USA Network’s Damnation takes the oldest story in the book – the little man against The Man and updates it to dustbowl Iowa, landing it in at number seven on my list of favourite shows of 2017.
The bleak, prohibition-era series, set in 1931 to be precise, centres on two brothers with similar murderous methods on opposite sides of the labor movement. And after the more fantastical Preacher and American Gods, it makes for a breath of authentic Americana.
This preacher, Seth Davenport – one of many aliases – is not all he seems; he and his beautiful wife, Amelia have spent several years travelling The States playing modern-day Robin Hoods (with a touch of Bonnie and Clyde) trying to start a blue-collar uprising against the rich, the powerful and the elite. In this case, banker Calvin Rumple, who looks uncannily like Conan O’Brien.
Seth, played by the brilliant young Irish actor, Killian Scott (Love/Hate) is a gifted, Bible-quoting orator who keeps a gun in his pulpit.
The delectable Amelia (Sarah Jones – Alcatraz) is a talented writer and pamphleteer in the age old American tradition of Thomas Paine. It’s no wonder the show features a genius wordsmith – Damnation is the brainchild of poet and Walt Whitman Award winner Tony Tost while James “Wolverine” Mangold produces.
Seth’s brother, Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green – Prometheus) is in the employ of another American stalwart – The Pinkertons; Creeley is a man out of time, a cowboy dinosaur that should have become extinct half a century years hence, but he makes an excellent enforcer and agitator for the anti-communist mob. The two brothers don’t come to blows in the pilot, but they seem physically matched for when they do eventually slug it out.
The pilot begins and ends with murder and crucifixion and has everything you could ask for in between. Political intrigue, crossed picket lines, strikebreakers, betrayal, sex, whores, guns, profanity (mouths drop when Seth says “fucking” in church at a funeral) a curious investagative journalist and stunning Albertan landscape doubling for quasi-dustbowl, depression-era rural Iowa.
Throw in Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels, Tin Star) as Holden, Iowa’s moonshine racketeering sheriff, Melinda Page Hamilton as Connie Nunn – the widow of one of Seth’s victims bent on vengeance and the highly watchable Chasten Harmon as mercenary prostitute Bessie Louvin and all the agents of disorder are already circling our antihero, making for compelling, if slowburning, viewing.
Damnation shares many similar themes with one of the greatest shows ever made – HBO’s Deadwood. Both shows feature protagonists named Seth, torn between violence and goodness and determined to save a community by any means neccesary.
Both show’s town centres are muddy thoroughfares, feature a brothel, a line-up of sassy, intelligent, grifter whores and a haunting, banjo-laden score.
At its core, Damnation is the story we’ve been telling for millenia –capitalism versus socialism and, in the light of Trump and his country’s brewing civil war, never has America needed this cautionary tale quite so much. Will it make a difference? No, but by the end of the first hour, you’ll want to down tools and stick it to Team Coco, too. It’s only Common SenseCommon Sense.
Damnation will probably never hit the dizzy heights of HBO’s much-missed Deadwood, but I can see it becoming an underrated cult classic.
Damnation airs on USA Network on Tuesday nights. A Deadwood feature film is looking more and more likely.