I liked the Fox’s take on “The Exorcist;” I just didn’t love it the way that I thought I would.
It has a lot going for it. It’s easily the most intelligent horror show on television — its characters and plotting are detailed, thoughtful and well developed. It actually occupies the same universe as the classic 1973 and 1990 horror films. (We won’t mention the 1977 abomination here.) And, like those movies, this is a skilled, methodical screen adaptation of the universe imagined in William Peter Blatty’s source material. (This show establishes its continuity with the movies in ways that are interesting and surprising, too.)
The script takes archaic theology and otherworldly events and makes them seem plausible in its real-world setting. It also succeeds in giving a distinct and frightening voice and personality to its demon. I was impressed — I’ve seen a lot of movies with this plot device, but I’ve never seen this kind of antagonist so fully realized into a distinct character. This owes a lot to Robert Emmet Lunney’s outstanding portrayal as the demon personified.
The rest of the cast is also roundly excellent. Geena Davis shines as the mother of the afflicted girl; I had no idea that she was this good of an actress. So, too, does Alan Ruck, who stars as her kindly father who is affected by a traumatic brain injury. Ben Daniels is also very good as the experienced half of the duo of priests who serve as the story’s heroes. By the end of this first season’s ten-episode arc, both priests seemed like three-dimensional characters that I could like and root for. I was impressed again — priests in stories like this usually tend towards stock characters, and I can only imagine that it would be challenging for a screenwriter to make them relatable to the average viewer.
Why didn’t I love “The Exorcist?” First, the show’s story elements felt too familiar. Once again, we have a possessed young girl, a desperate mother beseeching the church for help, and a pair of priests, one of whom is experienced and one of whom requires instruction. Once again, we see that the personal lives and the metaphorical demons of both clergymen can be used against them. Once again, we find the girl secured to a bed while the story’s protagonists pray and shout at her possessor. I do realize that these tropes are to be expected. (This is “The Exorcist,” after all. Do we really expect the writers to not depict an exorcism?) I can’t deny, however, that my attention wandered.
Second, it was sometimes too slow for me. I do understand that the show’s creators are probably being faithful to the storytelling pace and style originally established by Blatty, as well as William Friedkin, the director of 1973’s “The Exorcist.” (Blatty actually wrote the screenplay for that seminal film, two years after his novel was published.) The tension sometimes builds slowly in its realistic milieu, and events gather momentum over the course of the story. The show also goes to great lengths to offer us more than its boilerplate exorcism story. (There are some major demon-related events happening elsewhere in its troubled setting of Chicago.)
Still … I again found my attention wandering. I might have enjoyed this more if it were edited down to six episodes instead on ten. And I can’t write a glowing review for a show for which my interest occasionally waned. (Admittedly, I have a terrible attention span when it comes to TV shows.)
All things considered, I would rate “The Exorcist” an 8 out of 10 for being a smart, grown-up horror series, even if its slower pace and familiar story elements detracted slightly from my enjoyment of it. I would recommend this show — especially to those who enjoyed the better “Exorcist” movies.