“Willard’s Mill Sheriff’s Department, cursed since 1963!”
In recent years, the horror genre has managed to penetrate into the mainstream. It seems as if every network is trying to get a piece of that blood pie. Stan Against Evil is IFC’s take on supernatural murder and mayhem.
At the same time, an IFC staple like Comedy Bang! Bang! is ending and another tent pole like Portlandia may not be around for too much longer. It isn’t going to hurt IFC to have a new universe to invest in. Thankfully, Stan Against Evil does a wonderful job at building a cursed world that you will want to keep coming back to.
Stan Against Evil, much like its titular protagonist, has a very loud, antiquated agenda that it’s far too excited to be pushing into your face. That being said, there’s also some super original, addictive ideas. So perhaps this unreconciliation of sensibilities is sort of the show’s point.
The series pointedly chooses to open on the lines, “In our darkest hour we commit these souls unsettled, these graves unblessed,” only for Stan to interrupt this thought with, “Why is everything a goddamn poem?” Right from the start here, John C. McGinley’s Stan Miller undercuts the beauty of the horror genre. This is like if Archie Bunker was fighting evil and then started ragging on the witches, telling them that women have no business trying to be scary in the first place. Once you can get behind the loud-mouthed characterization in play, there’s something special and different going on here.
The point at which we’re thrown into Stan sees Willard’s Mill in a tumultuous time of transition. Evelyn Barret (Janet Varney) is the new sheriff in town, which forces Stan into an interesting new dynamic that he’s not exactly comfortable with. Meanwhile, other Willard’s Mill mainstays like Deputy Drinkwater and Stan’s awkward daughter, Denise, are present to help acclimate Evie (and the audience) to these new changes, but Stan and Evie are the real centerpieces here. Not only is the pleasantly acidic chemistry between them established nearly immediately, it’s nice to see Janet Varney get a platform that truly shows off her comedic abilities, after proving her worth on stuff like You’re the Worst and Burning Love.
The broader character work that’s present in Stan Against Evil might be a little too much for some people. In spite of this aggressive, condescending nature of McGinley’s Stan, he is surprisingly easy to get behind, and much like Archie Bunker, you do start to cheer for the righteous bigot. Stan is certainly two tonnes of brashness in a one tonne body, but there is a real crushing humanity underneath all of this as Miller goes through this pivotal change in his life regarding his job and his wife. Under the gruff voice is still a very hurt beating heart. Stan is certainly ornery, critical, and runs his mouth in the same way that his famous Dr. Cox did, but he’s doing much more of a character here and thankfully the comparison doesn’t invite itself too often.
Stan Against Evil’s greatest asset lies in the fact that creator Dana Gould (The Simpsons) has injected a pretty compelling backstory into Willard’s Mill that gives it a justifiable reason to be the next Sunnydale and hotbed for supernatural material, in this case, specifically witches. Stan has found himself in an interesting loophole in the town’s history that gives him a particularly privileged position to help take down the things that go bump in the night.
The show reasonably keeps its spectrum broader than simply witch-based horror, with the series tackling a number of horror staples like succubi, séances, evil foliage, the timely Ouija boards, and even goats. Episodes are hardly feeling repetitive or derivative of previous efforts. Once more, while a bunch of what’s brought up in this show are familiar, a bunch of these topics are areas that I haven’t seen tackled in a horror TV series at least, and I’ve consumed an unreasonable amount of horror content. The show even implements horror and the supernatural for some nice parables and metaphors for every day situations in a style reminiscent of Man Seeking Woman. More of that sophisticated perspective is only going to help the show.
There’s also a lot to love here when it comes to Stan’s gorgeous cinematography and score, which even feels reminiscent of vintage Tim Burton at times. Each installment of the eight-episode season is directed by Justin Nijm and Jack Bishop whose visual eyes always go for broke. There are some truly haunting visuals and scary stuff that comes out of this show and for every laugh that it might deliver on, with how advanced the medium has gotten at this point, a show like this actually has to be scary and Stan connects in this regard.
Some people might be quick to dismiss the series’ witches and monsters of being derivative of Sam Raimi’s work, and while there is certainly a shared visual language and other elements between the works, Gould’s series wisely isn’t trying to just be some Evil Dead knockoff.
Stan Against Evil might not be the most original program that you watch on TV this season, but there’s no denying the passion and love for the genre that just oozes out of IFC’s new series. There is a strong, fun, macabre mentality at play here and the episodes push binge-worthy storytelling where cliffhangers are populating most of the episodes. This might not be the grueling trip through undead masochism that The Walking Dead is, but it’s the perfect series to crack a beer open to with your buddies as you rag on every variety of the undead.
Stan Against Evil premieres on November 2nd at 10pm on IFC, with a special preview of the pilot airing October 31st at 11 p.m.
This review is based on the first six half-hour episodes of Stan Against Evil’s first season.