Horror on television is no easy task. Horror is all about tone and tension and sustaining these is challenging in a long-form narrative, which can also be a tough sell for networks and audiences. Though we haven’t had as many horror shows as we have today – there are three Stephen King adaptations airing right now! – these are mostly confined to streaming where there are fewer restrictions on the creators. This is all to say, it is both shocking and refreshing to see a show embrace the horror genre and push the boundaries of what network TV can do as much as CBS’s Evil. Part crime procedural and part The X-Files but with demons, this is the best thing to happen to network TV since the end of The Exorcist or Hannibal.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
The first episode of Evil opens with forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) questioning a man accused of several murders. Nothing CBS’s audience isn’t used to, another crime procedural you can leave on playing in the background. But then creators Michelle and Robert King, the pair responsible for The Good Wife and The Good Fight, pull the rug from under the audience and have Kristen reciting a prayer until the killer goes absolutely bananas. Is he possessed? Or just triggered by the prayer? That’s what Kristen, priest-in-training David Acosta (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter), and tech expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi), are tasked to find out as they investigate the Catholic Church’s huge backlog of unexplained mysteries.
Where most pop culture depictions of demons and demonic possession focus on what happens during an exorcism, Evil focuses on huge amount of work that goes into getting ironclad proof of demonic possession before the exorcism happens. This allows the show to walk a balance between what audiences would expect from a CBS procedural like the case of the week and the investigations, with its horror elements like an evil VR game or a night terror that looks like a demon. Each episode begins with a new case, a claim by someone that something supernatural is going on, whether a miracle or a demonic occurrence. The team then investigates the claim, Kristen and David usually look at the psychology behind the occurrence while Ben looks for the most logical and technological explanation.
A serial killer being coached on faking symptoms via 4chan and Alexa-type devices getting hacked are all part of the show. Whether it’s how vulnerable technology is to outside interference or how clueless users sometimes are to the dangers of being exposed through technology to even unexplained evil like a VR game that may be haunted, Evil doesn’t shy away from using technology as a way to explore the nature of evil. While each episode of Evil deals with an individual case that gets resolved within that episode, there is an overarching story that threatens to unleash literal Hell upon the characters.
The closest comparison to Evil, at least in terms of narrative structure, is The X-Files. You got your believer, here in the form of priest-to-be David, who is ready to jump to conclusions and call devil, while Kristen looks at clinical explanations to the cases they investigate. Though each case is standalone, there is an overarching narrative that indicates a larger mythology that could go into The Exorcist territory very quickly. This is mostly due to the creepy imagery of a recurrent night terror involving demonic figured who calls himself “George” and terrorizes Kristen while she’s frozen in her sleep. Though the show takes a logical and detached approach to its mythology – it doesn’t spell out whether it is demons or just nightmares – the show hints at a darker story the moment Kristen’s daughter also has dreams of George. Then there’s Dr. Leland Towsend (the wickedly talented, Michael Emerson) who may or may not even be a real human, but a demon. He’s a fascinating and wildly entertaining villain, and just like he did in Lost, Emerson is very good at playing manipulative and deceitful characters with just a few menacing and evil looks. He’s both a professional threat to Kristen, but also part of the show’s larger mythology that seems to be heralding the coming of not one, not two, but sixty demons to Earth.
An interesting aspect of Evil is how it treats both the agnostic and the faithful with equal respect. The cases of the week, even if they sort of get resolved, don’t present completely clean answers, but leave things open to interpretation that there could be greatest forces at play. We may get an answer as to why a girl would seemingly come back to life after being dead for hours, but the source of the weird ghostly image in the surveillance cameras is left up in the air. These may hugely into the horror aspect of the show, as the more procedural-like scenes of investigating the claims give way to pure nightmare fuel. George isn’t in the show a lot, but his mere presence is enough to haunt your nightmares. Likewise, the show contains enough creepy little girls playing with Ouija boards to make you want to get away. These scenes are shot and presented like horror movies, and they can be quite effective at times.
While the two leads remind of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the dynamic between Kristen and David is more than just skeptic versus believer, but about the source of evil itself. Thematically, Evil is perhaps closer to the Netflix show Mindhunter, in that it explores what makes people do terrible things: Does evil come from twisted minds that act horribly? Is it society or nurture? Or is there something evil that influences us to bad things? Evil won’t give you a straight answer, and sometimes the show isn’t afraid to leave you with no answers at all. Episode 4 deals with a once perfectly normal couple who believe their once perfectly normal 9-year-old son to be possessed. The kid started acting progressively aggressive and violent towards his infant sister, and no psychologist was able to help. The team struggles with deciding if the kid is an innate sociopath, possessed by a demon, or is simply the victim of chemicals from the environment affecting his behavior. But they are unable to help once they discover that the kid has gone missing and the police are investigating the parents. It takes but a few glances for them to realize the unspeakable horror that took place in that house. Though we never find out the source of the kid’s behavior, Evil leaves you to decide what answer was the scariest, as the credits roll and the episode leaves you emotionally devastated.
Part of the fun of Evil simply has to do with there it airs. A network TV genre show that dives into horror is a rare thing. The Exorcist and Hannibal showed you can push the boundaries while still delivering a top-notch story, but they were exceptions to the norm. That Evil airs on the same network as the endless parade of CSI and NCIS shows and manages to both follow the rules of those shows while also delivering disturbing scenes of creepy VR girls playing with a Ouija board and summoning a dark presence, that is a true miracle.