Created by Tony Tost. Starring Killian Scott, Logan Marshall-Green, Sarah Jones, Chasten Harmon, Christopher Heyerdahl, Melinda Page Hamilton, Joe Adler. Runs for 10 episodes.
It’s good to see Killian Scott back on a TV screen. While many non-Irish viewers will be unable to distinguish him from any of the other main players on the overpopulated conveyor belt of new dramas on Netflix, he is instantly recognisable here as Love/Hate’s tragic lothario Tommy Daly, one of Irish television’s best known roles while the series was running.
While his contribution there was an almost entirely indifferent one (it was nearly as if someone had challenged him to show as little emotion as possible onscreen), his leading role here requires more nuance, which he handles adeptly. Introduced to us as a preacher, Seth Davenport’s overtly impious actions, as well as his innovative interpretations of scripture, lead one to suspect that he is not a typical man of the cloth.
The drama begins in the cloak-and-dagger fashion that is typical of new series; plot twists and reveals are drip-fed at deliberate intervals. Davenport has organised a strike amongst local farmers in the Iowa town of Holden, in which this show is largely set. Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green) is the man entrusted with the job of ending the strike, and is thus referred to mainly as the “strike-breaker”. Turner makes his entrance in conspicuous fashion when he murders a striker in cold blood, enraging the inhabitants of the town. The suspicion that there may be a secret link between Turner and Davenport is not left unconfirmed for long.
The theme of struggle between impoverished working classes and an indifferent elite works well in the setting of Depression-era America, but there is little innovation in terms of how it is presented. The striking farmers are a uniformly good-natured bunch, while the bankers and business owners determined to end their strike are stereotypical rich oppressors.
This sharp dichotomy is, regrettably, maintained in the relationship between Turner and Davenport. Turner is rarely allowed to come across as anything other than a bloodless minion of his wealthy employers, while Davenport is tender and altruistic but admirably tough as well. We are left in no doubt as to who we’re supposed to be shouting for.
While Davenport’s character is detailed enough to be believable, however, Turner’s is not. His present-day incarnation is a stony-faced cowboy, who Green tries very hard to turn into Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant from Lawless. A series of flashbacks shows us that he was once a much softer sort, incapable of doing harm to others; by the apparent standards of the day, a wimp. The contrast promises some sort of diverting subplot regarding his transformation into an unfeeling killer. This promise remains unkept, however, and we are left to conclude that Turner’s character must simply have changed by magic.
Many of the supporting roles are equally one-dimensional, as well as poorly acted. While Tost has failed to produce a compelling character-driven drama, however, he has succeeded in taking an elegant snapshot of the heartland of 1930’s America. The bleak settings are captured in a visually stunning manner, and the soundtrack builds its atmosphere beautifully. We are made to understand the harshness of existence for ordinary people of that generation, and we get a heartfelt (if somewhat one-sided) reflection on their plight.
It has been reported that Damnation will not be recalled for a second season, probably due to poor performance in terms of viewer numbers. If you are the kind of person who does not warm to open endings, then you may not wish to invest your time in this show, as these ten episodes were obviously not intended as a standalone production. If that doesn’t concern you, however, rest assured that there are far worse creations on Netflix than this.