The prospect of watching a new procedural drama on CBS isn’t something that typically appeals to me, and appearances that it might be a thinly-veiled X Files knockoff certainly don’t help. Remarkably, Evil may be more promising than some of the early previews made it look.
To be honest, the only reason I agreed to give the show a serious look at all is that I found out it comes from Robert and Michelle King, creators of CBS’ excellent legal drama The Good Wife and its spinoff The Good Fight. Even when they dabble a little in schlock (like 2016’s alien invasion comedy BrainDead), the Kings have a way of putting an interesting twist on it.
Evil stars Katja Herbers (Manhattan, Westworld) as Dr. Kristen Bouchard, a clinical psychologist who makes a meager income by evaluating whether criminals are mentally fit to stand trial, and testifying to that effect for the prosecution. Her latest subject is an accused serial killer named Orson, and Kristen is all set to declare him fully competent when the defense floats a ridiculous-sounding theory that Orson only murdered because he was possessed by a demon named Roy. Even Orson himself scoffs at that, but it draws the attention of David Acosta (Mike Colter from Luke Cage), an “assessor” from the Catholic Church who investigates alleged miracles and demonic activity. Kristen thinks that’s all a bunch of hooey, but David seems surprisingly grounded for someone chasing angels.
After Kristen gets dropped from the case due to a dispute with the prosecutor, David offers her a job working for him. She’s inclined to refuse, but four adorable young daughters to raise on her own and a crushing debt hanging over her force her hand. David says that he doesn’t mind that she doesn’t believe in demons. He welcomes her skepticism to challenge his own beliefs and assumptions. His other assistant, a contractor named Ben (Aasif Mandvi), is another skeptic whose purpose is to find rational explanations that debunk supposedly supernatural occurrences. He’s quite good at it.
Subsequent interviews with Orson the murderer leave Kristen unnerved, and he even attacks her for reciting a prayer at David’s insistence. The night after that happens, Kristen is paralyzed by fear in her own bed when what appears to be a demon intrudes into her room, introduces himself as “George,” and climbs on top of her. As much as she tries to rationalize this and tell herself that she’s just suffered a night terror, she’s shaken by the experience.
The following night, Kristen tapes a note to the ceiling of her bedroom. She’s visited again by George, who becomes more aggressive and cuts off one of her fingers. However, this time Kristen looks up at the ceiling. When she can’t read the words on her note, she takes that as proof that she’s just dreaming. George disappears and her hand is not wounded.
Her faith in rationality restored, Kristen goes back to interview Orson once again. This time, he speaks as Roy, the demon. She assumes that he’s faking, except that he somehow knows about George and taunts her with details of her nightmare that he shouldn’t have any way of knowing. He says that George is going to murder her children.
Badly freaked out by this, Kristen struggles to find an explanation for how Orson could have learned about her dreams. Finally, it occurs to her that the only person she told was her therapist. As it turns out, his notes from their last session were stolen from his office by a man named Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who Kristen finds testifying on Orson’s behalf in court. He obviously slipped the information to Orson in order to sell the story that he was possessed by a demon. When Kristen confronts him, Townsend intimates that he’s part of some sort of Satanic cult called “The 60,” which he suggests is a vast and powerful organization.
David is already very familiar with Mr. Townsend. They’ve crossed paths before. He describes Townsend as a “connector,” someone who influences others to commit acts of evil. He also lays out a theory that modern social media has allowed such people to extend their influence on an unprecedented scale. Whereas in the past, random psychos here and there could only work in isolation, thus containing their potential impact, now they can join together with others of like mind and spread their evil across the world.
Nevertheless, now that they know what he’s up to, Kristen and David are able to prove that Orson was faking his demonic possession, which means that he’ll have to stand trial after all.
The case resolved, David asks Kristen if she’ll join him on an assignment to investigate a supposed medical miracle that took place in a hospital.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
A believer and a skeptic team up to investigate the supernatural? You’ve definitely heard that one before. Fortunately, what easily could have wound up as a lame X Files clone (like the History network’s Project Blue Book) somehow finds its own voice. Populating the story with interesting, well-developed characters goes a long way toward overcoming a derivative premise.
Even as far as that premise goes, Evil distinguishes itself with the very strong suggestion that there may in fact be plausible explanations for anything supernatural the characters encounter. The show won’t take it for granted that the paranormal is all real. Even if that’s true, however, it wouldn’t negate the true evil, which doesn’t need to come from a demon to make an impact.
The pilot episode is effectively creepy without resorting to cheap jump-scares, and does a very clever job of making Kristen’s demon nightmare feel genuinely frightening while also acknowledging its inherent silliness.