“The lessons of the fire, as we reach for something higher,” a voice wails as images of flying crows and blood dripping down a rose’s thorny stem flood the screen. “With eyes we’ve all come to know, he’s the devil in Ohio.”
This theme song has a self-conscious ludicrousness that’s ultimately earned by the series it introduces — at least in one sense. Netflix’s “Devil in Ohio” isn’t so great that its missteps end up making sense, but it’s so schlockily unembarrassed by its excesses and its shortcomings alike that it feels difficult to critique.
Here, Emily Deschanel plays Suzanne, a psychiatrist whose particularly challenging new patient Mae (Madeleine Arthur) seems in urgent need of shelter after escaping a cult. Naturally, Suzanne brings her home — and, of course, Suzanne has three daughters (played by Xaria Dotson, Alisha Newton, and Naomi Tan) from whom Mae can be acclimated into high-school life, or on whom Mae can rapidly exert her influence.
The question of what befell Mae in her upbringing, and what cruel lessons she took from her misfortunes, is whispered rather than spoken at first; the early episodes play with Lifetime-movie portentousness, with endless hints that something is, eventually, going to turn bad, if only because people this sunnily bland and sanded of character traits seem destined to have their lives interrupted.
Characters played by Sam Jaeger (as Suzanne’s husband) and Gerardo Celasco (as a detective trying to get to the bottom of just what satanic activity haunts the Buckeye State) float through the proceedings, but no person in this universe ever quite feels real. Mae’s traumas, coming at us in a rush later in the series, are disclosed too hastily to carry much weight, and Suzanne’s own matching memories of abuse feel insufficient to explain her many lapses of judgment and a bit mercenary on the part of the show’s writers. What Suzanne has suffered exists only to make her story make sense, which isn’t novel, but “Devil in Ohio” feels so hastily written that the seams show too clearly.
Which is not to say that “Devil in Ohio” is boring. It has a shamelessness that amused me, as when characters say “Go Bucks!” or “Go Browns!” to remind us where they are. (“30 Rock’s” Jenna Maroney shooting a horror film that doubles as tourist-bureau promotion for the state of Connecticut came to mind.) And its endgame is bleak in a way that seemed like a satisfyingly tidy reversal of the suburban clichés in which the show trafficked previously. But you have to wade through a great deal to get to that endpoint, much of it entertaining for reasons that can’t have been intended.
“Devil in Ohio” premieres on Friday, September 2 on Netflix.