clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Exorcist TV show is one of the fall’s surprise success stories

The series remembers this story of demonic possession is a family drama, first and foremost.

The Exorcist
Geena Davis (right) and Hannah Kasulka play a mother and daughter torn apart by demonic possession in Fox’s TV version of The Exorcist.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 11 through 17, 2016, is “Chapter Ten: Three Rooms” the first season finale of Fox’s The Exorcist.

Making a TV version of The Exorcist is, ostensibly, a terrible idea. The story from the famous book and movie about a teenage girl possessed by a particularly vile demon is the sort of thing that could fall apart the longer you extend it.

And there are places where that’s true throughout the 10-episode first season of Fox’s Exorcist. For starters, there are way too many exorcisms in this thing — they happen seemingly every other episode and lose a bit of their power as things progress. And there’s a whole mythology surrounding demons and how they overtake human hosts that’s, frankly, a little strange.

But The Exorcist succeeds nevertheless. It’s compelling, inventive, often frightening TV, and everyone involved created something surprisingly rich and thoughtful on a minuscule budget. As the first season finale played out, I was surprised how invested I was in seeing the characters get out of the story alive — even though retellings of The Exorcist usually feature a fair number of corpses.

There’s one key reason the show won me over: Instead of going for broke on horror, it remembered that at its heart, The Exorcist is something you wouldn’t expect. It’s a family drama about faith.

Inadvertently, The Exorcist is a show of the moment

The Exorcist
Alfonso Herrera plays the tortured but fundamentally good-hearted Father Tomas.

Nobody’s watching The Exorcist, so calling it a “show of the moment” feels a bit presumptuous. But it’s not hard to make that argument all the same. Here is a show where the world has gone mad, where every major institution you can think of has been corrupted by the devil, where all anybody can do is simply try to survive.

But it’s also a show about what you do when you’re not sure one of your family members is quite themselves any more. You still love them, sure, but enough to be in the same room with them as they hurl vile epithets at you and/or try to get you to hit your sister in the knee with a hammer, as happened in the finale?

Horror stories always work best when they’re rooted in real, human traumas, and The Exorcist has always had at its center the relationship between mother and daughter — and what happens when that daughter enters adolescence and starts to resent her parents for even existing. That’s a story you can tell without a demon involved at all, but it certainly helps to have Pazuzu (The Exorcist’s main villain) there to ratchet up the tension.

Fox’s version of the series seemingly started out as a riff on the original. Here was Angela (Geena Davis, having great fun with a story so pulpy), a mother worried her eldest daughter, Katherine (Brianne Howey), might be possessed by a demon. But the story added other characters to that narrative, including Alan Ruck as Angela’s husband, Henry, suffering from a slow mental deterioration, and Hannah Kasulka as younger daughter Casey, who, in a twist late in the pilot, is revealed to be the actual target of demonic possession under Angela’s roof.

So far, so good — but The Exorcist is just getting started, piling twist after twist onto its basic story, in ways that both invert and build upon the structure of the original story. (The series takes place in the same universe as the book; to say more would spoil things.) It has a great sense of the line between camp and compelling, and it walks that line mercilessly.

Yet the main reason it works is because those family relationships are so carefully sketched, even in the show’s earliest hours. Angela and Henry are obviously bone-tired from raising two daughters. Casey and Katherine have a relationship driven by simultaneous love and envy. And nobody’s quite sure what to make of the two priests who enter their lives when Angela requests an exorcism.

In the finale, this idea is underlined in one potent shot that allows the show to simultaneously save money and cement its central themes. As the audience hears an exorcism happen dimly somewhere in the distance in the family’s home — complete with snarling rage and thumping furniture — the camera pans gracefully over photos of the family in happier times. This is what stands to be lost.

Can you still talk to a family member who seems to have lost her mind? Can you bring her back? Is love ever enough? This being American television, the answers to these dark queries are mostly “yes,” but The Exorcist leaves room for the notion that something truly awful lurks around every corner.

This is a series that takes religious faith seriously, in mostly convincing fashion

The Exorcist
Robert Emmett Lunney’s work as the demon who moves into young Casey’s head is a big reason The Exorcist succeeds.

Naturally, a story of demonic possession is going to have at least a slight overlay of Christianity, usually Catholicism. The story, after all, is pitched on the battleground between God and Satan at the center of that religion, and the warriors are usually priests armed with prayers and crucifixes.

But in these stories there’s often an attempt to get around the fact that a demonic possession necessarily requires the existence of God and Satan to work, the better to make those in the audience who don’t believe in God feel more welcome. Often, there’s some sort of pseudoscientific explanation, or the demon is cast out because of love, or something like that.

Not so with The Exorcist. From the pilot forward, the TV series lets you know this is going to be a full-tilt, headfirst dive into Catholic exorcism traditions. They’ve been fictionalized, sure, but the broad strokes are there, and the show makes no bones about the idea that both God and devil are very, very real, with the devil constantly attempting to carve out a kingdom on Earth where he might strike back at the one who cast him out of Heaven.

There are full moments in the finale — featuring the final exorcism of the first season (which, I will say without spoiling, is not an exorcism of Casey) — when the series works almost as a straightforward depiction of the struggle to retain one’s faith in the face of such a grotesque and fallen world. (This is, of course, also a theme from the original tale.)

In one late moment, in particular, Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) finds himself knocked unconscious and trapped inside a dream with a demon, who torments him and tries to get him to kill himself, thus consigning his soul to Hell, due to suicide’s status as a mortal sin. (Told you this show was super Catholic!) Tomas struggles, then realizes he’s had everything he’s ever needed to defeat the demon all along: love, hope, and, most importantly, faith. These, of course, are three qualities mentioned in the New Testament as central to Christian faith — and they’re what helps Tomas finally break free from his hallucination.

Or, put another way, there are scenes here where characters pray or go to church or shout the Lord’s Prayer at the possessed body of a family member as it floats eerily in midair, hovering before a backlight, and they’re played unironically. Characters long to catch just a glimpse of God, or feel his power work through them, and they aren’t mocked for doing so.

But the series appeals to horror fans all the same. Its portrayal of Pazuzu as a malevolent concierge who moves into your brain and starts tugging at your synapses seems a little silly at first, but it grows more and more disturbing as the series goes on, thanks to Robert Emmet Lunney’s work as the demon. The series even gets at the almost sensuous feeling that would result from having your mind invaded so intimately. You might never want to give it up.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of silliness in this show, especially when it comes to its demon mythology and its stories about Satan’s plans to take over the world. But the series works because creator Jeremy Slater and his writers never once lose sight of what truly matters in this story: love of family, hope for salvation, faith in the eternal. Amen.

The Exorcist’s first season is over, but it is available on Hulu.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.