Photo: Fox

Given the pedigree of the actors, the Rance family was never going to stick around long. And by the end of The Exorcist’s first season, they had little reason to, regardless of whether or not the parents were played by Geena Davis and Alan Ruck. Pazuzu was once again defeated and the Rances were safe—if somewhat physically and emotionally broken. Case closed.

But part of what made the season-one finale so intriguing was that, even if it had shut the Bible on its central family, it had opened up a whole new tome on the show’s larger universe. What were the larger plans of the cult? With the possibility of a shifted allegiance, where was Maria going to end up in the grand scheme of things?

While there’s still plenty of time to address any number of those lingering threats, the second-season premiere seems more interested in a reset. Outside of Marcus and Tomas—both dealing with the same human flaws and crises of faith as last season—these are brand-new locations with brand-new characters who need or will need protection from the priests. Half of the episode centers on Marcus and Tomas performing an exorcism on a Montana woman in a barn named Cindy (Zibby Allen), and the other half introduces us to Andy Kim (John Cho), whose five foster kids are prime for some demonic possession of their own.

Even if the barn sequences read as familiar on paper, writer Heather Bellson and Jason Ensler—who fittingly directed the exorcism episode in the first season—add new dimensions to a practice we’ve now seen several times over on the show. Yes, there’s the same old image of a young woman shackled and surrounded by candles—her face tarnished by the rotting teeth and lacerations of a demon. But Tomas adds another wrinkle to the world of exorcisms by wanting to enter the other plane with Cindy; to share her dangerous hallucinations, drive the demon from her body, and convince the intact part of her soul to return to the real world. While Marcus tries to keep Cindy’s police-officer husband and his posse from breaking in, Tomas gets to experience some of the show’s queasiest images yet, namely a piñata filled with a black, bubbling sludge able to birth evil life from its pools.

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Because it centers on brand-new characters, the foster family storyline moves a lot slower, exploring the five kids’ personalities and setting up how each one of them could be exploited by a demon. There’s sleepwalking David (Cyrus Arnold); Caleb (Hunter Dillon), who’s blind and, at one point, is discovered being entranced by a playing a record backwards; Verity (Brianna Hildebrand), a 17-year-old about to age out of the system; and Grace (Amélie Eve), the youngest of the five and perhaps the most inviting to a demon with her creepy pillow masks. De facto leader Shelby (Alex Barima) seems to be the one of the children with the least amount of crippling emotional and/or physical baggage, but that purity in itself could also be appealing to an outside force of evil.

Creepiness abounds during a visit from a Social Services worker who has a romantic past with Andy. But that’s almost secondary to Season Two’s sense of place. Where last year milked its Chicago location for maximum terror, Season Two does the same thing with the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (here, we’re on an island off the coast of Seattle). Skyscrapers and CTA trains are traded out for the misty expanse of the woods, where the kids play on top of a dangerous well and scare each other with tales of an Island Witch.

Compared to Marcus and Tomas in the barn, nothing that could be classified as full-on frightening happens with the foster family. It’s all about laying the foundation for what’s ahead—a slow burn that will likely work out well for a character-driven horror drama. But there’s no denying that the momentum of the premiere plateaus a bit with two narrative paths that don’t intersect by the end of the episode.

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And yet, I’m hesitant to lower the grade of “Janus,” as the priests and the family will undoubtedly come together soon, and it seems unfair to criticize a show for what may or may not happen in its future. What’s more jarring about the premiere is its complete dismissal of the macro universe established by the first season. It’s not that I need The Exorcist to pick up right where it left off, but it’s a bit of a bummer to see the show’s world expanded so beautifully, then narrowed back down to a single family on an isolated island. Even a slight mention of what could be going on back in Chicago would go a long way.

Was the possible do-over the ideal choice of the writers, or did the show have to work with what it had due to actor availability and a late-in-the-game renewal date? Either way, it’s not essential that The Exorcist return to its epic shadow-conspiracy plot to be good. But since it has plenty of time and room to keep exploring, it shouldn’t lose its ambition altogether. Whether on an island near Seattle or with a Satanic cult in Chicago, let’s hope the second season knows that widening a story’s scope can be just as affective as tightening it.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to Season Two of The Exorcist. While we won’t be doing complete weekly coverage, I may drop in right before the midseason break (if there is one) and the finale. We’ll see. I’m just glad it got renewed.
  • Gracie’s love of Elvis sandwiches has me thinking of this. I’ve made it, and it’s delicious. Trust me.
  • Reader poll: Which kid do you think will get possessed? Or, if it’s several of them, who do you think will get possessed first?
  • Maybe I’m being ignorant, but would Social Services send a representative to a foster parent with whom they’ve had a relationship? It seems like a conflict of interest. Couldn’t they just send someone else?

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