Review: Damnation 1×1 (US: USA; UK: Netflix)

Poetry trying to be a crime drama

Damnation

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA
In the UK: Will air on Netflix

Over the past decade or so, ever since the arrival of Mad Men on our screens, the US has shown that not only does it have an appetite for home-grown period dramas, it can do them very well. Sure, there have been stumbling points along the way but you can usually guarantee now that any given US period drama is going to be well made and feel authentic.

At the moment, the 80s is very much en vogue in US television programming, but globally, with the likes of Babylon Berlin, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and now Frankie Drake Mysteries, the 20s is where it’s at right now. So kudos to the US for bucking all the trends by giving us Damnation, a co-production between USA and Netflix that’s set in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, despite a very strong cast, Damnation‘s not only quite dull, it also wants very badly to be a western, even though it’s set in the 30s. That shouldn’t surprise you too much, though, given it’s created by Tony Tost (Longmire).

Tarnation

The show is billed as “as an epic saga of the secret history of the 1930s American heartland, chronicling the mythic conflict and bloody struggle between big money and the downtrodden, God and greed, charlatans and prophets.”

Our quasi-hero-prophet is firebrand faux preacher Killian Scott (the Jack Taylor movies, Ripper Street, Strike) who’s going around the mid-west stirring up trouble. It’s the Depression, farmers are having a hard time of it and the banks are squeezing them, so Scott’s trying to start a genuine proletariat uprising against capitalism. Together with wife Sarah Jones (Alcatraz, Vegas, The Path), he’s publishing pamphlets encouraging a violent revolution. Or is he? Because Scott lacks a basic understanding of market economics whereas Jones is smart and very good at typing…

Needless to say, capitalists don’t like the idea of a Soviet United States, whoever’s idea it is. First among the defenders of the free market faith is professional strike-breaker Logan Marshall-Green (Traveler, Dark Blue), who’s brought his Quarry moustache along for the ride. He’s a somewhat lethal, murderous individual who’s willing to do what it takes to stop the revolution before it starts, whether it’s framing someone for a murder he himself committed or getting the only literate prostitute in town (Chasten Harmon) to stab him. However, he has something of a conflict of interests when it comes to Scott (spoiler: Scott is his little brother) so can’t quite bring himself to go all the way with him.

But also new in town is fellow strikebreaker Melinda Page Hamilton (Devious Maids, Mad Men) who’s handy with a rifle and quite happy to stir up trouble between the farmers and the police if it means the end to the agrarian rebellion. She’s also a nifty singer and a bit miffed that her husband’s dead thanks to Scott.

Last of all, we have small town sheriff Christopher Heyerdahl – no stranger to modern westerns thanks to Tin Star – who’s trying to keep the peace but might be out-gunned and too soft for the dangerous individuals he’s up against. He also might have a few fingers in a few pies of his own.

Damnation
Sarah Jones as Amelia Davenport — (Photo by: Chris Large/USA Network)

Poetry

TIf you read Tony Tost’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find that he’s principally a poet, which is Damnation‘s biggest problem – it’s trying to be soaring poetry when actually it needs to be a tight, taut drama.

There’s nothing especially wrong with it in terms of production: it’s got a great cast (Scott is a fine replacement for original choice, Rectify‘s Aden Young), with Marshall-Green and Jones as good as always; the period detail is exquisite; dialogue is fitting for the time; the characters (bar Page Hamilton) are well drawn; nothing is given away too quickly; and the action is good, once it starts.

But everything takes about twice as much time as it needs, as though it’s following some kind of weird meter, with Tost expecting mood to be bursting out of every frame of the show while eagles soar over the biblical metaphors underlying the piece. He’s certainly not putting in any real communist thinking into the story to give us a genuine examination of the pre-New Deal system of capitalism and its flaw, for example.

Instead, we have something a bit more squalid, a bit more interested in what life was like being poor when the poor had to steal to even be able to eat, a bit more fascinated by a lack of civilisation, than something with an interesting story to tell.

It’s all a bit of a waste, really. An intriguing, failed experiment and a window onto a generally unobserved time and place that still has a lot going for it in a lot of areas, but not something that’s either ground-breaking or exciting in its own right.

Here’s a trailer. You know that earlier spoiler? It’s in big red letters in the trailer, too (do you think “from a co-executive producer of Game of Thrones” is a big selling point? I’m not sure it is)