Watching television in 2021 — or more specifically staying current with your TV watching in 2021 — can often feel like an exercise in triage. Which shows do I need to watch right when they premiere for fear of spoilers (the ever valued "appointment television"), and which can I catch up on over the weekend? Which show is about to drop an entire season in my lap, and how much of that season do I need to watch right away to stay conversant? And finally, which shows can I pack away until later, like a picnic lunch for the middle of a hike. It's this last category where things can get tricky. Pack too many TV shows into your "for later" bin, and at some point something has to give. For me, the more episodes of a given series that get stacked up, the more likely I'm just going to give up and never start it.
I'd worried that's what had happened with Evil, which first aired on CBS in the 2019-2020 season. The series, which stars Michael Emerson and Mike Colter and is produced by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife and its excellent spinoff The Good Fight) had initialy piqued my interest based on its pedigree and its premise. The Kings doing a kind of Catholic X-Files sounded like at worst a wild ride. But time and episodes got away from me, and no matter how many times I heard from friends and social-media acquaintances that the show was fun, it remained a project for "when I have a whole weekend free." (You know, that very common occurrence.) But the announcement that the show's second season would be premiering on Paramount+ later this month finally lit a fire under my Kings-obsessed behind and I decided that my Evil Season 1 catch-up project was on. And since no good deed can't be made better by paying it forward, I'm using the occasion to bring anyone else who wants to join me up to speed as well. So let's go!
This first installment will cover episodes 1-5 from the first season of Evil; the season's remaining eight episodes will be covered in subsequent articles.
In the first episode — titled "Genesis 1" — we're introduced to our major players. Kristen (Katja Herbers) is a forensic psychologist hiring herself out as an expert witness for court proceedings. One case, involving a multiple murderer whose wife claims he's possessed by a demon, sees her cross paths with David Acosta (Mike Colter), who works for the Catholic Church as an investigator into cases of possible demonic possession (or, in happier instances, miracles). Acosta is partnered up with Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), a tech expert who serves as the Scully to Acosta's Mulder. By the end of the first episode, Kristen has joined the team as a kind of second Scully, although the show wastes very little time in muddling her belief system.
It's a solid, very simple premise, and its roots in shows like The X-Files are clear and welcome. Kristen has her skepticism challenged almost immediately when she gets plagued by sleep paralysis and dreams of a demon, and we go through several rounds of flip-flopping over whether this is a genuine demon sighting or something coming from Kristen's head. What's real? What's supernatural? As evidenced by The Good Fight, the Kings are happy to live in the in-between of uncertainty. Is Diane micro-dosing or has she succumbed to Trump derangement syndrome? Is Kirsten simply having a recurring nightmare, or does the demon exist independently of her mind? At some point does the difference stop mattering?
The demon is a perfect example of the kind of tightrope of tone Evil is walking. The creature is named George and he is, for lack of a better term, chatty. He's still decidedly menacing to Kristen, cutting off a finger here and there and making threats against her four daughters, but he's also kind of effete. Somehow, the chattiness, which initially presents as a counterweight to the horror of the situation, comes all the way around again and becomes even more unsettling, especially since we can't ever rule out the possibility that he's a genuine demon. For the moment, through these first five episodes, he seems to plague Kristen mostly from her subconscious.
We also meet Leland Townshend (Michael Emerson), who is a professional rival of Kristen's but also much more. It's good that the show doesn't bother with the pretense of making the audience wonder if a Michael Emerson character is up to no good. He's up to no good. But again the basic nature of his malevolence is in flux. If you ask David, the true believer, he's a demon, sent to wreak havoc in the souls of men. David himself is tormented by a kind of subconscious version of Townshend who preys upon his doubts and tries to lead him into temptation. He is very much the devil on your shoulder for David, and for many of the episodic cases that our gang investigate every week.
One of the great discoveries in episode 2 ("177 Minutes") is the realization that Evil is, at this stage, far more an episodic TV series than a serialized one. This might be its CBS DNA coming through, but it's a refreshing change of pace to have a show with such heavy themes of good and evil shape itself into the unlikeliest mold of all: a case-of-the-week drama. The episode 2 case involves a young woman who comes back to life in the morgue after being pronounced dead for nearly three hours. Rather than advance some sort of master plot, the case serves to deepen the character arcs for David (the believer) and Kristen (the skeptic). We also get more of Kristen and her four daughters, who all seem to be within three years of age, even though that's not possible. There's a recurring thread where we keep hearing about the girls' dad, who's off mountain-climbing somewhere, and while the show plays that as a flat fact, the more you think about it, the more it sounds like a fantastic cover story a mom might tell her young kids about a parent who isn't coming back. And through four episodes, he doesn't come back. Is he dead, as demon George taunts? The way the show is slow-playing this is very intriguing. Meanwhile, David is taking shrooms so he will see visions of God, all set to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good." This show is a LOT of fun.
Episodes 3 ("3 Stars") and 4 ("Rose 390") surface a recurring theme in the Kings' shows: an intense fascination in (and skepticism of) any kind of emerging technology. The Good Wife/Fight universe has made great hay out of the surveillance state, cryptocurrency, and created a great fake version of Google to be its tech business giant, calling it "Chumhum." In Evil, this emerges sometimes in Ben's explanations for why a supernatural event isn't supernatural (it's amazing what the existence of deepfakes has done to the possibility that you could fake a ghost sighting) and sometimes with tech as a possible vessel for evil. In back-to-back episodes, an Alexa-esque electronic assistant and VR headsets are both presented as avenues through which demons might be plaguing humanity. It is, if nothing else, a consistently wary POV on what tech has come to mean in our culture. As Ben puts it in the next episode — where he's in a side plot that involves a Ghost Hunters-style TV show — "We live in a world that's made up of bits and pixels, and it is so easy to manipulate them and create whatever we want, and I hate that because it encourages superstition and conspiracy theories."
The Halloween episode — episode 5, appropriately titled "October 31" — provides an excuse to deliver some good old-fashioned horror-story premises. David and Kristen investigate a case of possible demonic possession (the science-y explanation is undiagnosed schizophrenia), giving the show many great opportunities for Exorcist references. Meanwhile, Kristen's daughters spend the night playing with a neighborhood girl in a mask who ends up not being who she says she is and who leads these four perfect little angels into a graveyard late at night. Kids are often the weak link in drama series (look no further than The Good Wife and Alicia's teen children, who ended up being such little weirdos that the show ultimately had Alicia admit she didn't like them very much), but Kristen's kids are presented so authentically without being cloying that when they're placed in danger, you actually fear for their safety.
In terms of the macro-story, the big development in "October 31" comes when Leland Townshend ingratiates himself into the life of Kristen's mother (Christina Lahti), giving himself a foothold into Kristen's family without her knowledge.
I'll reserve final judgment on Evil until I've completed the entire first season over the next two weeks, but I will say that these first five episodes of went down VERY easily, with lots to love in terms of character development and a tone that rides the line between creepy and comedic that's incredibly fun to follow. I'm excited to see where the next batch of episodes go. Stay tuned…
Evil Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix and Paramount+. Season 2 premieres June 20th on Paramount+.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.