Hulu’s Helstrom is, in the most basic sense, a show that’s searching for a reason to exist.
Before the decision was made to consolidate all their small-screen programming on the more family-friendly Disney+, Helstrom was meant to anchor a new corner of the Marvel onscreen universe, one centered on characters from the comics’ horror and supernatural verticals, in much the same way that Daredevil kicked off a small sub-universe of street-level crimefighting shows on Netflix.
But with the company’s decision to rededicate their live-action television efforts to expanding the narratives of characters already familiar to fans of the existing feature films (see WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), there’s less and less place for these sorts of offbeat stories with their unfamiliar settings and third-tier heroes. It’s hard to come up with a merchandise line about a guy who may or may not be the son of Satan himself, I suppose.
As a result, after the finale of Agents of SHIELD earlier this year, Helstrom is, oddly, the last Marvel Television series left standing, virtually arriving feeling as though it’s already overstayed its welcome. The forgotten stepchild of a universe that’s pretty much moved on without it, if you didn’t know going in that this was a Marvel property there’s almost nothing in the show itself to tell you.
Gone is the copious branding that litters other properties like SHIELD or Daredevil, and the characters share little in common with their comics counterparts beyond (pieces of) their names. The show itself is completely divorced from the larger onscreen Marvel world, save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Roxxon sign that will make fans miss the far better (though now also canceled) series Runaways and Cloak and Dagger.
More troubling is the fact that Helstrom itself has no sense of identity as a series, and little ability to make a persuasive case for its own existence. Occasionally, it seems meant to be an irreverent, adventure-style romp like Netflix’s Lucifer, snarking at the idea of faith even as it acknowledges the reality of angels and demons. Sometimes, it’s a dark procedural with an assortment of disturbing visuals and exorcisms that directly channel CBS’s (much better) Evil. In still other moments, it’s a serial killer drama about bad dads and the damage we do to our children, a la Prodigal Son.
The thing is, plenty of shows miss the mark of what they were aiming for, narratively speaking, and somehow still manage to be occasionally entertaining to watch despite the mess that results. (Hi, Netflix’s Ratched, I am looking at you.) Helstrom, despite its theoretically edgy subject matter, ends up committing television’s cardinal sin: It’s boring.
Ostensibly, Helstrom follows the story of two siblings, Damien and Ana Helstrom, who are the children of a mental patient and a serial killer, one who also happens to be vaguely supernatural and probably a demon to boot. The depth to which this series is uninterested in defining what flavor of terrible the Helstroms’ dark father should be branded as is honestly kind of hilarious? But since the show doesn’t care, that means we really don’t have to either.
Anyway, Daimon (Tom Austen, doing his best Tom Ellis impersonation) is a sad exorcist with ill-defined special abilities that include telekinesis and cleansing possessed souls with fire. He’s also an ethics professor and appears to spend most of his free time trying to figure out how to help his mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), who was committed to a mental hospital when he was a child. His much more interesting sister Ana (Sydney Lemmon) is a stylish antiquities dealer who loves incredible slim cut suits, asymmetric hairstyles, and killing the sort of dark-hearted billionaire tech eccentrics who inevitably want to own Genghis Khan’s axe.
This whole show should just be about Ana, is what I’m saying.
Despite its various dark and demonic elements, Helstrom rarely feels like a horror series. Note to showrunners everywhere: Making things poorly lit is not the same thing as making them scary. It just makes you wonder why everyone is apparently fine with sitting around in the dark.
The series’ animated opening credits sequence creates a sense of suffocating dread that the show itself never lives up to, and occasionally creepy visuals like a grinning, possessed Victoria levitating as alarms go off around the mental hospital in which she’s a patient, or Damien conjuring a ring of flame around a possessed boy, simply underscore how dull the scenes are that follow.
The script is bland and formulaic, full of predictable tropes and uninteresting characters. Besides the Helstroms, there’s an apprentice nun (Ariana Guerra) who seems to exist almost solely to reference God and/or the Vatican every once in a while; there’s also the woman who runs the hospital where Victoria’s a patient (June Carryl), has cancer, and knows the Helstrom family is a mess; the family is also advised by a mysterious man (Robert Wisom) known only as The Caretaker, for reasons that are never explained. None of them really have what might be called arcs of their own, or anything approaching interiority. (For instance, I get the sense we’re supposed to care about a decision to refuse chemotherapy treatment for her cancer, but I honestly don’t know why.)
If there’s anything that registers as a ray of light in Helstrom’s humdrum gloom, it’s Lemmon’s performance as Ana, a sly, sharp, vibrant thing that glows brightly against the relentlessly gray background of the show. Her character is an unabashedly queer woman who loves the finer things in life and doesn’t fear her own inner darkness and, as such, exists as something rare and different within the world of Marvel. Her secret mission to take out some of the monsters in the world in some sort of unspoken cosmic payback for her involvement with the serial killer father who raised her as a child—and who she may or may not have helped commit crimes—has just the right amount of twisted weirdness to be interesting in a way that little else on this show is.
Since Helstrom isn’t a particularly good Marvel series, nor does it have much in common with its source material, it’s probably for the best that it exorcises any real connection to the larger universe in which it was initially supposed to exist. But the problem is that it’s not a particularly good horror series, either, and offers little that you can’t find done better elsewhere. Better to let this one—which seems to already know it won’t get a second outing—rest in peace.
Helstrom premieres Friday, October 16th on Hulu.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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