October 26, 2021

Abhype

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‘EVIL’ Continues to Be Devious Must-See TV with Season 2

Each episode of EVIL season 2 opens with a shot of The Pop-Up Book of Terrifying Things. A pair of hands gently tugs at the book, and a nightmarish image pops out. Corresponding with this image is a title that consists of a letter of the alphabet and a noun that starts with that letter. The season two premiere, for example, is titled “N Is for Night Terrors.” This abecedarian motif is in the spirit of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, the morbid but beloved children’s book chronicling the fictional deaths of 26 children — one unusual death for each letter of the alphabet. In an excerpt from his biography of the writer, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, Mark Dery explains, “Gorey’s darkly droll tales touch—lightly—on weighty matters: the death of God, the meaning of life, and, always and everywhere, our impending mortality.” So too does season two of EVIL, albeit with a heavier touch. 

EVIL, a must-see drama from husband and wife duo Michelle and Robert King, was created for CBS with the broad mandate of examining the nature of evil. Instead, it’s moved to Paramount Plus for its second season and, if the first four episodes are any indication, the move from broadcast network to streamer has shifted neither its tone nor its quality. The series follows a team of assessors — David (Mike Colter), a priest-in-training, Kristen (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist, and Ben (Aasif Mandvi), a tech specialist  —  appointed by the Catholic church to investigate possible demonic possessions, miracles, and other unexplained phenomena plaguing the church’s parishioners. Last season the team was tasked with investigating whether evil was present in cases as varied as a demanding Broadway producer (who some believe was inspired by Scott Rudin) whose actions escalate from cruel to (possibly) demonic, and a woman who believes she’s a prophet because her visions come true. 

The show manages to deal with weighty topics in trademark King style while never really taking itself too seriously. Case in point: there’s a season one case involving a viral Christmas song that is such an earworm it causes people to plug their ears with sharp objects. EVIL is no doubt a fright fest and, per The Salt Lake Tribune, “TV’s most disturbing show.” But, it’s also a Michelle and Robert King production which means it is concerned with mindfully examining the world’s ills. For example, the prophet mentioned earlier was a Chinese immigrant facing deportation, and her story shed light on the cruelty of the immigration process. In another season one episode, the team investigates a miracle when a young Black girl comes back to life after being declared dead. It lays bare the consequences of medical racism (it’s discovered the hospital spends less time trying to revive Black patients than white ones). This trend continues in the new season, which delves into what it means for David to be one of the few Black faces of the church. 

The main trio have different relationships with religion — a diversity of opinion that reflects the conflicting views of Robert and Michelle, who identify as religious and secular, respectively — which allows the show to gain mileage from the same skeptic-believer dynamic that fueled The X-Files. David is a devout believer who actively seeks an audience with God (via prayer or magic mushrooms), Kristen is a lapsed Catholic who’s skeptical of the celestial, and Ben is skeptical of both religion and psychology but works tirelessly with Kristen to seek scientific explanations for the bizarre and seemingly-supernatural things they encounter. The debates their casework engenders are spirited and respectful. Though they are at opposite ends of the religious spectrum, David’s faith in the divine and Kristen and Ben’s faith in empirical investigation positively affect their partnership by fueling their commitment to vigorously and creatively pursue different angles of investigation for answers. 

This season the chemistry between them is slightly off due to the events of the season one finale. It appeared Kristen had killed Orson LeRoux, the serial killer who threatened her family, in a fit of demonic possession. The season’s final shots of her looking at herself in the mirror after a cross from a rosary burns her skin felt like a turning point for her and the series. Season two quickly picks up that thread with both Ben and David immediately sensing something is amiss with Kristen; Ben correctly suspects it has to do with LeRoux, and David believes she could be under some “diabolical influence.” Kristen has a pretty strong stomach for evil because of her past work for the New York City district attorney’s office, where she’d regularly face off with killers to determine whether they were mentally fit to stand trial. She takes the denialist approach to the cross incident by having Ben test the material for any faults so she can put it out of her mind. The show doesn’t confirm or deny whether she was burned because she became a vessel for evil or it’s the result of heated cobalt, as Ben suggests, because, unlike The X-Files, the Kings want EVIL to abstain from certainty when it comes to the existence of the supernatural. But, season two does make the wise decision to explore how the show’s two skeptical characters are finally being affected by their work for the church. 

Outside of the inter-group tension, the main dramatic thrust of this sophomore season comes from Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), the show’s resident chaos agent who was introduced as an antagonist in season one. Emerson is clearly having a ball in this role. He lives up to his richly deserved reputation as a go-to TV villain by chewing up scenery as (possibly) a demon and (definitely) evil. Last season we saw Leland try to get under Kristen’s skin first by using his psychologist background to purposefully undo the convictions she helped get, then by ingratiating himself into her mom’s life as a paramour (when the two had sex, the bed went up in flames — were they real? a metaphor? Unclear!). This season Leland attempts to do the same with the assessor team by setting his sights on David, who is only months away from ordination. David and Leland are the closest things the show has to good and evil incarnate. Though David is an unorthodox priest, his internal dial is set to goodness. Leland, by contrast, is oily and puckish, a non-stop instigator who just wants to see the world burn. He’s hellbent on corrupting David, who is equally focused on resisting him, creating this unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object dynamic that makes their tête-a-têtes a highlight of the season. 

One of the lingering plot points from season one is the team’s discovery of the Poveglia Codex, an ancient codex that predicts the end of the world. The codex storyline is one of the first that opens up the mythology of the show. At the end of season one, it leads the team to uncover an elaborate evil conspiracy to corrupt eggs at the fertility clinic that helped Kristen conceive one of her four daughters and seems to be tied to several cases involving troubled children that they’ve worked with. As season two unfolds, the codex comes back into play, but it’s clear the show is not in a rush to conclude that storyline and, why should it? It could sustain itself for ages with episodes featuring the clinic’s vast network of creepy spawns. 

A show about things that are not easily explained is not easily wrapped up. Unlike other procedurals that employ the case-of-the-week structure, EVIL solves cases without ever really resolving them. Watching it feels like being in an escape room. At the end of the episode, just when you think you’ve examined every square inch of the room, you find another door. EVIL never sacrifices its characters’ complexity, and the same is true of its narrative complexity. On the one hand, a possible and somewhat valid complaint would be that season two doesn’t diverge from the rulebook established in season one: probe questions, offer no clear-cut answers. On the other hand, EVIL’s inscrutability is what makes it such a smart and addictive show.