Do I Look Compelled?: The Exorcist Television Show

This piece contains spoilers for The Exorcist – the original film and both seasons of the television show.

The Exorcist television show (2016-17) has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, cancelled after it’s second season.  In the same week as passionate fan (but, let’s be more honest – celebrity) intervention saved Brooklyn Nine-Nine from cancellation, a number of other shows were cancelled.  My personal favourite of these is The Exorcist.  While a fan campaign to secure a season three has been in operation since the second season finale, it seemed that The Exorcist always had a shelf-life as far as the network was concerned.  This is not exactly a criticism of the network as I feel fairly amazed by the kind of content we were given in the first place, in the same way as NBC allowed Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal a pretty loose reign in terms of artistic freedom, even if it proved short-lived.

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A #SaveTheExorcist campaign, complete with petition is on-going, but creator Jeremy Slater seems at peace with the decision.  Due to the growth in online streaming it seems more than plausible that The Exorcist could find a new home elsewhere.  Certainly, the second season left numerous threads open to be pulled, including a hint at exploring the content of Legion (including the frankly horrific nurse station scare) as well as expanding from the original Father Marcus and Tomas duo into more of a core ensemble cast.

I have made no secret about what a fan I am of the original The Exorcist film and book.  The book allows for further, internal exploration of the possession, but the film brings the story’s most visceral moments to life.  Each time I watch the film, I’m struck by the smaller details – almost imperceptible during the first watch as the more visually horrific images take centre-stage.  Far from softening the film, these moments provide further emphasis of the horror of the situation.  The plea from ‘an old altar boy’, while at first seeming to highlight the concerns of the material world is turned into chilling evidence of the omniscient and omnipresent evil at work.  However, The Exorcist, largely due to the level of fame and notoriety it achieved has now been parodied to the point that for many, it no longer has an impact.  That familiarity alongside potentially dated special effects mean that the film may have lost it’s power for some.

The film has always remained powerful for me and so the announcement that there was to be a television show addition to the franchise was initially a worry.  An early poster which emphasised the dramatic head-turn furthered this worry that the show would focus more on visual, gory elements rather than the slower-burn, longer-lasting tension.

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The worry turned out to be unfounded and the show soon became a firm favourite of mine.  The TV show did not shy away from some gore and physicality, but made it clear early on that it was also interested in the emotional impact of possession on the family, as well as the exorcists.  This is represented by the infamous head-twist from the film being rebranded as something fatal for the possessed and something which is to be avoided at all costs.  This is shown through the eyes of Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) as a failed exorcism which continues to haunt him.

Father Marcus’ past failures act as connecting tissue between the seasons.  His increasing inability to believe in a God who keeps placing him under immense strain permeates everything he does.  Marcus’ dual nature also plays into this – he is in one breath provocative, and in another, desperately searching for kinder, more successful ways to do his job.  His protege Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) is at the start of his journey, and is struggling with temptation and finding his place in his new role.  The interplay between the two enhances the show, and so much of that is down to the chemistry between Daniels and Herrera.

Despite their charm and the fact that they often carry the action, the supporting characters in each season have been just as interesting.  I did find that Geena Davis’ turn as Angela Rance was a little at odds with other performances in the first season.  While the other actors appeared to be treating it primarily as a domestic drama, Davis was in full horror-movie scene-chewing from the outset which created a slightly odd tone.  This is forgiveable though as her performance does suit the latter half of the season and her scenes facing Captain Howdy/The Salesman is full-force melodramatic horror.

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Of course, it is impossible to talk about the show without including the big reveal within it – Angela Rance is not Angela, but a grown-up Regan MacNeil.  While any ‘new’ take on The Exorcist was always going to be a hard-sell, throwing in a canon-link to the original franchise was even more of a risk.  Thankfully it is one which pays off and adds far more emotion to proceedings.  That last scene within the original film where Regan is moved to hug Father Karras at the close of her ordeal is an emotional moment for them both.  The repossession of Regan speaks to the inescapable evil within The Exorcist‘s universe.  While this would initially appear downbeat, the fact that there are still people dedicated to fighting against that evil adds some balance.

Of course, the television show, with it’s extra time and space to breathe and grow also offers a subplot about demonic possession within the wider church and even the Vatican.  This connects the otherwise very different seasons and provides a ‘bigger bad’ to drive the series.  With Jeremy Slater proposing that season three would have provided an opportunity to time-hop around the increasing threat, while maintaining a close eye on the adventures of the now-separated Marcus and the new team of Tomas/Mouse, it is difficult not to long for that kind of inventive, multi-layered storytelling.

The second season follows a similar pattern to the first in narrowing some of the focus onto one family.  It is a testament to the chemistry of the central Marcus/Tomas partnership that the show is able to move completely from the comfort established in the first season into a totally different location and entirely different characters.  The new family they are required to help could easily have slipped into parody and self-righteousness, given the collection of ‘troubled’ children involved.  Luckily, John Cho’s Andy is both sympathetic and sufficiently frightening when necessary.  All of the younger actors are excellent, but special praise must be reserved for Brianna Hildebrand’s Verity, whose performance feels effortless, despite the weighty material given to her.  The reappearance of Casey Rance late in the season to Tomas in a dream explores the idea of even successful exorcisms returning to haunt the priests, which is an idea with great potential.

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The island location adds a great deal to the visuals, as well as enhancing the isolation of the house and surrounding areas.  Allowing the demons to fully inhabit an area and for that area to be impacted in increasingly fantastical ways fully exhibits what an ambitious project The Exorcist was (and could still be in the hands of a trusting network).  The progression of style and form in the second season was evidence of a show growing in confidence.  An exorcism scene shot almost in the same way as a painting was incredibly effective, creating a beautiful pause within the chaotic scene.

The exciting thing about the show that it’s outwardly straightforward representation of exorcism allows for the exploration of more complex themes of sexuality, guilt and freedom.  In addition, while true, spiritual evil is clearly shown as existing within the show’s universe, it also approaches the more human side of evil.  This was showcased primarily in the second season, where a woman appealing for the help of the exorcists actually happened to be causing the symptoms of possession within her daughter.  The difficult social interactions, investigative work and inherent danger of being freelance exorcists was pushed to the forefront.

I hope that, in time, The Exorcist might find a home with another network.  There is a wealth of material still possible to explore and such a strong base has been created for continuation.  Since I started writing this article, a number of the shows cancelled at around the same time have either been picked up by other networks or their cast and crews have confirmed their end.  I still have hope that The Exorcist has a little more time to consider their options.

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