For seven seasons, The Good Wife was a cable drama dressed in broadcast procedural’s clothing. Each episode introduced one or more legal cases that would be resolved within the course of that hour, the better to be eaten by a weary audience at the end of a long (and often football-delayed) Sunday. But the show’s creators, Robert and Michelle King, gradually worked in the kind of serialized narratives and moral complexity more commonly found on HBO or Netflix than on CBS. When Julianna Margulies decided she didn’t want to play Alicia Florrick anymore, the Kings transformed the show into the CBS All-Access spinoff The Good Fight, which still has some standalone legal cases but has largely turned into the kind of show The Good Wife always preferred to be.
Now the Kings are back on CBS proper with Evil, an X-Files-esque show about a trio of investigators for the Catholic Church who look into reports of demonic possessions, miracles, and other matters metaphysical. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) is a psychologist recently out of a job with the New York district attorney’s office, raising four adorable daughters on her own while her (estranged?) husband is off working as a guide for mountain climbers. David Acosta (Mike Colter) is a priest in training(*), while Ben Shroff (Aasif Mandvi) is the resident tech expert.
(*) Not only does this show, in the Year of Our Lord Fleabag, offer its own Hot Priest (In Training), but there’s a scene at the end of the pilot where Kristen and the guys enjoy a mixed alcoholic beverage in a can (margaritas here, as opposed to Fleabag‘s Gin in a Tin).
Three of the four episodes CBS provided for review follow a clear-cut Demon of the Week formula. The other is roughly the same, only the team tries to figure out if a seemingly dead woman woke up in a hospital morgue due to a miracle or medical negligence. By going with a trio rather than a duo, and making both Kristen and Ben doubters, the Kings try to sidestep the binary believer vs. skeptic set-up that was so familiar from X-Files and its many imitators. But this approach can feel muddled, with stories generating problems for both skeptics to solve via their respective specialties, while there’s not a lot of tension between them and David.
Nor does it help that the Kings, who wrote a great Good Wife role for Colter as drug kingpin Lemond Bishop, often make David seem laid-back to the point of not being emotionally invested in the truth of these cases. (Luke Cage also ran into this problem, where a relaxed Colter can seem like a very passive Colter.) Herbers, getting her own star turn after memorable smaller roles on Manhattan, The Leftovers, and Westworld, among others, makes good use of her smart energy, particularly in the scenes where Kristen appears to be menaced by actual creatures from the underworld. But the Kings pile on too many problems for Kristen to be juggling at once — this new job, fallout from leaving the DA’s office, the girls, whatever is going on with her marriage, frequent appearances by her mother (Christine Lahti), and perhaps an attraction to David — even as her buttoned-down personality means we don’t really get to see how most of it’s weighing on her. (Alicia Florrick was similarly mysterious and overburdened, but she was written with more complexity from the jump, and placed in situations that garnered a wider range of responses than Herbers is asked to give.) As the gruff, underappreciated, non-Catholic(*) member of the team, Mandvi’s Ben is the early standout, as well as the conduit for the Kings to exercise their ongoing fascinations with modern technology. (It will surprise no one who watches The Good Fight to learn that Evil has an episode where a demon seems to have infiltrated someone’s virtual assistant.)
(*) Kristen waits until the third episode to ask David how he feels about various Church scandals (pedophilia is alluded to but never referenced outright), its attitude towards gays, etc. The conversation acknowledges that its heroes are working for an organization that’s done many terrible things, but in a way that feels obligatory rather than the start of an ongoing debate — like the Kings needs the team to be Church-affiliated to make the premise work, but either they or CBS don’t want to get too far into the weeds about what that affiliation might mean.
But it’s when Evil lives up to its name that it’s most interesting. The premiere introduces not only a scaly, leering monster named George (Marti Matulis) who visits Kristen in the night and asks whether she’s wearing underwear, but casts the great Michael Emerson as Leland Townsend, a fellow shrink who claims to have thrown in his lot with the forces of darkness. The character is an amalgam of Ben Linus from Lost, William Hinks from The Practice, and most of the other mysterious creeps Emerson has been hired to play over the years. It’s also a reminder of why he’s been cast in these roles: he has a lot of fun with them. Townsend torments the good guys in the real world — at one point taunting Kristen with a delightfully bitchy, sing-song, “Good luck with your miracle!” when she walks away from him — while also sometimes haunting David’s dreams and visions, in the most perfectly annoying ways. (If you’ve ever wanted to hear Emerson perform both sides of “Who’s On First?” you are in luck.) The appearances by George and some other apparent demons can be genuinely unnerving (and occasionally quite graphic). And whether they’re real or just night terrors, their presence gives weight to even the suggestion that genuine darkness is afoot here. Not only that, true to the close spiritual alignment of horror and comedy, those scenes are often by far the funniest things Evil has to offer.
Townsend drops hints of a larger mythology. How much will the Kings get to explore it? The Good Wife took its time revealing that it wanted to be about more than that week’s civil proceeding. The early Evil cases are solid but not thrilling. (The closest the show comes is in its extremely dark fourth episode, about a troubled young boy who keeps trying to kill his siblings and parents, but the story doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining why the kid doesn’t get institutionalized.) The nods at something more serialized are when the show seems at its liveliest, so hopefully Evil dives deeper into those murky waters, and soon.
Evil debuts September 26th on CBS.