Bleak and nasty, “Damnation” brings a “Mr. Robot” vibe to the Depression era, wrapping class warfare and hostility toward wanton capitalism in a drab, dusty package. The result is a bracing look backward informed by present-day parallels, in another show that feels like an outlier for USA — one that should have critical admirers but might struggle to satisfy TV’s capitalist demands.
HBO’s “Carnivale” is among the dramas that have taken a stab at this period, and that was filtered through a supernatural prism. By contrast, “Damnation” is mired in realism, even if the motives and backgrounds of its characters remain purposefully opaque in the early going.
Set in Iowa in 1931, the story centers on Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), who is masquerading as a rabble-rousing preacher. His real objective, however, is to rally workers against the moneyed status quo, leading a farmers’ strike.
Those plans, however, are dealt a setback with the arrival of a paid strikebreaker, Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), hired by a wealthy industrialist to quell the dissent. The increasingly bloody jockeying also involves the local sheriff (Christopher Heyerdahl), whose true motives, like almost everyone else here, are suspect.
The ’30s provide a jarring backdrop to all of this discontent, a time when making reference to a “Bolshevik uprising” actually wasn’t all that long ago, and the action unfolds with a western vibe, where people are as apt to get around on horses as in cars.
The performances are fine across the board, with Marshall-Green possessing more layers than your average gun-toting enforcer and Scott having the looks of a potential star, bringing a kind of quiet intensity that recalls David Caruso back when “NYPD Blue” premiered.
For all that, “Damnation” feels like a very narrowly pitched offering, one more suited to the outer reaches of FX or premium cable/streaming. While USA has sought to broaden its profile, tepid tune-in for “Mr. Robot,” the accolades notwithstanding, suggests that strategy faces some hurdles. (Netflix, notably, will have distribution rights to the program outside the U.S.)
Created by Tony Tost (“Longmire”), “Damnation” definitely deserves credit for guts and grit, and the plot moves pretty briskly. Yet with the show’s ambitions comes an old-fashioned capitalist conundrum: when marketing a concept that looks and sounds like a tough sell, the devil’s in the details.
“Damnation” premieres Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. on USA network.