Television antiheroes don’t get much more arch than the Antichrist. Yet “Damien,” A&E’s new drama, chooses a somewhat unorthodox point of entry into that story, one that hews closely to the original 1976 movie about a demon-seed child (wisely ignoring most of what’s transpired in between), and draws liberally from it, even incorporating clips of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as flashbacks. At the same time, as constructed, the title character and prophesied bringer-of-end-times becomes a rather bland vessel, in a series best consumed without giving it too much thought — a popcorn-style, horror-steeped prelude to the apocalypse.
Developed by Glen Mazzara (whose credits include running “The Walking Dead”) and Ross Fineman, this latest take on the sequel-ized and remade horror staple introduces Damien (Bradley James) as an adult, working as a war photographer with scant memory of his past. Operating abroad, an unsettling incident happens before he returns to New York and is forced to begin coming to grips with his identity.
Damien remains a good-hearted sort, if understandably confused by this flurry of events, which he shares with a fellow journalist (Omid Abtahi). He is also visited by a truly creepy benefactor (Barbara Hershey), who understands his importance, even if he doesn’t.
Of course, she isn’t the only one committed to Damien, which is especially good news for people who train Rottweilers, the handsome hounds that function, almost comically, as Satan’s paw soldiers. The main problem in series form (five episodes were previewed) is the task of slowly teasing out this ostensible re-awakening, while bodies and collateral damage — some of it pretty grisly — gradually mount, drawing the attention of, among others, a suspicious detective (“Justified’s” David Meunier).
“Damien” is certainly ripe with pulpy atmosphere, including a score from “Dead’s” Bear McCreary that draws from Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable chant-filled original. Building upon and embracing the movie, as opposed to rebooting or running away from it, represents an equally shrewd choice. There’s also strong supporting casting, including Scott Wilson as Damien’s politically connected mentor and Robin Weigert as a nun with a knack for exorcising.
At its core, though, the show feels hollow, in part because of the waffling approach to its central character. While putting Damien at the center of a moral quandary has possibilities, as written and as played by James, he’s a relatively passive participant as the action and intrigue unfolds around him. (As an aside, while bashing the press is fashionable these days, making the Antichrist a photojournalist certainly ratchets that up to new heights.)
Notably, the show premieres alongside “Bates Motel,” another A&E series built around an iconic horror movie, with the built-in name recognition and creative baggage that entails. Beyond that, the religious aspects of the narrative create an additional degree of difficulty, although hardly enough to prevent this from potentially being a success by the network’s standards.
Taken strictly on its own terms, “Damien” is mildly fun through these episodes, its flaws notwithstanding. As for whether the show has much of a future beyond that, the devil really is in the details, with relatively little margin for error to avoid lapsing into the kind of camp that would cause A&E’s high hopes for it to go to the dogs.