Twenty years ago a television series premiered about a man returned from the dead, stalking monsters through Los Angeles, hoping for a second shot at life and redemption.
No, not Angel—Brimstone.
Brimstone was an early entry in the urban horror genre, before Angel, Constantine, or Supernatural, even beating out the rash of apocalyptic religious horror that hit movie theaters the following year. It only lasted a single short season, aired out of order, with nowhere near enough promotion to help audiences attach to its high concept. Which is a shame, because the alternate universe where the show was a hit is probably a much more interesting place.
Revisiting the show for its anniversary, it’s a conflicted but fascinating work of horror shot through with ’90s cheesiness, but also dotted with moments of brilliant writing and heart.
Created by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, who went on to write Kung Fu Panda and its sequels, Brimstone was a surprisingly high concept show for its era, the kind of show that would have rewarded fan theories and late night internet discussions if it had lasted long enough. Unfortunately, the show was saddled with an inconsistent time slot—eventually paired on Friday nights with the similarly dark-and-brooding Millennium—and it was cancelled after only 13 episodes.
Here’s the premise for those of you who haven’t watched the show (and if you do decide to watch, don’t worry, this is repeated [and repeated, and repeated] during the show’s opening montage): Ezekiel Stone was a cop. When his wife Rosalyn was raped, he caught the attacker, but the guy was released on a technicality. So, Stone killed him and made it look like an OD. About a month later, Stone himself was murdered on the job, and was sent to Hell for the murder of the rapist. But then! Fifteen years later, 113 of the ickiest souls in Hell managed to escape and return to Earth, so the Devil offered Stone a deal: hunt the souls down and “return” them (shoot them in the eyes so their souls get sucked back to Hell) and earn a second chance at life—and possibly a second shot at redemption.
The pilot opens with this narration, as Stone tells his origin story as a confession to a priest (as iterations of Daredevil have done ever since) but the priest, it turns out, is one of the 113 damned souls! It’s a great way to load a lot of exposition into the show without sacrificing action, and obviously it grounds the audience immediately in the fact that this is a religious horror show. A high-concept religious horror show, with over-the-top faux-medieval font in the credits, and plenty of crash cuts, murky lighting, and wobbly CGI. Peter Horton, fresh off his stint as your mom’s favorite doomed character on thirtysomething, plays Stone with maximum snark and world weariness, and John Glover imbues the Devil with even more snark, plus a dash of cold, genuine hatred for all of humanity.
Like many shows of its era, it was aired completely out of order because continuity wasn’t really a thing that networks respected. The pilot took place in New York, and set up a couple of side characters who any follower of supernatural procedurals would expect to become regulars: the naïve-but-helpful Guy On the Force Who Gives The Lead Access to Police Investigations, the Kindly Priest Who Has Seen Some Shit, the Wacky Hotel Clerk Who Busts Stone’s Balls. But all of this is uprooted in the next aired episode, “Heat,” where Stone is suddenly in L.A., and has established banter with a different Guy On the Force—Teri Polo’s Detective Ash. It’s not until “Poem” (filmed to be episode 2 but aired as episode 5) that we get the necessary exposition: Stone arrives in L.A. and looks up his wife Rosalyn in the phone book, as the Devil mocks him for moving cross-country to find her. It’s also in this episode that the Kindly Priest Who Has Seen Some Shit inexplicably reappears, having been reassigned to a Los Angeles parish that becomes integral to the plot, but it’s not until “Repentance,” (filmed to be episode 5 but aired as episode 4) that Lori Petty suddenly pops up as a different Wacky Hotel Clerk Who Busts Stone’s Balls.
You can see why the show had trouble keeping an audience.
Stone wakes each morning with his badge, his gun, a full magazine of bullets, the clothes he was wearing when he died, and $36.27, the amount of money he had in his pockets. Which is great, because his bullets always refresh each day, but he can’t buy anything more expensive than $36.27. (And yes, Ezekiel 36:27 is significant, why do you ask? “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” for any Hebrew Bible nerds out there.) The rules are set out in the pilot and then refined: Stone and the rest of the damned have superhuman strength, and can only be hurt/killed by each other—a regular mortal attacking one of them has no effect. The longer you’ve been in Hell the more evil you are, because you absorb Hell’s, well, hellishness. The only way to dispatch one of the damned is to take out their eyes because they’re, heavy sigh, the windows to the soul.
When Brimstone is good it could easily stand beside any of the creepy shows of the last two decades: it’s refreshingly diverse, it tackles its central plot point in a really interesting way, and, as I’ll get into in a sec, it flies in the face of most 90s “supernatural” type media.
I didn’t remember how relevant the show was regarding current conversations about gender and masculinity. The show made rape its central, catalyzing event, but then actually dealt with the consequences of rape rather than using it as a plot device. Gilbert Jax, the man who attacked Rosalyn Stone, is a serial rapist, and Stone ends up “returning” him in “Encore” when he starts attacking women again. In that episode we see how Stone dealt with what was done to his wife—in short, not well. After Jax attacks another woman, her husband begins down the same road Stone did, buying a gun and launching his own investigation with the intention of murdering the man. Meanwhile, he abandons his wife to her own emotions, so hung up on his need to “avenge” her that he can’t listen when she tells him what she needs. He prioritizes his pain over hers, just as Stone did after Rosalyn was raped. Stone manages to stop the man and take care of Jax himself, but all the while the Devil is needling him, reminding him that it was the joy he took in the original murder that damned him in the first place. Later we see that Stone was far from a model husband, and get the sense that while he did truly love Rosalyn, he has also fetishized that love to a certain extent, rather than confronting the failings in their relationship or thinking through ways he could have been a better partner.
The show uses many of its episodes to examine power dynamics, oppression, sexual exploitation, and domestic abuse over a wide spectrum. “Altar Boys” avoids the issue of sexual abuse, but does explore the ways priests can abuse their power over children. In “Poem,” Stone hunts a Tang Dynasty poet who fetishizes virginal women and murders them for their blood, while “Heat” is about a medieval woman who was raped, and burned the families of her rapists after she was denied justice—it’s implied that she went to Hell for killing innocent bystanders, not for seeking vengeance. In “Lovers,” the central villains are Paco and Jocelyn, who died in a suicide pact after murdering Jocelyn’s parents for trying to force them apart. They died in the 1960s, but the show makes the point that not much has changed in the intervening years—Jocelyn can do pretty much whatever she wants as a pretty blonde white woman, but Paco is still stuck working as a valet at a country club and being manhandled by racist cops, just like when he was alive. “Repentance,” and “Ashes” both deal with Nazism. In the first, a Nazi returns to Earth in an attempt to atone for his crimes, and in the second Stone faces off with a neo-Nazi metalworker who tells him: “The millennium’s coming, and the only uniform that’s gonna matter is the color of your skin!” In “Poem” there’s also tension between Stone’s ignorance of Chinese culture, and willingness to be corrected by people, and interactions with a Chinese-American landlady who is played as an object of derision. But then the show also includes a conversation between two Chinese-Americans about cops targeting new immigrants, presented in subtitled Cantonese. But they also complicate Stone himself—one of the returned souls is an African warrior, and when Stone tells him that he doesn’t like the ways he’s smirking at him, he brags that he used to rough kids up for looking at him that way. So our white cop, who has been presented to us as a hero, is quite open about abusing his power over black boys.
People often think of religious horror as something like The Exorcist where someone’s being attacked by demonic forces, or Rosemary’s Baby, where someone’s um, being attacked by demonic forces, or The Omen, where…um. Brimstone is fascinating because it instead goes full Nathaniel Hawthorne and offers audiences a type of religious horror where people are expected to pay for their crimes. Where horror often involves the idea of physics being out of joint, of the universe not behaving the way it’s supposed to, Brimstone is about the universe behaving inexorably according to A Plan. It’s a different angle on Lovecraft’s old idea of the fear and awe of “cosmic horror”—a reversion to Old Time Religion that is decidedly out of step with its decade.
A popular conceit in the ’90s—as evidenced by things like Buffy and The X-Files and The Sandman and most of Alan Moore’s work—posited a relativistic universe or multiverse, where many different mythological ideas were revealed to be true. (Basically they were all the media equivalent of those COEXIST bumper stickers.) Sometimes, as in The Sandman, each deity had their own realm, with the most popular ones simply having more power. Thor and Bast didn’t wink out of existence because a monotheism was popular, it just meant that representatives of The Silver City had more obvious clout when they all had audiences with Morpheus. Mulder respected Scully’s Catholic faith as much as she came to respect his belief in aliens. I tend to think that this came about because the ’90s were when a lot of longtime comics readers were coming into their own as writers and showrunners; if you grew up reading comics with Loki and Thor and the Silver Surfer and the Specter and Wonder Woman, where The Thing is a practicing Jew and Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic, and even Superman, undocumented immigrant from another planet, attends a Protestant church with his adoptive parents, it’s maybe a little easier to create a world where a lot of different religions can hang without too much fuss.
Brimstone flies in the face of all of that. The God worshiped by approximately one billion people worldwide is THE God, and if you don’t worship Him, even if he literally didn’t exist in your culture while you were alive, you will be judged for it. Seemingly this goes in the other direction, too, where people who are deemed good are presumably in a better place, even if they didn’t follow all the rules and regulations of Judaism, or Christianity—except if it’s the better place according to a culture that is not your own…um…how does that work? The comfort to be found in a show like Brimstone is simply the idea that there is cosmic justice, but the price of that justice is nightmarishly high.
John Glover’s take on the Devil is fantastic—charming and funny, sure, but genuinely nasty, he quickly becomes one of our best cinematic devils. He doesn’t “like” Stone, Stone’s just an ant who happens to be useful at the moment. As much as Ezekiel can try to be snarky and fight back, the Devil can still knock him back down with no effort at all, and often does, with a cold, absolute anger that can’t be joked away. He’ll never allow Stone to forget that his choice to ask himself “What Would Punisher Do” resulted in his own damnation.
In Canto V of Dante’s Inferno the poet meets Paolo and Francesca, two lovers who are damned for their adultery. I remember discussing this section in a college course, and when the professor mentioned that the two lovers are bound together forever, the class’s reaction was, and I quote, “Awwww.” The professor was quick to point out that while we found this romantic, that was not Dante’s intent. While he is sympathetic to them (he even faints from his distress) he also agrees with Virgil that the couple broke cosmic law. The class was displeased. I thought of this repeatedly while re-watching Brimstone, because it’s the first work of popular, non-didactic entertainment I’ve seen in a long time that toes that kind of moral line. And especially to do this in what is, essentially, a cop show, which are usually all about grey areas and corruption and getting the job done no matter the cost, and often feature at least a few morally-conflicted Catholics who have to reconcile their job with their faith—there is no flexibility here.
The show repeatedly takes people who have legitimate grievances about their lives on Earth, gives us reason to be sympathetic to them, but then demands that we reject that sympathy. In “Repentance,” we’re asked to empathize with a Nazi who wanted to help people, and went so far as to gather documentation for a group of Jews with the intention of forging exit visas for them and helping them escape, but then chickened out and turned them over to be deported to a death camp. He hasn’t broken out of Hell to torment people—he’s using the breakout as an opportunity for redemption. He helps Stone catch a man who’s preying on the homeless, and then when Stone offers to let him go at the risk of pissing the Devil off, he allows Stone to return him. Having gotten a few weeks of borrowed life, he’s decided that the only way he can pay for his role in he Holocaust is to go back to Hell willingly. This too, is interesting. Generally speaking even if people realize they have some sort of debt to society, they still gladly take the opportunity to leave jail sooner, to escape the death penalty, etc. In real life, cultural memory is disturbingly short: we live in a time when a national figure can use the term “Holocaust Centers” instead of “fucking death camps” repeatedly, and still show up as part of a planned gag on an awards show mere months later.
It’s comforting to think of a universe where choices have consequences, where moral lines in the sand are actually uncrossable.
Of course even Brimstone doesn’t stay in that universe too long, and complicates its own premise. “Ashes” explicitly asks whether it’s morally acceptable to judge ancient cultures by more modern beliefs—in this case an acolyte of the goddess Astarte who’s being judged according to Christian ethos—and I tend to think that this plot thread would have played an extremely important role in subsequent seasons if the show had continued. In “It’s a Helluva Life” (yes, their requisite It’s a Wonderful Life riff) Stone meets an angel, also played by John Glover, who tells Stone that his work for the Devil might also be serving a higher purpose. Yes, murdering Jax was wrong, but Stone is saving lives every day by returning damned people to Hell, and the angel hints that this might be working in his favor.
Even with all of this weighty substance, the show took time to be fun. All of Stone’s attempts to adjust to life in the ’90s—learning how to use the internet, craving the long-discontinued Reggie Bar, trying to catch up on over a decade of baseball seasons—work beautifully. Stone learning to rollerblade is an actual plot point. The Devil pops up whenever Stone’s eating to steal some of his food. Dogs are rescued from abusive people and given better homes, wacky hotel clerks work on their novels, and lots and lots of ’90s fashion is on display. Plus the show features a Jewish cop who says: “You go your way—I go Yahweh” and the Devil saying: “I never loved anyone but God… and that was a long time ago” and how can you not love that?
By the end of its first and only season, Brimstone created a unique world of urban horror, and introduced some amazing characters. It’s too bad we didn’t get at least a few more demon hunts, since I think the alternate universe where this show was a hit has a little more room for gothy fun than this one does, and I hope the show at least gets the cult following it deserves.