such as Lucifer and Damien are giving the antichrist more screen time than ever, but have things moved from being demonic to just plain daft?
For the embodiment of all evil, the devil gets treated pretty well in Hollywood. Popular depictions of evil tend to follow the Paradise Lost route in making the hellish curiously attractive, and even in movies where the Prince of Darkness is actually the antagonist, hes still by far the most interesting character (think Al Pacino in The Devils Advocate). And the long, tortured history of telling stories about Lucifer, from Paradise Lost on, makes it rather difficult to find a new spin on the concept. So its perhaps not surprising that A&Es Damien is the devil we know all too well.
A TV spinoff-slash-sequel to the classic horror movie The Omen, Damien picks up with its title character in the middle of a war zone. Played by Bradley James, Damien Thorn is a 30-year-old photographer who works out of a sort of loft-slash-photo lab, looks like he just came from shooting a J Crew catalogue, and has somehow forgotten that he is also the Beast, the antichrist prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Thankfully, after encountering a scary old woman, hellhounds, and several mysterious deaths, a satanic conspiracy arises to remind him of his childhood. Damien leans heavily on the audiences fondness for that past, liberally inserting scenes from The Omen, which mostly serve to remind the audience that the wimpy adult Damien is nothing like the tiny, gleefully evil monster you remember.
The morbid subject matter comes naturally to Damien showrunner Glen Mazzara, who cut his teeth on The Shield and The Walking Dead, two of the grimmest shows in recent memory. But the decidedly modern visual aesthetic Mazzara brings to Damien clashes with its premise. Like Chris Carters attempt to bring The X-Files into 2016, the idea of a straightforward antichrist backed by a vast satanic conspiracy simply does not translate as entertainment to a moment when reality seems worse, and teases a variety of its own increasingly plausible cabals. It doesnt help that no one on the show seems to have the slightest awareness of the tropes theyre living. Scenes where characters seriously Google the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and write random words about the Beast in notebooks alternate between unfortunately goofy and eye-rollingly dull. Damien doesnt come close to the archness of The Omen the absurdity of something like Patrick Troughtons performance as the crazed Father Brennan doesnt fit into the world of drab, serious TV dramas.
Damiens best moments are when the titular demon dips a toe into villain territory. There are a couple of the weirdly wonderful death scenes, and the inner workings of the satanic conspiracy also intrigue. The latter are helped enormously by Barbara Hershey, whose hyper-zealous Ann Rutledge is the most interesting character on the show, primarily because we know very little about her or her ultimate goals. The other characters are defined almost entirely by their roles in this sort of story, and by our previous knowledge of The Omen: Damiens estranged ex-girlfriend, her sister, his friend. The writing for them is leaden. No one seriously registers, and Damien himself barely makes a splash.
Spoiler for the Book of Revelation: for all Rutledges entreaties, halfway through the shows first season, Damien has still refused to accept his identity as the antichrist, and is occasionally uncertain of whether or not there really is a supernatural basis for any of the stuff happening to him, including the very obviously delineated 666 birthmark on his head. This is narrative treading water of the sort that afflicts all sorts of shows the very premise of the show promises Damien as the antichrist, and until he starts flashing the evil grin, Damien will just seem limp. Its also the source of a boring moral problem the question of whether Damien will end up being a good person, instead of the antichrist. But we all know how this ends. The devil doesnt have free will, unless you look from a very odd angle.
Foxs Lucifer is, perhaps, the farthest a TV depiction of evil could get from the self-serious Damien. Where the young adult antichrist experiences a great deal of angst over his demonic nature, Lucifer Morningstar (played by EastEnders Tom Ellis) is a carefree devil, who, as the opening titles in the pilot make clear, has literally decided to take a vacation from running hell. The show is, to put it charitably, loosely adapted from the Vertigo Comics character created by Neil Gaiman for Sandman, but it is far more informed by showrunner Tom Kapinoss last series Californication. This version of evil is basically a charming Los Angeles asshole with a not-so-secret heart of gold.
In this treatment, the devil abandons hell and gets into TVs oldest and truest profession: solving murders. Lucifer Morningstar, the fallen angel, starts working with a police detective for no other reason than that he is bored, and likes the thrill of both getting people to confess to their evil desires and punishing them when theyre guilty. (This is, actually, one of the smarter turns in a show about the devil solving crimes.) This devil just seems like the same kind of dick who solves crimes all the time on TV he hates boring people, is good at his job and gets along suspiciously well with children. Maybe its because hes on network TV, but the worst thing Lucifer does really is trade (consensual) sex for therapy. The real villain of Lucifer is Amenadiel, an emissary of heaven whose job it is to restore the former order.
For the most part, Lucifer is simply a different type of formulaic from Damien, but with police procedural beats instead of rough horror and people looking sad. But in many respects, its easier to watch beyond the slowly coalescing story around the circumstances of Lucifers disappearance from hell and the people (and entities) who would have him return, Lucifer takes great pains to remember that, even though its subject is bigger than the world, hes still on TV. The glibness with which Lucifer treats its subject oscillates between dumb and actually kind of entertaining if the devil is to be given his due, it might as well be slick and kind of mindless, a vacation from the seriousness of much of TV.
The best TV devils, then, might be the ones that aspire to the lowest stakes. Supernaturals version of Lucifer is a villain, but not a substantially more threatening one than anyone else who crosses the Winchesters. Futuramas Robot Devil is a delightful fiend, largely because of how much he loves technicalities, and South Parks Satan is primarily an object of pity as he tries to navigate love in the underworld. TV tends to easily catch ideas about subject matter it wont be surprising if a few different versions of Satan show up on the airwaves soon (at the very least, Preacher will have to introduce a devil while making him less scary than the Saint of Killers, the comics ultimate monster). Writers would do well to take notes from the most surprising part of Lucifer, and perhaps the biggest failing of Damien make evil look human.