Set in a small farming community in Iowa during the Great Depression, the central hook of Damnation — based very loosely on actual events from American history — is intriguing. The farmers are tired of getting railroaded by the banks, so they rebel. They strike. Led by a false preacher/agitator, Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), the farmers withhold their crops. Meanwhile, the people with money send in a strike breaker/assassin Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), who comes in and stirs up a lot of shit. He murders a striking farmer and parades his body around a bar for show, and he sidles up with biracial “grifter whore” who reads him his correspondence and slashes notch marks into his torso.
There aren’t exactly a lot of shows about Depression-era Iowa towns in the midst of bloody labor disputes, and I want to give Damnation some credit for originality in that regard, and I see what the series is going for: Some sort of cross between Deadwood and Carnivale, which is theoretically intriguing.
Unfortunately, Damnation is an incoherent display of murder; brooding; and gruff, monosyllabic anti-heroes, none of whom are immediately compelling (Logan Marshall-Green at least has an uncanny likeness to Tom Hardy going for him, but that’s about it). It’s the kind of show that might actually be served well by an exposition dump, and though it would be criticized for it, it might begin to help viewers not only keep the alliances straight, but help us tell all the unfamiliar white people apart.
A lot of bodies drop in the opening episode, and the outlines for what’s about to happen take shape, but the thing is, we’ve seen it all before. Anyone who has spent enough time watching Peak TV can practically map out the first season, and while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being predictable (see Wynona Earp), Damnation doesn’t give any indication that the characters are dynamic or interesting enough to carry it.
It reminds me of a lot of Peak TV series — Manhattan, Taboo, Quarry, Tyrant, and the granddaddy of failed Peak TV series Rubicon — that have all the right ingredients to be a great show, but no ability to put those ingredients together and make something rise. You can mix the perfect cake together, but it doesn’t do a damn bit of good if there’s no heat in the oven, and that’s the situation Damnation is in. Nobody’s turned on the burners.