One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Despite landing in a television landscape already inundated with antiheroes, Damien can certainly claim to boast an unusually noteworthy anchor: the Antichrist himself. All grown up almost 30 years after the events of Richard Donner’s 1976 classic, the Satanically inclined Damien Thorn (played here by Bradley James) is now a war photographer, working in the Middle East and constantly putting himself in harm’s way in order to capture the region’s pervasive human suffering. (Why he’s drawn to such a fatality-filled field is a plot point that goes unexamined in the pilot but may well yield some intriguing character development later down the line.)
Having repressed all those nasty childhood memories of murderous parents and suicidal au pairs, Damien lives in blissful ignorance of his supernatural destiny – until, in the midst of an assignment in the volatile streets of Damascus, he’s confronted by an old woman, who grips him and – shortly before getting brained by a brick – gravely intones those infamous words: “Damien, I love you – it’s all for you.” The phrases, followed by some creepy-sounding Latin chants, trigger something in Damien; suddenly, he’s being swamped with flashbacks to his unhappy upbringing (and audiences are similarly deluged with glimpses of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, pulled straight from The Omen).
Back in the U.S., all manner of spooky occurrences further confuse and concern Damien. His estranged girlfriend (Tiffany Hines) is quick to investigate, somehow managing to track down the specific words that old woman whispered in Damien’s ear (surprise, surprise: they don’t bode well for the guy) then dragging a curiously passive Damien to go see one of the world’s leading experts on ancient prophecy, obscure scripture, and other assorted “Beast rising from the pit” gobbledygook.
Needless to say, being around the Antichrist can be hazardous for your health, as said girlfriend and the professor soon discover. Only the mysterious Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) seems to have any idea as to Damien’s much-feared future – but it remains unclear whether she’s friend, foe, or something in between.
Ditto for a pack of carnivorous dogs that begins stalking Damien, dispatching the people around him with brutal efficiency while leaving the guy untouched. The dark designs a group of Catholic priests have on the budding Antichrist are more clear-cut (though the series doesn’t seem prepped to deal with niggling questions of why Damien was left untouched by the devil’s arch-nemeses right up until starting on his supernatural journey).
Only one episode (the pilot) was made available for review, and though the show’s path may become more clear in subsequent hours, that installment sheds precious little light on how Damien is going to work as a series. Otherworldly forces seem set on torturing Damien until he embraces his ultimate destiny, but it’s thoroughly unclear what that destiny is, or what Damien embracing it would actually look like. The denouement of the pilot finds him confronting Christ in a church (one location we know the young Thorn is hardly a fan of), but even that scene fails to give him much autonomy or purpose.
The show has other critical problems, besides the simple absence of a clear path forward. Despite the pilot’s oddball direction (by Shekhar Kapur), the plotting and dialogue are both so silly, senseless, and regrettably self-serious as to be almost entirely suspense-free.
The sheer idea of a series based around an older Damien growing into his demonic future sounds promising, but there’s no indication that anyone involved with the show ever figured out what tone, tack, or track it should take. The presence of Bear McCreary’s immersive score and some creepy imagery would seem to place Damien somewhere within the horror genre, but the show’s not gripping enough to ever frighten, and nothing in its characterization of Damien chills in the same way Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates (another repurposed horror icon) often does on A&E’s own Bates Motel. For all its doom and gloom, Damien evidently wants to work more as a character piece – but James’ less-than-inspiring lead turn lets it down there too.
The writers’ reliance on exposition dumps (most delivered by the poor, pointless Hines character) and consummately clunky dialogue further sinks Damien, releasing any built-in tension the premise of a demonically gifted antihero protagonist manages to build. Plainly put, nothing in Damien‘s premiere makes a lick of sense, from gargantuan leaps in logic to the leaden dynamic between Damien and his doomed girlfriend. Without countless references to and clips from the original Omen, it probably wouldn’t even be possible to connect this new series to that movie’s paranoia-steeped, death-dealing universe.
Behind the scenes, The Walking Dead‘s Glen Mazzara has creator credit, but there’s nothing in Damien‘s aimless premiere to indicate he can craft the same kind of tight, compelling, and plausible narrative he did for multiple seasons on that AMC hit. Hershey convincingly chews the scenery, and there’s a little (potentially unintentional) dark humor to be found in the way Damien’s seemingly devilish Rottweilers sink their teeth into the unfortunate souls who get too close to him. But outside of that, Damien has shockingly little going for it. That a series centered around the Antichrist is this scare-free, weirdly witless, and dramatically inert comes as a deeply unpleasant surprise – not to mention a very bad omen for A&E’s future as a safe haven for horror hounds.