It’s hard to recall a time when Netflix Original indeed meant “original”. Lately, it’s been adaptation after adaptation. The output varies in quality, most coming in at a mid-level rating best described as “background noise while I do my laundry” but a few surpass all expectations (The Queen’s Gambit). Others make me reconsider my subscription for good (Echoes). The latest to throw its hat in the ring is Devil in Ohio, not to be confused with the streamer’s Robert Pattinson film The Devil All the Time, a sinister tale incidentally also set in Ohio.
The eight-episode series puts to screen Daria Polatin’s 2017 novel of the same name, itself inspired by a true story. Bones star Emily Deschanel plays Suzanne, a mother and psychiatrist who invites her new young patient (a believably wide-eyed Madeleine Arthur) into her home when she’s brought into the hospital after a traumatic episode. It’s an act of kindness that comes at the cost of annoying her daughter Jules (Xaria Dotson) who already feels overlooked at home and at school without this new, mysterious teenager in the spotlight. In another world, the plot stops there and Devil in Ohio is a thoughtful drama about trauma and what it means to belong. But this is not that world; this is Netflix world, and by those rules, there must be a nefarious cult or creepy cop waiting in the wings. Appropriately, this has both.
The opening scene of Devil in Ohio tells you a lot about the show. Looking like the ghost of a Victorian child, a waifish Mae flits barefoot through tall grass in a muddy white nightgown. Something or someone, it seems, is chasing her. Crying, Mae runs onto the road and tries desperately to hail down a car. A bloody knife drips from her hand. Shortly after, in hospital, it is revealed she has a pentagram carved into her back. The whole thing is textbook Netflix thriller. Teenage girl? Check. Satanic cult? Check. Gory wound? Check. Later, when Mae sits down for the first dinner with her new family and asks to say grace before reciting a prayer to Morning Star (aka Lucifer, aka the devil), you can’t help but laugh. But when the formula works, it works. At its black heart, Devil in Ohio is a mostly entertaining, if predictable, series as Suzanne and a good-hearted policeman (Gerardo Celasco) try to unearth the truth about Mae, who has begun to act strange – and sinister.
It’s the relationship between Mae, an abused girl, and her new carer Suzanne, who herself was an abused girl, that is expected to carry the emotional weight here but it’s the one between Mae and Jules that is most interesting. As Mae acclimatises to her new life, she begins to assume Jules’s place at school and at home – even while the two continue to grow close as sisters. It’s a tense, mutable dynamic that’s one of the more believable components of the series.
This being a Netflix thriller, there are, of course, flashbacks. In lesser shows, dipping into the past is a clunky distraction from the action at hand (ahem, Pieces of Her), but the flashbacks of Devil in Ohio are welcome moments that pull back the veil on the mystery at pace and for once actually deliver on the darkness promised by a show’s premise. Certainly, Devil in Ohio does not reinvent the wheel – and no doubt it’ll be subsumed into the amorphous mass of Netflix adaptations sooner rather than later, but in the moment, it’s decent viewing. Exciting enough, at least, that you won’t be doing laundry at the same time.