'Evil' Is Uneven, Unpredictable, and So Much Fun

It's a procedural about demonic possession, and it's great

Nicholas Russell

The first season of Evil, which originated on CBS and now streams on Paramount+, begins with a serial killer named Orson LeRoux who claims to be possessed by a demon. Kristen Bouchard, a psychologist employed by the Queens DA’s office, is brought in to assess his condition. So far, so familiar in terms of a television procedural, which are equally in love with serial killers and the psychologists who study them. But before the viewer can get too comfortable with this set-up, the prosecution ceases any further tests of the defendant’s sanity and Bouchard is fired from the case.

Enter David Acosta and Ben Shakir, an assessor from the Catholic Church training to become a priest and a tech contractor, respectively. Acosta, ever dressed in a limited variation of cardigan (subbed increasingly for a leather jacket in season 2), dark jeans, and buttoned-up shirt, is, notably, a black Catholic with an uneasy relationship to the church and his own faith. Shakir, raised Muslim but now a staunch atheist of the “doth protest too much” variety, has no relationship to the supernatural, or so he tells himself. In any case, the Catholic Church has come to investigate the truth of LeRoux’s demonic claims and Bouchard, a lapsed Catholic, finds herself with a strange new opportunity: work on behalf of the Church as the psychological arm of a small team of representatives looking into the demonic and occult. Evil has been justifiably compared to The X-Files for many reasons, swapping out the FBI and aliens for the Church and demons (which are very real in the show) and, in Season 2, taking on the occasional “Demon of the Week” format, but it is decidedly weirder, sillier, scarier, and more complex than such a comparison could anticipate.

The brainchild of television’s royal creative duo Robert and Michelle King of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, Evil features many recognizable facets of a legal drama, but with several twists and turns. Over the course of two seasons, with the third premiering June 12, the triumvirate of Kristen, David, and Ben have confronted a gamut of outre cases: child psychopaths, cannibalistic college students, fortune tellers, construction workers claiming to be the voice of the archangel Michael, and, in one of the show’s major threads, a fertility clinic that may or may not be seeding evil into an entire generation of unborn children.

In the early episodes, the very premise of the show, beguiling as it is, can seem a bit random and, frankly, fraught with potential for extremely heavy-handed writing about the place of faith in modern society. Especially with the weighty presence of a black Catholic main character who openly struggles with drug addiction, PTSD, and much commented-upon tokenism within his chosen faith. A blessing, then, that the show’s tone rarely feels deadened, but bounces wildly from episode to episode, dabbling in well-known horror tropes and styles and sometimes going full kitsch. When my friend initially told me about the show, she described a sequence set to Andrew Bird’s “Fake Palindromes,” an odd choice that I couldn’t fully appreciate until I finally watched the episode, which is not just set to the entire song, but features characters lip-syncing to it.

In less curious and flippant hands, this combination of elements would threaten any lasting interest in the story, let alone the stylistic choices of its creative team. More ridiculous shows, like American Horror Story and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, might get an interesting episode or two out of the mixture of scares and silliness, but rarely do you get the sense that you are in capable hands. Refreshingly, the Kings have concocted a series that is, episode by episode, exactly what they want it to be, no matter how melodramatic or serious. These fluctuations in pitch and scale are always undergirded by solid writing, the willingness of its cast to deliver lines that would not be out of place in a summer bible camp, and the genuine interest the Kings seem to have in what exactly faith is.

There are many dark nights of the soul in Evil, primarily for David, who harbors a strong attraction to Kristen, as well as a deeply contentious rivalry with Dr. Leland Townsend, the psychologist who takes Kristen’s job at the DA’s office and happens to be a literal agent of the devil. David is, by turns, hilariously sincere and far more worldly than his initially optimistic demeanor conveys, a complicated portrait of doubt and spiritual desperation that never feels exploitative or cheap. Ben, the lovable grump who describes himself as the “comic relief” but is often prone to unsettling bouts of shaken atheistic resolve, purports to be dismissive of the supernatural, often turning towards a scientific or novel solution (toxic chemicals in pipes get a lot of mileage in Evil). As for Kristen, there has perhaps never been a more consistently unlucky, hot psychologist. Her lame husband, Andy, is off guiding people up Mount Everest, freeing up whatever spare time she has after watching over her four children and corralling her wild mother Sheryl (who eventually, unwittingly, begins dating Leland!) to fall deeply in love with David. The romantic and sexual tension that mounts as Evil goes on (Kristen and David are perhaps the only valid TV interracial couple to ever exist) is just another way the show plays with the traditional stakes of a TV show (will they/won’t they is a much more fraught question when we are talking about a married woman and a priest).

Surrounding these three characters is a menagerie of supporting players, including Kristen's ever-trustworthy therapist, Ben’s believing and unrelentingly droll sister Karima, a lovable little shit of a demon named George who haunts Kristen’s dreams and later becomes the narrator of the show, the terse, powerful Sister Andrea, and the various arms of the Catholic Church itself.

That last facet is what’s perhaps most interesting about Evil: the Church is painted as a gigantic and mysterious bureaucracy staffed by believers who seem to become more like the CIA the closer one gets to the Vatican. The Kings wisely respect the religion rather than the institution. David, who struggles with the vices of the flesh, and who has the frustratingly intermittent gift of heavenly sight, routinely comes up against the tarnished legacy of the Catholic Church, which the show rightly addresses head-on, as well as the distinct lack of black leadership and support he comes to desire.

And it’s Evil’s very willingness to tie in so many seemingly jarring stylistic choices, from grave meditations on the capacity for grace in a corrupted soul to demons gleefully pissing in bedroom corners, that makes its thematic curiosity all the more compelling. The joy of Evil is that it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously to take seriously the questions it raises. Namely: What do you do if a supernatural morality actually does exist? More than that, in a world as cruel and unforgiving as this one can be, how do you convince people that goodness is even worth pursuing?

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.