Helstrom

3 out of 5

Created by: Paul Zbyszewski

covers season 1

As I see more positive reviews roll in post the initial wave of bad press, I think others are discovering what I did about Hulu’s Helstrom: that it’s a pretty good show. Not a great one, sure, and admittedly less stylistically or thematically bold as the first seasons of the other Hulu Marvel series, but a better show than the average TV crop, and much more consistent than Runaways managed to be. That consistency is actually the show’s strongest suit, carrying it beyond its vague Big Bad and light lore.

Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon play Daimon and Ana Helstrom, estranged brother and sister, living quite separate lives after a tumultuous childhood with a serial killer father and a mentally unstable mother. Daimon has taken up teaching and caring for their mother; Ana is a high-rolling antiques dealer… and sidelines as a sort of vigilante, using her powers to off the baddies of the world. …Powers? Ah, yes, one of Helstrom’s less defined elements: daddy was actually a demon; now a demon is possessing mommy; and brother and sister have inherited some demonic powers that seem to involve absolving demons (Daimon), hoovering up souls (Ana), and some telekinesis (both of ’em).

The bulk of the series focuses on the siblings’ contentious relationship, and the costs of using their powers, as well as the different ways they were raised, having been shuttled off to different foster experiences along the way. And this stuff is surprisingly strong. Austen and Lemmon ground both of their characters very well, making their bickering when together and actions / attitudes as individuals quite believable; the script and direction allows their personalities to flow without the normal exposition TV uses to hurry along our sympathies. This sensibility carries over to several factors: novitiate nun Gabriella’s (Ariana Guerra) struggle to understand Daimon; Daimon’s substitute matriarch’s (June Carryl) struggle to balance battling the demon she knows resides in the Helstrom’s mother with care for the woman herself; the way the show lets its background plot of a demon uprising slowly cook and boil to the surface as informed by these characters… It’s a pretty refreshingly respectful way to tell a story nowadays, when TV, even in a binge model, often relies on instant gratification.

However, one of the show’s pluses – that circumstances with Marvel branding may have pushed its showrunners to shy away from overt fan service – while meaning that the series ends up feeling more story- and character-centric than the flashy-for-flashy’s-sake style of even the best Marvel shows, it also possibly dropped Helstrom into a middleground where it wants to explore, but can’t go too far. There’s this massively obvious avoidance of explaining something about Daimon and Ana, that the end of the season makes clear they would like to explore in a future season… but it means using the aforementioned vague threat of, like, Evil as the sole opposition for these ten episodes, and so the show puts off confrontations as long as possible, knowing that equally-powered demons both using their equally-strong telekinesis isn’t going to make for the most exciting or interesting of squabbles.

The good performances thoroughly buffer this, along with some excellent – if selectively used – makeup, and appreciably unique cinematography: whereas most “dark” shows opt for yellows or blues, Helstrom went with black as its unifying color, but maintained a clear sense of lighting throughout. So the show never feels too dark (visually), but every scene manages to feel weighty and shadowed at the same time. I also dug that the show doesn’t get around to positing any answers on some of its deeper (if only briefly posed) questions on the nature of good and evil, accepting that no answer would really suffice, and not rushing to fill that space with any forced “wisdom.”

So what’s up with the seemingly instant wishy-washy reception? Given the way Hulu had several Marvel shows in production – including Helstrom – only for Marvel to pull up stakes and move all their content in with the Disney+ streaming service, I can only suppose there was some taint of abandonment over this show. I do think we’re moderately past the “if it’s Marvel it’s genius” responses to their cinematic universe offerings, but because Helstrom isn’t “canon” within that universe, I, personally, still had to stifle a sort of knee-jerk “well I guess it can’t be any good” reaction, knowing that Marvel was essentially writing the show off to die.

Which is too bad, because Helstrom deserves a second season way more than a bunch of shows that’ve carried on to several seasons have…