There is something fascinating that’s happening right now on TV, something impossible to ignore any longer. Bold and provocative HBO had for a long time only one solid challenger called Showtime, that used more or less the same model for more or less the same results. It was heaven on earth. The rest of TV was just something else entirely. Like two faraway continents that could never meet. Then AMC came out of nowhere and shaked the ground a little bit, just enough to create a fracture. But HBO didn’t move or even blink. European television did some bold moves too. It impressed and it inspired, but it did just that. Then came Netflix, like a tsunami that destroyed the shore and disturbed the peace. Soon enough, Amazon and Hulu will become bigger ships, eager to invade. HBO can’t just let its throne being robbed and its kingdom fall. Revenge is coming. And there will be blood.
Jenji Kohan was HBO’s ennemy for a long time. She created Weeds for Showtime, a dark comedy that really defined the network and helped put it on the map. And she did it again for Netflix by inventing critically acclaimed dramedy Orange is the New Black. Both shows could have been on HBO. But they weren’t. Now it’s time for Jenji to use her magic and do to HBO what she did for Showtime and Netflix: pushing the boundaries even further. And hopefully, people will love that and ask for more. The thing is though, HBO has already done pretty amazing things for 15 years now. And boundaries they pushed. Oh yes, they did. Jenji Kohan’s no-so-secret weapon might be her very distinctive female voice. HBO is more of a male-oriented channel, with a few exceptions. That’s how it is. The Devil You Know is definitely a provocative drama that put women at the center of it all. Some of them take drugs. Others are in cage. Most of them FEEL caged. They don’t sell weeds and they don’t wear orange jumpsuit, but they are not that different from Nancy Botwin or Piper Chapman. They are their ancestors. They were there at the beginning of the new world and damn, they suffered.
The Devil You Know starts with a scary scene that resembles Game Of Thrones’ opening, but less gory. A young girl named Betty is walking in the snow on a frigid day, during the coldest winter of the century – the sixteenth century. She feeds the pigs while singing, when a dark man moves closer and closer to her, until she sees his head: he has the face of a crow. He spreads his huge wings, takes off and flies into the clear white sky while Betty is running away towards the village. Salem. During the whole pilot, Betty has visions of crows attacking humans, ravaging bodies, eating raw flesh. Like she’s possessed. By the devil? But she’s not the only one having troubles. Then the first few pages are boring, ‘cos the show looks like something we’ve already seen a thousand times. A history drama, not far from a documentary about American history. It’s not uninteresting but not particularly engaging either. We’re introduced to a least 20 different characters. That doesn’t help. But as the story progresses, it gets less and less conventional, and more and more fascinating. Everybody turn out to be fucked-up! Like really fucked-up. The whole city is in on the verge of hysteria: women are devious, lustful, men are perverted and greedy. Even children are dreadful. For example, a group of women (lesbians?) are rubbing and penetrating their vaginas with broomsticks by the fire; while Ann, a 15 year-old girl (who is the closest to a heroin) is giving a handjob to a young man to make him testify in favor of her father, who happens to have a conflict with the richest man of the town. And there’s also a hint of incest, raw fucking with love, a very violent rape performed by an Indian tribe… yes, there’s definitely a lot of sex. Even True Blood‘s characters would blush. Is it a fantasy show? I can’t say. We have to wait 60 pages out of 66 to be introduced to dark magic and possible witchcraft. And it’s OK.
Sadly, this pilot lacks a real plot. Jenji Kohan perfectly knows the rules of writing but she also knows that she can do whatever she wants and not follow them because we all love her for that. Like her characters, she’s unconventional. She can take all the time she needs to set-up the atmosphere -and Gus Van Sant, who directs, is not exactly known to rush things either- HBO will trust her anyway. So the pilot works more as an introduction to all the characters, so we can care about them quickly and I assure you we do, than an actual pilot that builds toward a momentum and gives us a real sense of what the show will be in subsequent episodes. We don’t really know, and we don’t really care. In Jenji we trust.
The Devil You Know is an experiment, its own beast, wild and provocative, a show about townspeople discovering a new world, through a female perspective. I don’t think there is anything like it on TV right now. It’s very different from what Jenji Kohan did before. It’s tantalazing and exciting. What is HBO waiting for to order it? It needs to be on air as soon as possible! With Game Of Thrones, True Detective, The Leftovers, Westworld and now this, HBO is definitely not giving up.