TV Series Review: DAMNATION

TV Series Review: DAMNATION

A brief review of the TV series 'Damnation' (2017)

Across the long sweep of the Iowa plains in 1931 things are not looking great for poor farmers. In fact, they are on strike. The powers that be really don’t like this and are set on getting business back on track. This is the Manichean setting of ‘Damnation’ or possibly Damn nation depending on how you view it and which side you are on. Which side are you on? This is a question posed early in this TV drama.

What helps muddy the waters in answering this question is that while the characters on the side of capitalist evil are clearly very much that, from a Social Darwinist billionaire landgrabber through to his hired private detective agents and a black hooded fascistic terror squad, those we would normally cheer for have murky motives and backstories. The main characters here are Seth (Killian Scott) a priest who is helping organise the strike, his articulate wife Amelia (Sarah Jones) and a deadly opponent who is mostly referred to as ‘the strikebreaker’ (Logan Marshall-Green),who has a bone or two, in fact a number of corpses, to pick with them. None of these people are particularly noble, each has a bloody and complicated past with strong biblical and oedipal elements to them. There are other characters who are in equally thorny situations, such as Bessie (Chasten Harmon) a sex worker who falls for the strikebreaker and Connie (Melinda Page Hamilton) an ice-cold Hitchcockian blonde who is sent into the fray and plays an ultimately conflicted role in events.

Damnation is gritty and doesn’t shirk from the brutal realities of such a scenario. In fact, it is based on real-life events that happened in the time and place depicted. For example, there really was a farmers strike in Iowa in that period and there was a real-life black-robed mob known as the Black Legion. They were an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan and held much the same attitudes regarding socialists, unions, and religious and ethnic minorities. Despite an unadorned tonal coldness that may turn off many viewers, the series does have positive aspects. It is unusual to see this kind of hybrid between Dashiell Hammett (primarily ‘Red Harvest’ springs to mind) and a wild west story set in this time period, the acting is uniformly superb, the landscapes are sometimes eyecatching, it also has strong female and minority characters with real agency.

In terms of minor faults, the body count in some of the shootouts that ensue reaches Tarrantinoesque heights that almost feel fetishistic at times. The main street of the town where most of the action takes place sometimes looks like a set rather than a lived-in location. Elements of the backstories take too long to play out and are somewhat obvious. There are also bits of dialogue that don’t ring true, such as when a Sherriff uses the expression “going forward” in the modern officialise sense of “in the future”. Blues aficionados might also notice the use of the Robert Johnson song ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ played on a victrola in a brothel. The problem being, it wasn’t actually recorded till 1936. These are all small negative aspects of the programme that don’t overwhelm the overall look and feel of it.

Damnation didn’t garner good viewer ratings on American TV and was dumped after its inaugural season. In Aotearoa, you will find it on Netflix. It isn’t perfect TV. Don’t let this put you off though. Many of its themes are sadly still very relevant in the age of Trump.

Posted By

LAMA
Nov 6 2019 06:58

Share


  • "It isn’t perfect TV. Don’t let this put you off though. Many of its themes are sadly still very relevant in the age of Trump."

    LAMA

Attached files

Comments

Black Badger
Nov 7 2019 00:37

i should have liked this show, but i didn't. the writing is atrocious, the production looks cheap, the characters are two-dimensional. it's worse than a potboiler. the portrayal of class war is simplistic; by way of contrast, you can see social tension and divided loyalties at play in Patagonia Rebelde and even in Matewan. damnation is unwatchable.

Noah Fence
Nov 8 2019 20:00
Black Badger wrote:
i should have liked this show, but i didn't. the writing is atrocious, the production looks cheap, the characters are two-dimensional. it's worse than a potboiler. the portrayal of class war is simplistic; by way of contrast, you can see social tension and divided loyalties at play in Patagonia Rebelde and even in Matewan. damnation is unwatchable.

Goddamnit, I was gonna watch this. Can you tell me some generally popular things that you think are shit to see if my rarely met standards are in line with yours?
For instance, Captain Fantastic seemed to be well liked by a number of Libcommers but like your view of this, I consider it unwatchable. It just made me cringe.
And don’t even get me started on Clockwork Orange or Annie Lennox!

LAMA
Nov 9 2019 04:27

It is certainly difficult to 'like' Damnation. I would never defend it unreservedly and didn't do so in this short review. I do think it has some positive elements, such as the character of Bessie, who is far removed from the way a character who is a black sex worker in the 1930s' is often portrayed. Despite the sometimes clunky dialogue, the acting of the main cast is good. As for its portrayal of class war, it is simplistic when showing the side of the capitalists but there is at least some effort to show muddled motivations on the other side. And the fact that it shows events that are at least partly rooted in real experiences, for example, the technique of local farmers attending auctions and buying back the land for the original small farmer, gives it some credibility beyond an entirely fictional story. For myself at least, I find it easier to engage with even sub-standard material that I know has some real stuff in it. Overall, it isn't great but it isn't entirely hopeless. I guess it depends on how much the viewer is prepared to put up with? Personally I was ok to watch it since its subject matter rarely gets to the screen in any form.

I re-watched 'Matewan' recently and the comparison with 'Damnation' is valid. There are similarities e.g. based on real events in a similar time period, a particular regional dynamic, class war expressed partly via a religious idiom, etc. I agree 'Matewan' is overall a superior product and i like a lot of John Sayle's stuff. However, I'm not sure its portrayal of class war is necessarily better. The two agency operatives have a comic book villainy about them much the same way as the 'baddies' do in Damnation, for example. Divided loyalties are a feature of both, though the trajectory of the characters that represent that, goes in opposite directions in the two works. Although there is some attempt to show friction between the ethnic groups in the dispute in Matewan, the resolution of that still seems a bit too smooth, (something that Damnation doesn't really address at all though). Perhaps Sayles felt the need to telescope some of that to fit within the format of a film rather than a series?

I'm not familiar with Patagonia Rebelde. Can you tell me about it?

Black Badger
Nov 9 2019 05:01

https://christiebooks.co.uk/anarchist_films/la-patagonia-rebelde-1974-he...

it's a bit of a potboiler really, some over the top melodrama in the dialog, but the class war is spot on. also based on real events.