Why Evil is the Only TV Procedural Worth Watching

Evil transcends supernatural crime procedurals because it’s got no cops, but does have real demons and a wannabe priest who drops acid to cope.

The Cast of Evil
Photo: CBS

This Evil article contains spoilers. You can read a spoiler-free review of the show here.

Who knows what evils lie at the heart of CBS’s Evil? Shadows know. We consulted a book of shadows (not the one Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson) skims, too many spoilers there) to cut into the left ventricle of the darkness feeding the network’s supernatural series, now in production for season 2. The blood of the police procedural pumps through the veins of the paranormal investigation show, but Evil transcends the statutes of those limitations. Occasionally by papal decree. The series is intelligent, filled with symbolism, and its main character, who is training to be a priest, drops acid on a semi-regular basis. And he’s not microdosing. Look at those baggies.

Evil doesn’t debunk demonic possession, which is the main thrust of the team’s investigations. It never treats it as campy. The series believes demons are real, even giving the audience a breakdown of the six different forms possession take. But it deliciously stops short of giving full commitment. The show also explores how to parse out personal responsibility when there’s a supernatural being to blame. In episode 7, “Vatican 3,” we learn “the court does not acknowledge demonic possession” in determining guilt or innocence. The series further muddies the waters when the crew has to take a hard look at a murder committed by someone who wasn’t possessed, such as when the parents of what they believed is a demonically possessed child kill him. The series further turns the screw because the kid they killed to save their other children was born evil. It was literally in his genes.

Evil shares DNA with The X-Files, and David Acosta, played with charisma and empathy by Mike Colter (Luke Cage), is the new show’s Fox “Spooky” Mulder. He is looking for answers beyond the veil, which has the same letters as evil, and he is putting the pieces together like a hidden map of old Manhattan. There’s a truth out there and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to understand it. He’s not in it to solve any crimes against venal sins. He is looking for deeper meaning, and this alone puts the series above most procedurals. David’s got a bit of the scientist Dodge from original The Planet of the Apes film in his cinematic character. One of the first astronauts to delve so deep into the outer reaches of space, “He’d walk naked into a live volcano if he thought he could learn something no other man knew.” David is the same. He was a foreign correspondent in war-ravaged Afghanistan who got to know the soldiers whose stories he reported. Truth and knowledge are the most noble of callings, and ultimately come before his religious calling.

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While the basic premise of a spiritual believer teamed with a dissenting psychologist is procedural trope, Evil is out to debunk the law of its diminishing returns. First, the show teams David with not just one skeptical voice, but two. Katja Herbers’ Dr. Kristen Bouchard plays the same role Agent Dana Scully played to Mulder, and with a similar arsenal. She comes from a different perspective, though. Bouchard does indeed believe in miracles, but thinks they all have scientific explanations. She is confident the only reason something might defy natural principles is because science hasn’t been applied properly yet. Scully, who wore a cross and took her faith seriously, accepted miracles on faith. David and Kristen rarely come to the same conclusion.

Ben Shakir, played by Aasif Mandvi, brings common knowledge, and shades his skepticism with cynicism. The former Daily Show correspondent takes on the weight of all three Lone Gunmen but with more constructive skills. Before joining the paranormal team, he was a carpenter, just like Jesus. Ben knows how things work, and when everyday mechanisms like sinks or faulty wiring are the root cause of supernatural phenomena, he can turn the screws, and spot the mold. Ben, “the Magnificent,” as Kristen’s children call him, is also tech savvy, and quite capable of hacking hackers.

Evil also throws things at Ben which he can’t easily spackle over with even the best of tests. Try as he may, and he tries, he can’t explain the light of an angel in the frame of a surveillance video. There is no evidence of doctoring, even at the most expert levels. “The world is weird,” David passes off as dating advice when Ben asks about potential girlfriend Vanessa (Nicole Shalhoub), who wants to know she if she should detach from her dead sister before committing to a new relationship. Vanessa thinks she is “tethered” to her phantom sister by the right arm.

Supernatural science is bizarre, creators Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife, Braindead) believe. They push the show to diagnose causes the external evidence of exorcisms and stigmata, the bleeding wounds which correspond to the wounds on Christ’s hands when he was nailed to the cross. Because stigmatics display their wounds as they are portrayed artistically, rather than how the Romans historically would have done the crucifixion, it proves it comes from a psychological source. Internal belief causes the phenomena, not external spiritual forces. Evil explains that, allowing ample room for skepticism, belief, and even poetic reasons for spiritual incursions. David quotes Shakespeare to enunciate his faith. The concept of free will doesn’t come up in most procedurals. Neither does the way sociopolitical issues are turned into supernatural questions and tied to the origins of evil.

Evil is almost a character in Evil, and has relatable entry points. Real demons first get to Kristen’s four young daughters through an augmented reality videogame. A little girl who never takes off her Halloween mask almost gets the sisters to bury one alive. We don’t know how much of the characters’ perceptions is the result of a demon character’s influence on them. Each character is slowly being tempted by the dark side.

Kristen joined the team as a rational thinker but has had to accommodate uncomfortable ideas and adjust her comfort zone accordingly. In her usual line of work, she’s analyzed the criminally insane, but the show has pushed her into close contact with people who are evil in the Biblical sense. She is being pushed incrementally by forces in and out of her control. Her own mother Sheryl (Christine Lahti) sides with a manipulative competitor, Leland, over her daughter, and he’s made direct threats. The first season can be seen as Kristen’s slow corruption. The second season may see Kirsten apply her skills to her own situation, which will delve further into the dichotomy between the spiritual and pragmatic.

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This is because Kristen may have already fallen. The final episode includes a telltale blood stain, which she wills Ben to unsee. On any procedural this is considered a clue, but here on Evil, the evidence actually points further than a mere homicide. It is the first sign that a main character has gone to the dark side. It is confirmed when the touch of a crucifix blisters her hand. There’s no such thing as an original sin and Kristen has been flirting with temptation long before this.

Kristen is a married nonpracticing Catholic who lost her faith. She’s sexually attracted to David, a man on his way to becoming a priest. When this subject was broached on the classic 1970s cop comedy Barney Miller, a prostitute who was supposed to be a young priest’s last fling before he entered a monastery said “I break laws, not commandments.” It feels like Kristen reminds herself of this every time the two of them are on screen alone together. Their sexual chemistry is that palpable. Yes, this is very similar to the long-gesticulating romance between Mulder and Scully, but he was no priest and she wasn’t married. Not only is Kristen married, but she’s got half a brood of daughters. Annoying things, really, but at least one of them has an excuse. Another reason Evil is the only procedural worth watching is because everyone on it just might be cursed. That’s not found in the manuals.

Evil towers over contemporary procedurals in how it’s going dark. Most procedurals chase a morally compromised arc, but Evil treats it like an encroaching corruption. Kristen, who is sworn to uphold the law, may have gone more than rogue vigilante. Besides the crucifix-burning season closing, David has visions of a goat demon waiting for Kristen with a scythe. She’d been tormented by her own personal demon throughout the season but when the George, the demon-like creature who visits Kristen during sleep paralysis, falls on the knife, it changes nothing. He is just one of many demons. One of them set up practice and is taking office hours with Leland.

The Demon Therapist is an all-male Goat of Mendes, or Baphomet. The show gets into how different biblical angels look from how they’re perceived artistically and by the contemporary faithful, but won’t present a faithful representation of Baphomet. It’s as patriarchal as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Evil keeps it vague whether the goat demon is real or in Leland’s head. The Demon therapist appears in Kristen’s dreams as well. Lexis (Maddy Crocco) disabled the house alarm for the visiting devil therapist when he invites her to “the next level,” making it seem she is at least susceptible to underworldly influence. The kids are irritating, but they are a bargaining chip and their father, Adam, put them up for grabs when they chanted together offering an exchange of souls. Kristen was co-opted into evil through protective motherly instinct. She doesn’t see the mark of the devil as a badge of honor. When Kristen puts the cross in her palm, she doesn’t look like she expected it as much as feared it.

While the network show will never have the freedoms afforded cable series, the acting is top notch all around. Series like HBO’s Perry Mason or even Showtime’s reimagined second incarnation of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, provide a wider range of emotion and carnality. But Evil gives us muted, for the most part believable performances, very often underplayed. As are the special effects and use of technology as a narrative device. Too many procedurals treat high tech surveillance and other investigative tools like they are all-seeing eyes which can count nostril hairs.  It has become normalized. Evil doesn’t waste intellectual space with unreasonable gadgets. The tools Ben or Leland use to their computerized ends are believable. At one point, Kristen asks Ben to record a cell phone conversation which is already halfway over. She is surprised he can’t with all his special skills.

The series incorporates real world horrors into mundane life. Even some of the most normal looking settings carry a sense of unease, to underscore the show’s thesis that the supernatural is natural but never quite normalized. Many of the scenes are shot vertically, drawing the viewers’ eyes upward and inferring something is always going on above. The series’ many wide-angle shots put a distance between characters even in close-ups.

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The show isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeves, and on several occasions has a lot of fun with it. For Dr. Kurt Boggs’ (Kurt Fuller) arrival at an exorcism, they recreated Father Merrin’s introductory scene in the horror classic The Exorcist, shot for shot, even getting an exact replica of the light post and the same make car, though different year, from the film. They gave nods to Rosemary’s Baby, Misery, Cabin in the Woods, and Children of the Corn.  The climbing ax which Kirsten grabs on her way out to do damage on the serial killer Orson looks like it has teeth. As did the walking stick Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot carried in The Wolfman. The demon George looks like Freddy Krueger’s good-looking cousin. The tonality of the show is reminiscent of Charles Laughton’s immeasurably influential Night of the Hunter.

The main reason Evil shines above most procedurals is because it is scary, and those scares have been building slowly and deliberately. Commonplace settings feel off, and the world around is filled with conspiracies and coverup. The Vatican asks the team to determine whether a woman who knows the hidden history of the church is a false prophet. The fertility clinic Kristen and her husband Andy used when conceiving Lexis corrupts fetuses with satanic insemination. A witty but innocuous internet meme, Puddy’s Christmas song, is a hummably foreboding earworm. Anything can go evil on Evil.

Evil season 2 is currently in production. Read more about that here.