What Makes a Hit? Why Godless Got the Attention Damnation DeservedPhoto: Chris Large/USA Network TV Features Damnation
“The farmers’ plight is just… sad. It’s difficult enough for people to live through an actual depression, without being subjected to its printed equivalent.” —Damnation’s corrupt and ambivalent newspaper editor, describing the key obstacle of the very show he’s on
The first season of USA Network’s strike vs. strikebreaker Depression-era shoot-em-up, Damnation, concluded last week. You probably had no idea. I knew I was going to be writing about it, and even I had no idea. It just sort of… happened. Look, there’s a lot of television on these days. How is anyone supposed to keep track?
I don’t mean to be flip: Obviously, I am supposed to keep track, but in general, there is a lot of television these days. And it’s not just that there is a lot of television, full stop—there is a lot of good television. There is so much good television that, even as a critic, entire series—good series—will come and go without managing to make an impression. Somehow Survivor’s Remorse reached four seasons before I knew it existed; Lovesick and Red Oaks each hit three. The Bold Type is custom-made for my tastes and airs on the only network to host appointment television for me for the last five years (RIP Mona Vanderwaal), and even then I didn’t know it existed until the week after it premiered.
That said, I would bet whole nickels I could ask any number of non-television friends if they’d ever heard of any of those shows, and they’d all get at least one yes.
I know from trying that Damnation, which premiered two weeks before Netflix’s tonally similar cowboy justice joint Godless did and had the critical darling Mr. Robot as a programming partner, elicits no yeses. “You heard about Damnation?” I spent the last several weeks asking anyone who’d listen. “What’s that?” they’d say. “How about Godless?” I’d ask next. “Oh, yeah, the one on Netflix?” they’d nod.
Or if you prefer harder data: Godless has a Metacritic score of 75, with 25 critics reviewing throughout the month following its Nov. 22 release. Damnation, meanwhile, has a Metacritic score of 57, with only 15 critics reviewing, none later than its Nov. 7 release.
On its face, this makes zero sense. Boiled down to their most basic, both of these shows are cinematically sweeping, muted American (Mid)West grimdark period pieces about deep-seated and variably complex grudges between two men with a half-secret familial bond and the tough-as-bootleather women who endure and occasionally partner with and love them. Both feature so much shooting and blood, in that way that is meant to be entertainingly, edgily horrifying (you know, rather than just legitimately horrifying). Even without the fact that Godless only promised to focus on the most subversively progressive lady-centric angle of its story before falling back on its good man vs. bad man patriarchal Western tropes—down even to the twang-for-twang framing of its Deadwood dopplegänger opening credits—while Damnation actually followed through on its promise to interrogate the corruption of capitalism and racism and the gulf of messy morality between what is good for the individual and what is good for society—its own credits, notably, are restrained to a singular and thematic blooming of the title in the background of the climactic moment of each episode’s opening scene—the two shows should have found similarly fertile cultural ground to take root in.
Well, I have some theories. Some really dull, prosaic theories. Namely, that name recognition tops ambition, streaming is the new prestige, and a Western in an all-women mining town sells better than striking Iowan farm workers.
While Damnation came out of the gate so self-assured that its commercial breaks aired in letterbox with a countdown clock to the show’s return in the bottom corner, the only stars its promos could offer were Trey Atwood from The O.C.; not Cillian Murphy; the criminally underappreciated Sarah Jones (The Path, Vegas, Alcatraz); and future star Chasten Harmon (Elementary). Godless, meanwhile, stars Will McAvoy and Lady Mary Crawley and the drummer kid from Love, Actually and had Steven Soderbergh attached as EP. The average viewer only has so much time; given two very similar offerings, of course they will pick the one with Michelle Dockery.
Time-crunched critics, for their part, are apparently more wooable by a Soderbergh EP credit than they (we) are by the fact that Damnation was created by genre-trained Longmire alum, Tony Tost, and had a woman of color, Houdini & Doyle’s Nazrin Choudhury, credited as supervising producer, and had gender parity in both the director’s chair and the writers room (3:3 for each).
Beyond name-chasing, people—critics and audiences alike—are kind of snobs, and definitely lazy. Premium cable productions get the buzz and critical acclaim and think pieces, to the point that prestige became a label just to describe shows basic and extended cable couldn’t ever muster the budgets for (hi, I’m a crank). But now streaming is ascendant and Netflix is aiming to fill half its library with original content and why would anybody turn on USA when Netflix is right there and anyway, you just ran out of Stranger Things and The Crown? I only turned on USA recently to watch Psych: The Movie and was confounded by the balance of high quality drama, procedural marathons, and WWE. Like any extended cable network, it is not an easy channel to stay on. Netflix, on the other hand, is almost impossible to stay off.
But even if USA were easy to stay on and thus easy to be served promos for something like Damnation, a farm workers’ strike in the 1930s, led by a cassocked preacher and fomented by (excuse the pun) small potatoes farm auctions, is absolutely helpless when put up against the righteous victory of gunslinging widows set to a pulsating rendition of “Bang Bang,” no matter how misleadingly driving the soundtrack to Damnation’s trailer is.
I won’t lie and pretend that I got into Damnation immediately. The first four episodes—the very episodes provided for review in advance of the premiere—are slow and overly convoluted, refusing to reveal the connection between Seth (Killian Scott) and Creeley (Logan Marshall Green) that drives the show’s ultimate emotional arcs, and the whole season has entirely too much gun death and blood for not just my taste but my estimation of what makes a well-told story. But the Great Depression’s vicious class struggles, down to the dumbly surprising ubiquity of our country’s white supremacist undercurrent, are leagues more compelling and relevant than any straight-up Western could possibly be right now. I have no idea if a second season will be ordered, but nevertheless, if you are looking for something with the intensity and flavor of Godless, but that will keep its promises to challenge the status quo and as a bonus will not feature one single rape, give Damnation a shot.
If nothing else, trust the Metacritic user ratings: according to everyone who’s not a critic, both shows average a 7.6. To quote user bucaneiro, “after 5 episodes i can say this is Games of Thrones of 1929. Very tense and keeping the trill.”
Who can argue with that?
The first season of Damnation is available on demand at USA, or on the USA app.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She
can be found @AlexisKG.