How Poetry, and Professional Wrestling, Shaped New Drama ‘Damnation’

Tony Tost, creator of new USA Network series Damnation, possesses a pretty diverse batch of passions. In his Twitter bio, Tost refers to himself as a “lapsed poet.” His books of poetry include Invisible Bride and Complex Sleep, and he also authored the guidebook to Johnny Cash’s records with producer Rick Rubin, called Johnny Cash's American Recordings (33 1/3).

Tost is also a professional wrestling fanatic. His favorite wrestler is A.J. Styles, who he describes as somewhere between a hero and a heel. “He’s a cocky, brash dude, and he’s just better at wrestling than anybody,” says Tost.

His family is obsessed with John Cena, says Tost, as well as Charlotte Flair, daughter of Ric Flair. “Anything with wrestling, I’m pretty enamored with,” he tells B&C.

Both the poetry and the wrestling factor into Tost’s role as showrunner on Damnation. He speaks of whittling a poem down from five pages to a half page back in his poetry days, and how those same skills help in getting an episode into shape, specifically in cutting “unnecessary dialogue” down. “I try to have the same unsentimental eye and ear,” he says. “I’d love to have a poetic sensibility for the show.”

Damnation starts up Nov. 7. It’s a western, set in Iowa, where a man pretends to be a preacher to get an insurrection brewing. The cast includes Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green. In USA’s words, the series “showcases the epic struggle of people fighting for what they believe to be right, which begins to rip apart a Depression-era Iowa town and destroy a brotherhood.”

Tost, formerly of Longmire, says his wrestling fascination goes back to his childhood. He says it’s “as much a storytelling influence as anything” as he comes up with compelling storylines for his television projects.

He notes that most westerns are set in the late 1800s, but Tost has put Damnation in the middle of the Great Depression, in part because he loves the music and literature of that period. He says that era is also ground zero for “a second wave of outlaws as folk heroes,” singling out gangster John Dillinger and bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd.

Tost says the ‘30s are also a time of “massive distrust in American institutions,” along with lots of unionization and farmer revolts. There’s plenty of political sniping in Damnation, though its writers have avoided identifiers such as liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican. “We find different ways to tell the story,” Tost says.

Tost has pretty low-key plans for the show’s premiere Tuesday. “I’ll use the opportunity to be alone with my wife,” he says, “and watch it with her.”

The executive producers on Damnation, besides Tost, are James Mangold (Logan), Guymon Casady (Game of Thrones) and Daniel Rappaport (Office Space).

Netflix co-produces Damnation with Universal Cable Productions. The streaming giant has first-run rights outside the U.S., opening up the show to a potentially vast audience.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.