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The Sparse World-Building of Hulu’s Helstrom is a Failure of Imagination

The Sparse World-Building of Hulu’s Helstrom is a Failure of Imagination

“Helstrom” (all 10 episodes of which premiere on Hulu on October 16) takes two established characters from Marvel Comics and reinvents them as estranged adults: Daimon (Tom Austen), an ethics professor teaching undergrads in Portland, Oregon, and Ana (Sydney Lemmon), an antiquities dealer who procures million-dollar items for the “idiots who send cars into space for fun” in San Francisco, California. (The show tweaks Ana’s name from the comics, perhaps because the original is too much of a tell.) Although Daimon and Ana haven’t talked in years, the siblings share a connection of childhood trauma. Their father was a renowned serial killer who kidnapped Ana and took her along with him on his murdering spree, while Daimon stayed behind with their mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), who suffered a mental breakdown. While Ana was aware of her father’s horrible acts, she couldn’t do anything to stop them; while Daimon was aware that his mother was unfit to take care of him, he couldn’t convince her that Ana wasn’t going to magically arrive on their doorstep again. Both of the Helstrom children grew up quickly and in horrible ways, but all that tragedy hasn’t brought them together—it’s kept them apart.

The twins share something else, too: unique powers that make them superhuman. Daimon, who works with an organization unofficially affiliated with the Catholic Church, uses his powers (the ability to generate fire and protect himself from violence) to perform exorcisms and battle demons. His mentor is Dr. Louise Hastings (June Carryl), head of the psychiatric hospital where Victoria is committed, and his new partner-in-training is Gabriella Rossetti (Ariana Guerra), a representative of the Vatican who wonders about Daimon’s abilities and is aghast by his cynicism. In San Francisco, Ana and her best friend and business partner, Chris Yen (Alain Uy), deal antiquities by day and hunt down and kill predators and abusers by night. Ana sees visions, can sense the history or motivations of a person by touching them, is an excellent fighter, and is able to attack others by slowing down their heart rate with one hover of her hand over a person’s chest.

“Helstrom” barely bothers with showing us how other people react to Daimon and Ana’s powers; one of the show’s most disappointing qualities is how poorly it communicates any interiority for the siblings, especially related to how others view their super strength, telekinesis, or other myriad abilities. Instead, premiere episode “Mother’s Little Helpers” hops between various locations to build up the siblings’ tensions and introduce every meaningful main character, jamming in so much story that the entire affair sags. (Full disclosure: It took me three hours to power through this 56-minute premiere just because the pacing was so unrelentingly tedious.) Daimon busts a young boy pretending to be inhabited by a demon (“The good news is, your son’s not possessed. The bad news is, he’s an asshole”), butts heads with the idealistic Gabriella (whose characterization practically screams, “I will end up a conflicted love interest!”), and spars with his mother, who we learn actually is possessed by a demon who is violent, cruel, and taunting. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Ana orchestrates a man’s murder; collects a demon skull while on a reconnaissance trip with her ally Caretaker (Robert Wisdom), who helps battle supernatural baddies; and makes clear that unlike Daimon, she doesn’t care about her mother’s current predicament: “Please tell me the bitch is dead” is how she greets her brother during their reunion.

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