Damien, A&E’s sorta-sequel, sorta-spinoff of essential-viewing Satanic Panic creepshow The Omen, arrives replete with ill portents. A lot of these manifest in a straightforwardly literal form, such as a black “666” marking that appears on the scalp of the antichrist like a stick-and-poke tattoo, or a sinkhole that abruptly opens up to swallow up an unfortunate peripheral character. These are all identifiably bad signs, and yet the worst sign of all is when the most effective scenes in the pilot episode of Damien all happen to be flashbacks to scenes from The Omen. Likewise, this weak pilot marks the remainder of Glen Mazzara’s (best known for his work on The Walking Dead and The Shield) program as an offspring just as unholy as Damien himself, having unnaturally budded off of a far more powerful entity.
In the years since the events of 1976’s The Omen, Damien Thorn (Bradley James) has grown into a ruggedly handsome war photographer, with nothing to hint at his true nature as a vessel of evil other than highly processed flashes of painful memories. We’re informed that he’s 30 years old, which raises the question as to how someone who was a child in ’76 could possibly have only aged about 25 years over the course of four decades. It’s possible that his demonic heritage could somehow decelerate the aging process, but then Damien would certainly have some kind of inkling that something’s not right, having noticed that he’s apparently exempt from the ravages of time, and so his shock in the total-recall realization that he’s bros with Satan wouldn’t make much sense. This might seem like a persnickety point to get hung up on, but Damien is a dull TV show, and so it’s difficult not to pass the pilot episode’s 43 long minutes by wondering about the mechanics of aging for the Antichrist. Could the relevant properties of his DNA somehow be isolated and repurposed for a skin rejuvenation cream? (Damien producers: this is a primo opportunity for merchandising tie-ins with Olay, Neutrogena, and the like. “Skin so smooth.. it’s sinful.” You can have that one for free.)
In essence, a pilot is a pitch for the rest of the series, its only raison d’etre to convince the network heads, and then the audience, to want more. Damien‘s most damning misstep, then, is to fritter away so much of this brief window it has to ingratiate itself with the audience on table-setting and throat-clearing. The show really only gets going in the final two minutes, as Damien starts to recognize the nefarious forces swirling within him, and the show’s base conceit of “Son of Satan embraces his repressed potential” begins in earnest. Prior to that, the writers awkwardly insert little jabs of horror, mostly in the form of a crotchety old crone who follows Damien through years and across continents. Mostly, however, we meet people who say much but appear to mean very little, marking time until the devil inside can get out. A potential romantic attachment unceremoniously departs the show, paving the way for a second, evidently interchangeable potential romantic attachment. Living treasure Barbara Hershey somehow got roped into this, forced to put on a brave face while making vague utterances about “the beast” and other Satanic miscellanea. As the title hellspawn, British-born James gives it the old college try, but doesn’t come up with much menace, charm, or magnetism. It’s probably not his fault that he looks very funny when he tries to cry.
Even with the nauseatingly typical grayish colors on the show’s pallid palette evoking just about every horror movie released since 2000, it’s easy to forget that Damien wants to be scary. It lurches uneasily between the ambient-dread and balls-out gore modes of fear, the pressurized jets of blood coexisting uncomfortably with the atmospheric chill. Not only does the show refrain from fully committing to one or the other, but it doesn’t even half-commit to both — Mazzara would rather explore Damien as one of those internally conflicted antiheroes that someone told him were in vogue as of late. One would expect that having Satan as a roommate in your brain would be a worthy cause for inner turmoil, but James is incapable of expressing that in any way other than clutching at his temples, wincing, and the occasional heaving sob.
There are brief moments when Damien inspires the same spinal tingles that first afflicted audiences in ’76: the droning choir of demon-tongued chanting, the horrifying sight of a woman hanging herself with a smile in broad daylight off of the roof of a building. Except, wait, those were both clipped and pasted directly from the original film. (In a small miracle of licensing, Gregory Peck makes a cameo appearance through the black magic of archival footage.) This flavorless, zombified rework of a horror classic can’t muster a fifth of its predecessor’s flair for blood-curdling frights — say what you will about Satan, at least the guy’s got panache.
Damien premieres Monday, March 7 at 10 p.m. ET on A&E.