The last time there was a show like Evil on network television it was FOX’s short-lived The Exorcist. That series didn’t shy away from its genre trappings, and instead embraced them to become a rare example of horror working effectively not only on television but on one of the big four broadcast networks to boot. CBS is ready to test that notion once again with the creepy procedural from The Good Wife and The Good Fight creators Michelle and Robert King, as they explore the nature of evil and things that go bump in the night in a series that owes more to The X-Files than it might initially seem, yet still delivers an entertaining and occasionally spine-tingling atmosphere that ponders the question of whether or not true evil actually exists.
The series boasts an attractive cast headed up by Westworld’s Katja Herbers and former Marvel hero Luke Cage, Mike Colter. Herbers plays Kristen Bouchard, a clinical psychologist whose job with the New York D.A. goes down the drain when she refuses to doctor her testimony about a spree killer’s suitability to stand trial. The killer in question claims to have blacked out when he murdered a family in cold blood. His wife and defense argues that there’s some other force at play, that he’s mentally unfit for trial because he believes himself to have been possessed by a demon who made him murder that family. Enter Colter’s David Acosta, a former journalist and current Catholic priest in training who works with Ben Shakir (Asif Mandvi) investigating cases where claims of demonic possession have been made.
Herbers and Colter form a familiar skeptic/true believer dynamic that’s also rife with plenty of sexual tension, even though Kristen is married with three young daughters and a mountain of student debt at home and David is, you know, on his way to becoming a priest. Hot priests are very much in fashion in 2019, thanks to Fleabag’s Andrew Scott, and Evil is in no way shy about the obviousness of two very attractive people solving potentially paranormal cases together being physically attracted to one another. But it also throws a wrench into those plans by giving Kristen an absentee husband who works as a guide for mountain climbers and is therefore out of the picture for the most part.
The show and the people around Kristen and David — namely Kristen’s mother, played by Christine Lahti, and the shadowy demon she meets in her dreams — are far more interested in taking their relationship to the next level than either investigator is, which frees them up to investigate the case of the week. While the show is set up to fit nicely into the CBS family of weekly crime procedurals, it also introduces an overarching nemesis in the form of Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who David refers to a “pure evil”. Leland is a mix of the Cigarette Smoking Man and the Devil himself, though in the first episode he comes off more like a frustrated loser who incites violence via websites like 4Chan.
In that sense, Evil demonstrates itself to be very much a part of the Kings’ brand of television, as they work to connect the atrocities and violence that dominate the present-day news cycle (and, sadly, are just as quickly forgotten) to a portentous tide of evil that may or may not be the product of the Devil’s actual influence. It’s not hard to see the hate and invective spewed online as some larger concern about the state of the world, and Evil doesn’t have to work too hard to make thinly veiled allusions to recent shooting and other acts of violence (some of which were nurtured online) to a fear that real evil isn’t just creeping into the world, it’s taking over.
The series uses that sense of dread as a springboard for this horror-infused but also politically-minded procedural. Though it bares many similarities to The X-Files, the Kings have, at this point anyway, eschewed the need for a complex mythology, and instead are focused on exploring the nature of horrific crimes and determining whether or not they’re in need of holy intervention. As a routine procedural, this formula works, and it’s made all the more attractive by the question of what is and is not the product of a supernatural influence. That question is put to good use throughout the premiere as Kristen is visited nightly by a dark figure that she at first chalks up to a night terror, though it briefly begins to look as if her unwelcome guest might be the real deal.
Evil is possibly the most attractive new show in CBS’ fall lineup, mainly because it feels so far removed from similar programs on the network. Yet it’s still playing at the same basic game as the likes of NCIS and Magnum P.I. are, it just has a more appealing genre angle from which to approach its storylines. And as entertaining as the pilot episode is, it nevertheless has all the hallmarks of a typical pilot episode — it’s a little clunky at times and can be overwhelmed with exposition when introducing its main characters and conceit — but it also comes off as an unusually confident series, one that knows exactly what it aims to be even if it’s not quite ready to show its cards to the audience.
Evil continues next Thursday with ‘177 Minutes’ @10pm on CBS.