ENTERTAINMENT

Evil thoughtfully investigates religious uncertainty and SWEET JESUS, WHAT’S IN THE POOL?

Evil thoughtfully investigates religious uncertainty and SWEET JESUS, WHAT’S IN THE POOL?

I was going to say that Evil is a droll and savvy procedural — heavy questions, light touch — and then I watched Thursday’s episode. Holy hell, kids! And: Holy hellkids! The CBS drama (airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) investigates religious mystery with secular science. Terrifying, inexplicable supernatural enigmas have even-more-terrifying high-tech explanations. Possessions are hacks. Toothy hellbeasts are crowdsourced invasions into your personal information. “Satan is the internet,” kind of, and who would disagree? The fourth episode proves the series can genuinely shock, too, veering past cheeky surrealism into the dark web of true horror.

Evil begins when forensics psychologist Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) meets David DaCosta (Mike Colter). David is an assessor for the Church, examining events demonic and miraculous. You’re primed for cynic-believer friction, and romantic tension. Important to point out that Evil comes from creators Michelle and Robert King, who also currently produce The Good Fight for CBS All Access. That transcendant series is a courtroom drama on literal acid, ongoing proof that Kings have a unique gift for playing within established TV formulas.

Kristen’s not a violent atheist, but she is a liberal intellectual with accurate concerns about Catholicism: epidemics of sexual abuse, the still-inhuman official policy on homosexuality. David is pleasantly devout without being orthodox. To see God, he sips psychedelic tea. And he’s an incredulous investigator, more Scully than Mulder. When a woman says her rageaholic boss has been possessed, David recommends contacting human resources. He’s no more convinced by the parents who think their troubled son requires an exorcism. “We have to get our own psych eval,” he explains, “before I can request any church action.”

Kristen’s a married woman with four daughters. Her husband is off climbing Mount Everest, the weirdest absent-parent subplot since iCarly’s dad spent the series on a submarine. And David is a priest-in-training, a few years from lifelong celibacy. So the fact that there is explicit sexual chemistry is thrillingly dangerous: church action, indeed!
A cheerful agnostic, a conflicted Catholic… who are we missing? Right: The third member of Evil’s team is Ben (Aasif Mandvi), an apparently non-practicing Muslim. He’s the Swiss Army knowledge guy, a carpenter-slash-I.T.-expert who can backtrace hacks or swab shower heads for psychosis-inducing copper corrosion.

All three leads are immediately likable. Herbers could be some undiscovered Mara sister, wry and tough and stylishly exhausted. Mandvi was an apex blowhard on The Daily Show, but he makes a good disinterested regular guy, all-denim-everything. Colter is incredible in a very tricky role. The once (and future?) Luke Cage still has a superhero build, and his softspoken charisma shades into unsteady torment. David’s religious passion is an internal struggle. He prays like he’s running away from something. When he shrooms upward toward an angelic vision, his wide smile looks ecstatic and pitiful.

There’s a religious revival happening on television. The Emmy-winning second season of Amazon’s Fleabag sent Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s singleton into the confessional booth with Andrew Scott’s man of god. An equivalent spiritual-romantic saga played through the stellar first season of Hulu’s Ramy, where co-creator and star Ramy Youssef played a young American Muslim balancing renewed devotion to the Koran with ever-less-godly hookups. AMC’s wondrous Lodge 49 is less religious than alchemical, but it’s a palpable portrait of a churchless America in search of communal ritual. And the final season of The Good Place refracts the great mysteries of the afterlife through whiteboard philosophy.

In theory, these shows could be enjoyed by literally anyone. (Lodge 49 was made for all humanity!) In practice, they live somewhere between hyper-engaged fandom and niche programming, or beyond old metrics of viewership. Evil appears more conventional, conducting weekly church-adjacent investigations on the network that brought you Touched by an Angel and God Friended Me. But it’s just as incisive, and vastly less optimistic. Those other series tend to aim for a hard-won generosity. The niceness can be a virtue — or it can curdle. I’m really struggling with this season of The Good Place, honestly, a formerly sharp comedy of exasperated morality that has become a Marvel-ized friendcom about bantering love interests saving the universe.

Nothing wrong with feeling good, to be clear, and “escapism” has become a sacred word as our world has turned to shadow. But when it comes to religious inquisition, there’s a madness missing. And if you’ll excuse a minor and terrifying spoiler alert, Evil just threw a baby in a swimming pool, and that wasn’t even the craziest part of the fourth episode. So far, the team’s investigations have a 50-50 hit rate, at best. The third episode ends with a suicide — soundtracked by Warren Zevon! At least that was darkly funny. Episode 4 is just plain dark, with an implication of parent-child violence that makes every Conjuring film look sentimental.

There’s a longform narrative brewing around Dr. Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), an apparent psychopath trying to link all the world’s bad people into a social network of malevolence, or something. He’s either the devil himself or an intensely dedicated troll: What’s the difference, really? Emerson’s delicious as always, but I worry his maniacal focus on David and Kristen could turn cartoony. (In fairness, real-life trolls are cartoonishly evil.) Meanwhile, Christine Lahti seems extraneous as Kristen’s mother, a hedonist grandma out of a much lighter procedural. The Kings have a far-reaching perspective on the digital world, but Evil’s actual portrayal of online life can trend cheesy. When Kristen’s daughters start playing with virtual-reality goggles, the VR itself just looks wrong, variously too perfect or barely beta-tested.

Evil already succeeds, though, as a relentlessly clever mash-up procedural, merging psychological medical mystery with techno-crime and spiritual struggle. Its paranoia is far-reaching, and very bleak. You quickly realize that every piece of technology on screen could be turned against our heroes: smartphones, virtual assistants, the air itself stuffed with invasive Wi-Fi. There’s a name for the place where demons can attack you from every direction for no reason, and it’s not “heaven.” B+
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