“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again” seems to be the guiding philosophy of Damnation, a new USA drama debuting tonight at 10. (I’ve seen the first four episodes.)
The series is on the surface about a farmer’s strike in a small Iowa town in the 1930s, and the two men — activist preacher Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), and mercenary Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green) — on opposite sides of it. But creator Tony Tost (Longmire) is using this pulpy and violent Great Depression yarn in part as a commentary on the current state of class conflict in these united states, and how the wealthy and powerful in any era are inclined to do whatever’s necessary to keep the wealth and power for themselves.
But just as Damnation insists on showing how conflicts of our distant past continue to echo in our present, so too is it insistent on showing how TV storytelling cliches of the more recent past can echo into series made in the present, and be bent and shaped to fit any kind of story, with any setting.
It’s beautifully shot, and it has some compelling performers, often given meaty material to tear into. But it’s also Cable Drama’s Greatest Hits, now with added Thirties flavor.
There are inconvenient corpses to dispose of, brothers who come into combat with one another, and elaborate montages accompanied by thematically-resonant monologues. There’s a scene where one character draws a gun in mid-coitus to point it at a rival, which is Peak TV Bingo right there — and if it’s not, then the moment where Seth intones, “I’ve done wicked things in this world, and every day I’m trying to make up for that” is.
The actors mostly make it work, though. Scott was a late replacement for Aden Young, and while I’d love to see the Rectify star apply his soulful intensity to the role of a gun-toting man of the cloth who’s not quite what he seems, Scott brings his own charisma to the role, even if his native Irish accent tends to poke through whenever Seth gets too full of righteous fury at the bankers and white supremacists who are working to keep a lot of decent, hard-working men and women down. Marshall-Green, of Cinemax’s late, lamented Quarry, feels almost overqualified for the part, which works to the advantage of a character who’s meant to be craftier and more deadly than any 10 men. And they’re surrounded by an interesting cast of supporting actors, many familiar from other recent anti-hero dramas: Sarah Jones (Sons of Anarchy, The Path) as Seth’s wife Amelia, Christopher Heyerdahl (the Swede from Hell on Wheels) as the town’s corrupt lawman Don Berryman, and Melinda Page Hamilton (Anna Draper from Mad Men) as strikebreaker Connie Nunn, among others.
As Seth tries to help the farmers get what’s theirs while the men in power turn the likes of Creeley and Connie against them, Tost and company do a nice job illustrating all the people in the story — usually women — pushing up against barriers that go beyond economics. Creeley picks up a sidekick in biracial prostitute Bessie (Chasten Harmon), who’s pleased just to be around someone who sees her as a person. Local madam Della (Nola Augustson) favors men’s suits and ties, Amelia adopts a masculine pen name to further her own activism when she knows her intended audience won’t listen to her, and Connie takes advantage of her wholesome blonde looks to be a more effective and ruthless assassin. The men dominate the story because of the era and the type of show this is, but the women feel much more complex and original.
It’s often predictable and to the grimdark end of the Quality Drama tonal spectrum, but the period itself is fairly novel (Carnivale was over a decade ago), and it plays its familiar tunes with brisk competence. All this has happened before, and it’s happened much less effectively than on Damnation.