Horror and comedy often go very well together, which is probably why a series like Ash vs. Evil Dead exists in the first place. Given that the Starz series has revived interest in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise, one would think that the specificity of the show’s premise might make it a unique experience on television. Well, anyone who thought that would have been proven wrong when IFC announced it was greenlighting an eight-episode first season of Stan Against Evil, a series that in many ways appears to be a carbon copy of the Bruce Campbell-led yuck-fest.
Created by comedian and former producer of The Simpsons, Dana Gould, Stan Against Evil gives John C. McGinley (or California, to all you Se7en-heads out there) a starring role after last year’s TBS comedy Ground Floor ended with its second season. From the outset, McGinley’s character, the titular Stan, is comfortably in the actor’s wheelhouse. He is a gruff, acid-tongued, authority figure not unlike Dr. Perry Cox in Scrubs. Unlike Dr. Cox, however, Stan finds himself on the outside of the authority he once enjoyed, as the longtime sheriff of Willard’s Mill was forced into retirement and Evie Barret (Jane Varney, You’re the Worst) became the – you guessed it – new sheriff in town. Despite the animosity that might normally exist between two such characters, Stan and Evie have to put their differences aside to battle the evil that has cursed the town.
Aside from the obvious blending of horror and comedy, Stan Against Evil makes some broad attempts at broaching the generational and gender divide. Stan is very much a relic of the old guard, an aging man who must reluctantly hand over his authority to someone much younger, and in this case, a woman. McGinley goes full bore with the character’s coarse demeanor, turning Stan’s politically incorrect abrasiveness into a caricature that is at once self-aware and all too pleased with its supposed cleverness.
Stan’s characterization, and his being an “equal opportunity offender,” is another element the show seems to have borrowed from Ash vs. Evil Dead. Like Campbell’s Ash, Stan says whatever is on his mind whenever it occurs to him. Both actors are talented enough to pull it off, but whereas Campbell makes it appear that Ash just doesn’t know any better, or that he’s so oblivious he can’t comprehend why anyone would take offense to the words coming out of his mouth, McGinley’s Stan doesn’t have that safety net. As such, his cantankerousness seems to come from a less charming place, while his verbal barbs are motivated more by anger at the world around him. The show positions most of his dialogue as a series of funny yet crude turns of phrase that are also intended to underline how tied to the past Stan’s character actually is. That certainly gives the audience some understanding of where he’s coming from, but it doesn’t necessarily make you want to like the guy.
The first episode quickly abandons an undercurrent of grief that would have worked as a salve against Stan’s verbal burns. His retirement was partially instigated by his wife’s recent death (well, actually, it’s because he assaulted a witch at his wife’s funeral). But there’s a moment not long after when Stan discusses his wife and her sacred sewing room, and how neither he nor his daughter Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.) were ever allowed inside. For an all too brief moment, Stan is reluctant to enter for fear of how upset his late wife would be, and McGinley manages to express deep hurt and intense love at the same time. After all the uneven, bristly laughs and bloody misfires, any reason to continue watching the series might have come down to McGinley in that one moment.
Unfortunately, the rest of the series doesn’t come close to matching McGinley’s efforts, nor does it give him another opportunity to do so. Too much of Stan Against Evil is boilerplate comedy when it’s not eerily reminiscent of Ash vs. Evil Dead. The setting of Willard’s Mill is a featureless small town with a dark and discomforting history (171 falsely accused witches were executed there) – hence the curse that’s killed all the constables before Stan. As it turns out, Stan’s wife was “the one who knows” – i.e., the protector of Willard’s Mill who was something like the Winchesters in Supernatural. While it’s refreshing to see someone other than the male protagonist be the narrative’s proverbial chosen one, killing her off before the show’s even started doesn’t do her or the series much good.
But the series’ greatest shortcoming might be in its structure. The first two episodes move so quickly there’s no chance (or worse, no desire) for the characters to address the supernatural occurrences around town. Moreover, Stan accepts his wife’s death mere moments after discovering her secret room. It takes even less time for him to adjust to being replaced by Evie. Without those elements anchoring the McGinley and Varney to some sort of emotional foundation for their characters, the series is left to drift in a sea of random horror sequences, like a witch in a graveyard and a Satanic figure stalking Stan and his daughter. If the series would just slow down, then maybe 10 incoherent minutes of the dark lord attacking Stan in his house would have more to build off of than a few half-baked Jaws references. Instead, the second episode, ‘Know, Know, Know Your Goat’ may as well have been the third episode of season four for all the sense it makes to the uninitiated viewer – i.e., everyone still watching.
In all, the first two episodes of Stan Against Evil offer a disappointing and disjointed start to the series. If you’re looking for quality horror comedy, you’re better off putting your entertainment needs in the chainsaw hand of the one true king, baby.
Stan Against Evil continues next Wednesday with ‘Let Your Love Groan’ and ‘Life Orr Death’ @7pm on IFC.
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