The second season of Fox’s The Exorcist started out as a family drama about a grieving father (played by John Cho in easily the finest work of his career) and his five foster kids (including Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand), all with their own tragic backstories. Then a Fight Club-esque twist redefined everything and set the season on path to steer through several distinct phases, progressing through a traditional Exorcist period (i.e., priests shouting over a possessed person’s body and battling the demon within) before taking a shocking turn toward slasher movie territory and finally ending on chilling, supernatural note with eerie visuals lifted out of an Insidious movie. Somehow, it managed to all feel seamless, pack a genuine emotional gut punch and completely top what had already been a stellar first season.
I want to talk to you about all of that, but I can’t. Part of the brilliance of this iteration of The Exorcist is its knack for reinvention, but in that same vein part of the frustration is struggling to convince people to watch it without specifically spoiling the twists which make the show so addictive. A third season, one which promises to branch out of a strictly Catholic-view of possession, may never happen due to the anemic ratings, but the producers accomplished their goal of creating a prestige drama/horror hybrid that just happened to air on major broadcast TV. Their path to doing that, however, meant maintaining an element of surprise which might have ultimately doomed them from the start. If only they could have told us about the twists in the first place more people might have watched, but if they did that the twists never would have worked as well.
This dilemma was actually baked into the show’s DNA. In their recent Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast appearance to promote the now-recently aired second season finale, show creator Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four) and co-showrunner Sean Crouch (Numb3rs) admitted that when first pitching the series to the franchise rights holders (Morgan Creek) and the network (Fox) they weren’t entirely forthcoming with all of their plans. Remember that after the successful 2013 launches of Bates Motel and Hannibal old horror franchises became prime targets for TV reinventions. Friday the 13th, The Omen, Tales from the Darkside, and even The Mist were put through the TV development process. Some made it out of there and onto TV, others died a quiet death.
The Exorcist could very easily have suffered a similar end. Morgan Creek had a very Bates Motel-style take on the material in mind, and Jeremy Slater was just some film screenwriter whose colleagues had been telling him to abandon the sinking ship of big studio filmmaking and embrace the more creatively freeing waters of TV writing. He had an idea to make a character drama first, horror show second, and then twisty serial series third. The twists he had in mind were so significant and so easily marketable he couldn’t tell Morgan Creek or Fox about them. If he did, they would have demanded he put them at the end of the pilot instead of at mid-season.
So, instead he pitched them a franchise reboot focused on two morally conflicted priests (Ben Daniels’ Marcus and Alfonso Herrera’s Father Tomas being the Merrin and Karras of the piece respectively) teaming up in Chicago, increasingly cut off from a compromised, conspiracy-stricken Vatican, and eventually entangled with a beleaguered family of four (led by matriarch Geena Davis) with a teenage daughter who might just be possessed (although we don’t know which daughter it might be at first). It would be a slow burn to combining these storylines because for any of it to matter the legwork needed to be done to establish the characters and make us care about them. As with the second season, a twist would eventually come along to recontextualize everything, but not before we’d been sucked into the drama and the lives of these possibly doomed, but deeply sympathetic characters.
Somebody else might have gone a completely different direction with it. It’s not hard to imagine a CW or CBS version of The Exorcist featuring two hot priests traveling the world and performing an exorcism every week, a Supernatural-lite kind of thing. Slater’s inspiration was instead William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, specifically how much of the film is devoted to build-up instead of jumping into the exorcism as fast as possible. Once his pitch was accepted, he assembled a writer’s room, talked Geena Davis into starring, and mapped out a 10-episode first season.
Then nobody watched.
The traditional ratings, as unreliable as they may be in the age of streaming, showed a loss of a million viewers after the pilot and a gradual shedding of a quarter of a million more viewers across the rest of the season. Citing a desire to invest in and reward quality programming as well as satisfaction with the show’s international and online performance, Fox surprisingly renewed The Exorcist for a second season, which was promptly watched by even fewer people even though it was superior to the first season in every way.
The first season, rug-pulling twist and all, is still fundamentally of a piece with what had come before in The Exorcist franchise. A suburban family going through a frightening ordeal with a teen daughter encounters possible salvation in the form of a veteran exorcist with a troubled past and a young, idealistic local priest who is just becoming aware of the true capacity for evil in the world. The second season switches locations (goodbye Chicago, hello gorgeous Seattle-adjacent island), families (John Cho’s multi-ethnic foster group) and delves deeper into Tomas’ developing hubris and Marcus’ inner-conflict as a bisexual man drawn to service to a God and church which rejects him. At one point, Marcus kisses a man, and the internet briefly went insane over it.
Now, with Disney’s purchase of Fox looming over the entire industry The Exorcist’s future might end up being on some streaming service. Slater and Crouch are devoted to making that happen should Fox pull the plug. It’s but one of many reminders why Disney now owning so much of the film and TV industry is a bad thing for consumers and creators because anything which Fox, the second largest studio in Hollywood in terms of market share, used to do which is not on brand for Disney suddenly has an incredibly shaky long-term future. On the plus side, there’s more of a general demand for content than ever before across the entire industry, but on the downside who gets to define what kind of content gets made when Disney keeps gobbling up the competition?
But I digress.
For now, The Exorcist’s 20 total episodes are on Hulu, and if you have any interest in horror or expertly executed character studies mixed with long-form storytelling you really should add it to your list of shows to binge. For all of Slater’s talk of wanting to focus on the drama first, he also recognized the fans would demand/expect shocking exorcism visuals, and his assembled team absolutely delivered via multiple outbursts of ingeniously staged violence as well as continually intriguing visualizations of possession from the possessed person’s point of view.
After all, it’s not exactly like the world is lacking for exorcism-related horror movies these days. To stand out you have to find new ways to present the same old thing, and The Exorcist absolutely does, including an all-time great episode in the second season set largely inside the mind of someone attempting to reject a demon which will twist memories and reality in any way it has to get to that person to say yes and thus freely give up all power.
So, The Exorcist does not lack for genre thrills nor is it in any way a boring show to watch. The twists make sure of that as they continually keep viewers on their toes. But it’s the drama established at the start of each season which makes any of it worthwhile. These characters have to be in a vulnerable state for the demon to have an opening and that relatable vulnerability will leave you rooting for them to get out of such a monumentally bad situation. Plus, Ben Daniels proves so instantly compelling as Marcus that you’ll pretty much follow him anywhere.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A franchise let down by a subpar sequel and atrocious prequels needed to return to its roots while also feeling of a piece with the more modern horror movie takes on possession storylines. The Exorcist has done all of that more and remains an underappreciated gem in this current golden age of horror. It’ll be months before we know if there will be another season, and much like Marcus and Tomas the show’s creators will continue fighting to the bitter end. That should give everyone ample time to catch up with the series on Hulu.