Is it premature to declare the birth of a whole new TV-show genre? Tonight's Ash vs. Evil Dead episode — "Bait" — boasts more gore-soaked scenes than half a True Blood season and better gags than the bulk of the broadcast networks' fall comedy line-up. What do you call the result? Action, drama, sitcom, horror — none of these feel quite right. It's some high-octane hybrid of all of them, and it pursues a single purpose with all the relentlessness of the reanimated dead: to entertain the living shit out of you.
For that to happen, you'll admittedly have to check the niceties of dramaturgy at the door. This should probably go without saying, but any show in which characters sit down to a nice (albeit paranoid) family dinner after learning that demonic entities-cum-undead killing machines are roaming around is not exactly taking things entirely seriously.
Yes, there's the occasional nod in the direction of psychological trauma. Ash survived his initial encounters years ago ("I've had to kill and bury loved ones before...a bunch of times, actually") but now lives on his own as half-drunk trailer trash. Detective Amanda Fisher is compelled to find out what happened to her Deadite-posessed partner even if it means running afoul of the force. And Kelly, poor Kelly, gets in a good cry after her evil dead mom (Mimi Rogers!) rams a fork through her dad's eye socket — even if the tears are a bit hard to make out under all the blood. In a normal drama, these feelings would drive the characters, and the narrative.
Here, though, they function more like spices in a recipe, or homeopathic remedies: a little pinch of something powerful, just enough to get the story where it needs to go. There's an exchange between our heroic trio that sums up the approach nicely. "I hate whatever did this," Kelly says, referring to the destruction of her family, with a look on her face indicating she means every word. "Yep, that was my takeaway too," Ash deadpans in response. "Yeah yeah, me too, I also hate this evil," Pablo chimes in — clearly, this solemn vow of vengeance is secondary to his real interest, namely wooing his comely co-worker.
As for show's real interest, that's easy: kicking ass and splitting skulls. This is series that cold-opens an episode on a severed head, with Ash saying "That, my friends, is how we do it." Talk about a mission statement! The level of sheer bloody-minded madness it's able to maintain even without creator Sam Raimi at the helm (genre vet Michael J. Bassett helmed this week's chapter) is truly impressive. From the seemingly endless scene in which El Jefe stabs his former boss in the neck with a broken bottle to the equally prolonged beheading of Mom, the primary technique is to take things as far as they can go...then take them a little bit further. If you like your horror with a heaping helping of chutzpah, it works like a charm.
Speaking of charm, Bruce Campbell is truly in his zone at this point. With the pilot episode's kinda creepy sex vibes now largely exorcised, he's free to be the enjoyably cocky zombie-killer we all know and love. When you think back to the character's original context, he was way out of place with the brawny barbarians of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger era; his Evil Dead 2 turn anticipates the less invulnerable action-hero mold established by Bruce Willis in Die Hard a year after that sequel's release. He talks about himself like he's the Terminator, but he's constantly getting his bell run like a WWF jobber. No wonder he's been cast as Ronald Reagan on Fargo this season: Who else can match the Gipper's unique blend of comical bluster and boundless bloodlust?
From a structural standpoint (literally), Ash vs. Evil Dead still has one major challenge: How can it recapture the claustrophobic cabin-in-the-woods feeling of the original films while stretching it out over 10 episodes of TV? As of this week, we may have our answer: by taking the show on the road. Last week's battles were staged in the McMansion murder scene Amanda investigated and inside Ash's trailer. This time around, our heroes went hand-to-hand with a Deadite in the main man's car, then jumped ugly with Kelly's mom in her dining room and bedroom. Making use of the environment for fight choreography is key to any good action scene, doubly so where Evil Dead is concerned — and it looks like the series has cracked the code.
The result is a joyously anarchic viewing experience. No, none of the medium's main genres seem to match up. Nor, so far, can they keep up. It ain't perfect, and it ain't pretty, and it's as deep as a shallow grave. But to paraphrase our hero, if you want to get your nut up to enjoy yourself for half an hour, it's the good shot to the chin you've been waiting for.