How Evil Is Using a Procedural Trojan Horse to Push Network Horror Boundaries

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How <i>Evil</i> Is Using a Procedural Trojan Horse to Push Network Horror Boundaries

Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife, have earned themselves some credit with CBS. Not only did they make The Good Wife a prestige show on network TV at a time when most critics had written off broadcast (and CBS in particular), but they created the worthy successor The Good Fight for CBS All Access. But the Kings have also tried out some more avant-garde storytelling, including the gone-too-soon (and very prescient) Braindead, which aired on CBS in the summer of 2016. The Kings have always been great at weaving politics into their TV shows, even ones supposedly just about lawyers, but Braindead also featured something more unexpected: Aliens.

For the discerning TV viewer, the series was a whip-smart satire that used the tried-and-true Pod People method to make a statement about how Washington had lost its mind—perhaps quite literally. In many ways it was ahead of its time, and though it was cancelled after its first season, it opened the door for the Kings to try something even more experimental with their next series, Evil.

Evil is dressed up like the kind of procedural that CBS’s core demographic loves, as it features a skeptical psychologist (Katja Herbers) and a soon-to-be-priest (Mike Colter) who are brought together to investigate cases of demonic possession for the Catholic church. Right away, this could be a campy premise—or one that leads too far into just debunking the possibility of demons—but Evil knows where it’s headed. In the world it presents, it’s pretty clear that demons are real. They aren’t often the direct, provable cause of most of the cases that Dr. Kristen Bouchard and David Acosta come across, but the show always keeps the waters murky enough to wonder what role evil itself might have played along the way.

As such, most of the episodes see Kristen and David, along with their expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi) and a variety of religious figures, arguing about free will. That’s not something you necessarily expect from a CBS procedural, even one that—for reasons unknown to me—likes to put its “Previously On” screeners atop a milk bath, along with its main title card.

Discussions over moral and spiritual quandaries aside, what really makes Evil stand out is that it is really scary. It didn’t start off that way, but it has slowly and deliberately morphed into a full-blown horror series. There’s a AR videogame that seems to be introducing real demons into the world of Kristen’s four young daughters, and a little girl who never takes off her Halloween mask and almost succeeds in burying one of the girls alive (until she disappears into the wind). It’s like Are You Afraid of the Dark? but for adults. The visuals in the AR episodes, as well as some of the Exorcist-inspired scenes, are the stuff of nightmares. Truthfully, I haven’t been this disturbed by a network series since NBC’s Hannibal (which was always let off for being artistic in its horror, whereas Evil is just straight-up freaky—even in the way Michael Emerson, who plays a demonic agent among us, says “Come on Kriiiiistennnnn…”). In this last episode, “2 Fathers,” Kristen watches in horror as a woman gives birth to a caul-covered skeletal demon in a corn field. Or did she?

Evil is wonderfully balanced to always allow room for both skepticism and belief, which is why David and Kristen rarely come to any full conclusion about whether or not something is demonically conjured. But even Ben, perhaps the most skeptical of the bunch, is also shown having his own moment of personal crisis over not being able to explain the appearance of an angel’s light in the frame of a video that he could not prove was doctored in any way. Evil comes in many forms though, and while sometimes Kristen and David (and Kristen’s chattering, screaming, wonderfully real kids) are literally haunted by them, in one of the most harrowing episodes, it’s humans who are to be feared. The team tries to help a troubled young boy who wants to murder his baby sister and parents, and nearly succeeds. But when the group return with a priest, there is a very strong implication that the parents killed their own son to free their family from his evil. But were the impulses his, or a demon’s? And where is the line between blaming a supernatural being and the responsibility of the person for committing the act? Or in the case of these parents, there was no demon possession for them—they chose to kill on their own, which is also accepted as evil.

All of this keep bringing me back to the fact that this is airing on CBS. Not even the more niche CBS All Access, but CBS proper. (Although you can kinda tell by how hard they push the David and Kristen pairing—we get it, they’re both hot! Give them a little room, sheesh!) The CBS angle matters though because Evil is absolutely a horror series, one that is actually quite terrifying, and one that continues to find (eight episodes into its first season so far) an incredible number of ways to investigate truths regarding otherworldly influences. And that’s just not something you regularly see. Neither side is presented as being right and the other wrong, which is the true brilliance of it. It honestly just makes you think (!) “The world is weird,” David Acosta says wearily to Ben after the latter asks what he should do about a woman he likes who believes her deceased sister is “tethered” to her right arm. It is, and so is Evil. And somehow, blessedly, CBS is allowing this very smart, very niche program to air on its main network.

Evil airs Thursday nights on CBS (but is skipping Thanksgiving).



Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

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