TV Rewind: In a Franchise Saddled with Disasters, FOX’s The Exorcist Remains a Compelling Continuation

TV Features The Exorcist
TV Rewind: In a Franchise Saddled with Disasters, FOX’s The Exorcist Remains a Compelling Continuation

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

“Somewhere between science and superstition, there is another world. The world of darkness.” So goes the tagline for William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the 1973 film that ignited fear across the world, but the same sentiment could also apply to the realm of recently cancelled television. It’s a nebulous space, filled by strange ideas and conditioned by malign influences, where shows with multiple seasons are abandoned and forgotten, only discoverable in the dark corners of isolated streaming services. Here is the final resting place of FOX’s The Exorcist, a two-season continuation of the franchise, and directly inspired by William Peter Blatty’s original novel. It’s said that it can only return to the world of the living if it possesses fledgling TV critics to make them say, “Hey, did you know they made an Exorcist TV show…”

The Exorcist franchise can only be described as a demonic mess. After Friedkin’s smash-hit, Irish filmmaker John Boorman was the first to take over the reins with Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film so bad that it is sometimes regarded as the worst film ever made. (British critic Mark Kermode’s favourite film is The Exorcist and least favourite is Exorcist II.) It would be 13 years before another effort was made with The Exorcist III, this time with original author Blatty as writer-director (it’s great!), but by this point, Exorcist fever fervour had well-and-truly cooled. 

Two prequels were released in 2004 (Exorcist: The Beginning) and 2005 (Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist). Why? The studio baulked at Paul Schrader’s original vision and fired him, reshooting nearly the entire movie with Renny Harlin as director. That film was a disaster upon release, so they released Schrader’s original Prequel to the Exorcist anyway. Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen!

But ten years later, the new hot thing was flashy TV, and horror successes like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead paved the way for another go at making The Exorcist a somewhat-not-embarrassing franchise. In many ways, the new TV landscape was perfect to expand on the property: long-form, episodic formats suit literary adaptations, and the character-driven psychological angles to the original film are more welcome on the small screen. It’s why, even though The Exorcist series may be the “least good” good Exorcist entry, its faithfulness to the core ethos of the original deserves praise in a franchise saddled with disasters.

The Rances are a normal but struggling Catholic Chicagoan family. Henry (Alan Ruck!) is living with a recent traumatic brain injury, often zoning out and forgetting around his family members—which is just another stress for his wife, Angela (Geena Davis!). Both of their daughters have recently undergone an upsetting change: snarky Katherine (Brianne Howey) has become a depressed shut-in after a car accident that killed her girlfriend, and younger sister Casey (Hannah Kasulka) has just become possessed by a demon. When it rains, it pours.

Enter not one, but two exorcists. Local parish priest Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera, an underdog in the hot priest championships) and rogue exorcist Father Marcus (Ben Daniels, really putting the daddy in the ‘Our Father’) make a shaky union to fight off a demon that turns out to be Pazuzu, the demon that possessed young Regan in the original film. A coincidence? Not really—as we learn halfway into the first season, Angela is grown-up Regan MacNeil, who ran away from her mother Chris (here, played by Sharon Gless). After the events of the first film, Chris capitalised on Regan’s possession in an exploitative memoir, and Regan fled from being tied to Chris’ version of her story.

Seeing as we are months out from original Chris and Regan performers Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair (reportedly) returning for upcoming sequel The Exorcist: Believer, it’s quite refreshing to see storytelling more interested in fleshing out the world of Blatty’s original writing rather than cashing in on nostalgia for actors we recognise. As we feared from the end of The Exorcist, demonic evil cannot simply and cleanly be expunged from a body, its talons still puncture the skin of those who cross its path or sacrifice something of themselves fighting it. The series is littered with small but unmissable nods to the original series, both in dialogue and imagery, but it’s the bold trajectories of established characters that make for the most thoughtful engagement with the franchise.

Tomas and Marcus make a terrific pair of next-gen exorcists, loaded with flaw, anxieties and a fair share of personal demons. The first season remains a highlight: the family drama is well-observed and moving, the horror feels grounded in character drama, even a conspiracy in the Catholic church (can you imagine?) feels scandalous in the right kind of trashy way. 

For better or worse, today’s audiences have been implicitly trained to identify anything that doesn’t feel “stream-y,” and younger horror fans might squirm at the robust, deliberate style and structure of network TV. But The Exorcist’s rigid form and reliable pacing keeps you pushing through episodes, knowing when to cut the horror teases and get to the exorcist action, and has fun dolling out false hope and fakeouts along the way. For the first time, we really get the sense of how long exorcisms can be—they are endurance tests against the devil himself, and exhaustion and claustrophobia rule the Rance’s home whenever Tomas and Marcus need to bust out those holy rites.

Its second and final season remains a good watch, and especially compelling in its depiction of Tomas and Marcus’ freelance exorcism life, but the loss of the Rance family is keenly felt. Instead, John Cho plays a foster father who runs a home for orphaned and vulnerable children, but despite the more varied and charged character dynamics, the Rance family were nestled in a normal suburban environment and struggling with simmering guilt, repression, and resentment. In Season 2, our found family feels too bluntly sketched out, and much less is left under the surface.

Still, focusing on a different Big Bad possession every season would have guaranteed a gradual and engaging exploration of what was possible within the Exorcist universe, where characters remained the priority—but not necessarily ones we had seen before. Yes, some may find the return of Regan and Chris cheap and exploitative, but even the treatment of the characters feels radical. The show chose to take them to uglier places instead of just venerating their status amongst fans.

Even though it’s just been seven years since its premiere, The Exorcist series now feels nearly impossible in a culture where a franchise outing can’t have modest ambitions, and where the legacy of IP must be kept sacrosanct. With The Exorcist: Believer primed to cash in on the iconography of a franchise that works best as an intimate, chilling relationship drama, it hurts even more that a faithful continuation was cast out so forcefully a few years ago.

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Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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