MacGyver. CBS. Friday, September 23, 8 p.m.
The Exorcist. Fox. Friday, September 23, 9 p.m.
Watching new TV shows, I often wish I could have been in the pitch meetings in which network executives bought them. "Hey, Dave, when The Exorcist first came out, people in the audience puked right in their seats! Wouldn't it be great if we had some of that?" Or: "Really, Mr. Geller, the original MacGyver was so profoundly stupid that Saturday Night Live is still making fun of it 30 years later! It's a natural for us!"
These examples are not, as you have surmised, hypothetical. As the broadcast nets pass the midway point in the rollout of their new fall season, they're offering up two remakes of resurrected video corpses on a single night. All you need is to throw in a frozen Swanson turkey dinner for a complete National TV Archeological Dig Day.
One of these, surprisingly, is not half-bad. I was never a fan of even the original Exorcist, much less its various klunky sequels and prequels. It always seemed to me to be a passel of gloppy special effects wrapped around a meager plot, going for cheap gross-outs rather than genuine scares.
This new television version certainly has its share of projectilized pea soup. But the characters and story, at least in the pilot, are much more finely honed and much less predictable.
The show's surprises are all the more striking because this Exorcist follows, at least in a general way, the framework of its 1973 cinematic ancestor. Alfonso Herrera (Sens8) plays a charismatic young priest in a decaying Chicago neighborhood where his principal duty is raising money to keep his dilapidated church from falling to pieces. The closest he gets to actual theological work is absolving the cats of his aging parishioners for their sins against birds and mice.
One day, though, he's visited by a frazzled member of his flock (Geena Davis), the de facto head of a troubled family. She cites the usual complaints—bitchy teenage daughter, noises in the wall, moving furniture, an unquenchable thirst for the blood of virgin goats (okay, I made that one up, but you know it's coming sooner or later—and then sums up: "It's a demon, and it's trying to take my daughter." Replies the blithely post-Vatican II Father Tomas: "Demons are metaphors."
And it's not just the existence of demons Father Tomas doubts; he's wondering about the whole foundation of his faith. "If you talk to other priests," he confides in an unguarded moment, "they will tell you they heard God's voice. … I never had that."
What he does have are haunting nightmares about a disastrously unsuccessful exorcism attempt by another priest. And when he learns that the dreams are true, he thinks he may be hearing God's voice after all. He doesn't consider the possibility that someone else, much darker, is going to do the talking.
The Exorcist's pilot was directed by Rupert Wyatt, of Rise of the Planet of the Apes fame, and it's photographed in dim tones and silhouettes that lend the show an atmosphere of foreboding and desolation. (Including a couple of shots of priests peering up at the demon's lair from the shadows of the streets below that are definitely an homage to the work of cinematographer Owen Roizman on the original film.) So do the performances of Herrera, note-perfect as the priest whose handsome, friendly mien masks so many crippling incertitudes about his calling, and Davis as the mother holding onto sanity by a frayed thread.
The most interesting thing of all about The Exorcist is that it shares the hardball theology of Fox's Lucifer, AMC's Preacher and Cinemax's exorcism show Outcast. One renegade priest in The Exorcist even resolves his doctrinal disputes with Rome not with an encyclical but a .38. It seems television's era of amiable pseudo-Unitarian clergymen of the Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven stripe is officially dead.
Not that anything stays dead on television these days. If any program has ever had a stake pounded through its heart, it would be MacGyver, relentlessly mocked for all these years on not just Saturday Night Live but The Simpsons. And yet here it is again, clambering out of its coffin.
Just like his 1987 predecessor who lasted seven ludicrous seasons on ABC, Angus MacGyver is an American secret agent who, by virtue of his extraordinary education ("12 first-place science fair trophies, two years at MIT, three years defusing bombs for the military") can make a thermonuclear device out of a bent paperclip and an old corn nut. In five minutes. With his hands cuffed.
In fact, MacGyver (played by Lucas Till, X-Men: Apocalypse) is soooo much smarter than us, his producers have helpfully slapped big bold chyron labels on all the household goods with which he builds Klingon battlecruisers and time-traveling Waring blenders. So yes, that black ashy substance is indeed "SOOT." And that tangle of wires? You guessed it: "ELECTRONICS." Then there are the moments—a lot of them—when MacGyver is boinking one of his chick assistants while whipping up a laser death ray with his free hand. You'll know when the MacGyver audience has reach its target IQ when you see a chyron reading "ORIFICE."