'Damnation' has cowboys, religion, guns, and poetry

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Damnation (Photo: USA)

Damnation is a damnable cowboy drama about labor unions, religion, and revenge, premiering Tuesday on the USA network. Ambitious to the point of occasional incoherence, it wants to convert you more than entertain you. Killian Scott stars as a preacher named Seth in rural Iowa who’s actually a radical labor organizer rallying farmers to withhold their crop to force the local bank to stop unjust practices: “Price-fixin’, they call it,” drawls someone.

If that sounds a tad arcane, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The preacher’s chief enemy is a Pinkerton agent played by Logan Marshall-Green, the actor whom Cinemax robbed of the opportunity to star in a second season of the unjustly canceled Quarry. Marshall-Green’s character is a cowboy strike-breaker, which sets him up in direct opposition to the preacher, with whom he has a secret relationship that is revealed at the end of the first episode, although you will almost certainly guess it long before that.

The show has a large cast, and includes Melinda Page Hamilton as a woman who says she’s a detective but who goes around shooting people most of the time, often while humming merry tunes to herself. She hasn’t interacted with either the preacher or the cowboy in the episodes I’ve seen thus far, so I don’t know what the hell she’s here for yet. The show has been filmed in sepia tones that may remind you of the visuals of another Western, Deadwood. It also shares with that David Milch-created show an interest in ornate language.

Damnation was created by writer Tony Tost, who clearly rankled at the narrative simplicity at his previous workplace, the Western Longmire. Tost, a published poet, packs Damnation with lots of high-falutin’ language, aphoristic-laconic dialogue (“Killin’ is Seth’s God-given gift”), and literary references— the first episode congratulates a young reporter for recognizing a quote from a Wallace Stevens poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream. Pulling down my favorite study of Wallace from my bookshelf — Mark Halliday’s Stevens and the Interpersonal — I see this description of Stevens’ work: “Under the playfulness and the pseudo-philosophical pose of his speakers there are currents of emotion that can be felt.”

This seems to be what Damnation is going for, although it sure could do with more “playfulness.” With its constant chatter about “revolution” and the sins of “the American economic system,” and with the preacher preaching about “the rich versus the poor — it’s the same war Jesus himself was in,” a lot of Damnation feels an awful lot like homework or worse: homework you’re forced to do on the sly while sitting in church listening to a sermon.

Damnation airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on USA network.

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