For this month’s installment of “TV Terrors” we revisit FOX’s short-lived “The Exorcist” television series, which aired on the FOX Network from 2016 through 2017.
2023 has been a turbulent year for fans of The Exorcist. Along with the fiftieth anniversary of the original horror masterpiece being widely celebrated, there was the unfortunate passing of director William Friedkin, who left behind an absolutely remarkable body of work. And then there was the release of a brand new installment of the franchise, the first one fans have seen in almost twenty years. But let’s not forget the overlooked “The Exorcist” TV series from FOX.
Studios have taken great pains since the release of 1973’s The Exorcist to find ways to revitalize the franchise, and have often failed spectacularly. But surprisingly, FOX and Morgan Creek did a pretty bang up job when they gave us a serialized primetime TV version of “The Exorcist.” The series succeeded where the other sequels and prequels largely failed.
The first season unfolds in ten chapters wherein we set down in Chicago. Mom Angela Rance (Geena Davis, who is just stellar here), still reeling from terrible accidents that altered her family, is convinced that there is a demonic presence in her house. Worried for her daughters Casey and Katherine, she confronts young Father Tomas, as played by Alfonso Herrera, and asks him to visit her home and analyze the situation. Although the initial investigation proves fruitless, he soon discovers that older daughter Casey is indeed being preyed upon. Uncertain he can prove the possession, Tomas turns to the church that dismisses the events as mental illness.
He turns to Father Marcus, as played by Ben Daniels, who is sure he can lure out the demon. Although it’s more broadly based on the original novel (and the movie to some effect), “The Exorcist” TV series adds more dimension behind the predatory nature of this universe’s demons. Pazuzu (played with cold efficiency by Robert Emmett Lunley) is much colder, calculating, and strategic. He’s also about as sadistic and relentless as ever, delighting in abusing his victims’ bodies inside and out. There is also a secondary arc involving Chicago elites, and a sacred ceremony meant to help incite a new world order that is quite intriguing and lends some explanation to how the demons in this world seep through.
Although the writers do avoid the more gruesome effects of possession like genital maiming and vomiting, the series delivers on some brutally effective scares and gruesomeness, in its own right. The series is more concerned with violence that delves into uneasiness rather than the pummeling of gore. There’s a very effective and grisly scene set on a crowded train where victim Casey literally destroys a male harasser. There’s also a very creepy series of ritual murders set in a lower class suburb of Chicago. This not only sets the stage for the finale, but it also presents a volatile indictment on the media and sensationalism. Furthering the themes, Casey’s relationship with Pazuzu becomes an allegory for grooming as well as a toxic abusive relationship.
The central characters of the series are Father Tomas and Farther Marcus, both of whom feel created in the vein of Karris and Merrin. The dynamic is switched now, though, to where Alfonso Herrera’s Father Tomas is something of an optimistic and young priest, while Ben Daniels’ Father Marcus is cynical, war torn, and has stared pure evil in the face too many times. Season one really does embrace this world very well, even delivering a pretty nifty plot twist mid-season involving Angela and her true identity. While the wheels kind of fall off in the final two episodes, it’s a darn good crash course into this interpretation. Season two is really where the series hits its stride.
Often shows will hit what’s called a sophomore slump, but “The Exorcist” proves it’s aiming for a true narrative with the follow up season. Although there are multiple sub-plots, the series returns with Father Tomas and Father Marcus, both of whom are still butting heads and anxiously exorcising demons from helpless victims. On the other side of the country is Andy (John Cho), a foster parent who watches over a group of kids as well as his agoraphobic daughter. Still grieving over the death of his wife, he struggles to maintain his family when weird incidents begin to jeopardize the peace in the family. Tomas and Marcus are called out to the island where Andy lives to investigate a potential demon lurking about and discover a horrible history in the island.
Season two really is a masterfully told and suspenseful unfolding of multiple narratives. Although I was unsure where any of it was leading, the writers do a bang up job of not only justifying the multiple sub-plots, but clicking them together like puzzle pieces by the final few episodes of the season. Meanwhile, the show runners seemed to be going somewhere alluding to not only a master plan involving demons, but also the evolution of demons as they attempted “Integration”; which would allow the demons to permanently stay in their host bodies without any chance of being exorcised out. This really is a great follow up season with strong performances all around from Cho, and co-stars like Brianna Hildebrand, Amelia Eve, and Alicia Witt.
“The Exorcist” was anything but a cash grab for an established brand name. The producers and writers actually seemed to be going for something richly layered and complex, all the while following two protagonists that were never perfect, and always on the verge of submitting to their darker urges. Tomas especially begins to develop the ability to sense demons in season two which always leaves him vulnerable to possession.
Sadly, despite so much acclaim (the series was nominated for a People’s Choice Award for “Favorite New TV Drama”) and fanfare from viewers, FOX aired the final episode in 2017 and cancelled “The Exorcist” in 2018, ending the show after only two whole seasons and twenty episodes total. For many it was an upsetting turn of events, but it’s not exactly shocking. FOX has never been kind to genre shows with the exception of “The X-Files.” Their shoddy treatment of genre fare is absolutely notorious at this point.
“The Exorcist” was stellar, quality entertainment that deserved so much better. The show was a mix of scary, engaging, emotional, and was ambitious enough to take the core mythology and attempt to expand it. Alas, we’ll always be left with the thoughts of what could have been.
Is It Available to Watch? The complete series is available digitally on Apple TV, Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video, while both seasons are also still available on DVD.