Finally, a series about labor disputes set in Great Depression-era rural Iowa!
Damnation, a new USA pseudo-Western debuting tonight, is about dark men doing dark things, and the cost it has on their souls. It is, in other words, a show you’ve seen before, a show you might even be as tired of as I am.
And yet I liked Damnation’s first four episodes, despite the sense that I had seen it all before.
The show is a little too enamored of its bleaker shades, to the exclusion of everything else. In episode three, for example, a Ku Klux Klan member attempts to lynch one character — a white man in a relationship with a black woman — while hissing, “Is this where you got the taste for darker meat?” before the lynching is interrupted because the show isn’t going to kill a main character that early in its run. (This will hopefully give you a sense of what you’re in for.)
It’s also guilty of the belief that “Will these people do a bad thing? Probably!” is a story in and of itself. And you will almost certainly guess the pilot-ending twist long before it arrives.
But at its center is a world and time period that TV hasn’t ever explored as thoroughly as it could, and it’s clear that all involved (but especially creator Tony Tost) have done their research. The same growing pains that nearly all dramas face are clear and evident, but Damnation has a setting and point of view that will hopefully come to inform who its characters are and why we should care about them. I could quibble all day long about the details, but I want to watch more. And that’s all any TV show can hope for in the beginning.
The latest TV battle in the eternal struggle between labor and capital
Damnation is the latest show or film to feel accidentally timely in the wake of the 2016 election (and probably one of the last, given that we’re coming up on a bunch of projects specifically crafted after that election).
Set in 1930s Iowa, Damnation is about a bunch of rural folks who feel overlooked by monied interests out east, or even just the banks at home. With the economy in the toilet, folks are looking for somebody, anybody, to blame, and throughout the show’s first four episodes, the characters dance around the prospect of an outright war between labor (led by Seth Davenport, a charismatic but false preacher, played by Killian Scott) and capital (led by Creeley Turner, a surly strike breaker, played by Logan Marshall-Green).
Once Damnation debuts, you’ll be able to count on one finger the number of shows set in Depression-era Iowa farming communities, and it’s this setting that gives the series much of its juice. The show never feels as desperate as other major TV dramas set during the Depression (especially HBO’s 2000s Carnivále, but also the ‘70s family show The Waltons), but that’s partially by design. The series’ “villains,” such as they are, are those who believe that every dark cloud carries a silver lining. The “heroes” know that no good can come from any of this.
This makes Damnation more intriguing for the fillips around its edges than for its central plot (which is a little turgid at the start). In one episode, a character spends a whole scene monologuing to his dog, like he’s on the old HBO show Deadwood.
I was especially taken with Melinda Page Hamilton as a private detective, ruthlessly dedicated to finding her man, who nonetheless reveals other sides of herself as she tracks her quarry. Again, all of this stuff is stuff you’ve seen before, but Hamilton gives the character a flintiness that’s hard to write off, her line readings almost seeming as if she’s as surprised to be hearing this dialogue as you are.
Damnation is also notable for its look, the way its title appears embossed atop other images (like how it’s almost hidden in a big, blue sky at the start of episode four), or the way its flat, Canadian prairies neatly suggest the American plains.
Where a show like Carnivále aimed for a sepia-toned richness, Damnation aims for better verisimilitude. At times, it reminded me of the ‘70s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory in its insistence that its Depression-era setting wasn’t something that happened back then and could never happen again, but something that is still with us, always breathing down our necks.
It’s rare for an American television show to be as skeptical of capitalism as this one is, and to be sure, it doesn’t seem to believe that capitalism itself as evil so much as unfettered capitalism is evil. But still, slow-moving and enamored of its own darkness as Damnation is, there’s something vital and real in the show’s insistence that the United States’ institutions have failed and are only looking out for themselves. Real change is the change the people make, but corralling the people in the same direction takes more than lighting the spark. It’s hard, backbreaking work, and it’s never, ever over.
Damnation debuts tonight on USA at 10 pm Eastern. I watched most of four episodes. I say “most of,” because I could never get all the way through episode three, thanks to technical difficulties with USA’s screener platform.