WHAT IT’S ABOUT Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) has been having terrifying dreams. He sees another priest, Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels), attempting to perform an exorcism on a child in Mexico City. Ortega has no idea where these dreams are coming from, or why. Then it all gets a little weirder: A congregant at his church in a small Chicago suburb named Angela Rance (Geena Davis) comes to him with a strange request. She is convinced a demon has moved into her home. Would he mind coming over for dinner one night to render a professional opinion? Needless to say, this show is based on the William Peter Blatty best-seller, but also — of course — on the 1973 movie.
MY SAY William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was a seismic movie event and a cultural one too, but 43 years later, it’s hard to say exactly why. Over the decades, cinematic horror has ramped up considerably (and exotically). Since 1973, we’ve seen everything — much of which we can’t unsee. Demonic possession? How quaint.
Yet that may also turn out to be this Fox series’ best entry point into the crowded horror landscape — or the only one. Make it feel real, make it look good. Lay off the cheese. Keep the religious undertones, but keep them at a respectful distance. And above all, make certain you have an appealing hero, as God’s knight-errant about to enter the field of battle with Satan himself.
On all points, at least in the pilot, “The Exorcist” manages a passing grade, and then some. Mexican telenovela star Herrera has put that background to good use here: With just enough — but not too much — latent emotional turmoil to suggest both spiritual and sexual anxiety, you’ve got your appealing hero. Daniels is just a flat-out good actor (you probably best know him from “House of Cards”) and couldn’t louse up a scene if he tried. Davis, as the mom trying to figure out whether she’s got a typical teenager, or one possessed by a demon, is also good.
That then leaves the troubling thought of a “series.” How can this be stretched out week after week, without injuring what works reasonably well in the pilot? Friday’s opener ends with a decent twist, which suggests creator/showrunner Jeremy Slater (“Fantastic Four”) knows where he wants to go. But this series will thrive — or fail — only by how well it tells the story of those three leads. Get that right, or get them right, and this stands a real chance.
BOTTOM LINE With expectations low, this “Exorcist” surprises with appealing leads, and — a big bonus point — the return to TV of Geena Davis.