I enjoyed the premiere episode of Touching Evil (USA, Fridays, 10 p.m. ET) up until the point when Detective David Creegan spits on his prime suspect, Ronald Hinks. After a failed interrogation, Creegan—a federal agent who knows Hinks is a child-murderer but can’t prove it—follows Hinks to his car and jumps into the passenger seat. The detective threatens Hinks and physically intimidates him—pretty standard gritty cop-show fare—and then Creegan crosses the line: He hocks a huge gob at Hinks, who sits there and takes it, hanging his head while spit dribbles past his ear. Creegan acts this way because he is missing part of his frontal lobe, the part of the cerebral cortex involved in impulse control and social appropriateness. “I have no shame,” he tells his new partner, Detective Susan Branca, in another scene, and though he says it without pride, Creegan’s brain damage is Touching Evil’s badge of honor. (The show, it’s worth noting, is based on the series of the same name by Britain’s Granada Television. *)
As if the missing brain parts weren’t enough, Creegan was also pronounced dead for 10 minutes and spent some time in a mental institution—all as a result of a near-fatal gunshot wound we see in the show’s prologue. Because Touching Evil is primarily a drama, these character details carry a lot of weight, but until the spit scene, Creegan’s bizarre and erratic behavior is mostly in good fun. (As the USA Network discovered with its delightful hit Monk, mental problems make for one charming detective.) When we meet Creegan, he’s returning to work at the San Francisco office of the fictional Organized and Serial Crime Unit. He’s better, but not well. Creegan cuts his hair in public, doles out inappropriate bear hugs, makes paper airplanes out of people’s business cards, and generally drives his partner crazy. But he also discovers crucial bits of evidence and displays unfailing crime-solving instincts. As with Monk, only someone who is often so right is allowed to act so wrong.
At first we’re inclined to forgive—and even find humor in—Creegan’s impulsivity and lack of shame. “You ever get a tune stuck inside your head?” he says when he first jumps into Hinks’ car. “I do all the time. It just plays over and over and over inside my head. Classic rock mostly. Boston. Aerosmith.” But what starts out as fun—he also recites poetry while stripping naked on a flight to Denver—eventually becomes disturbing—such as when he tries to beat a confession out of Hinks. As the show progresses, Creegan’s behavior becomes more and more questionable. The darker his behavior got, the more I found myself thinking that maybe this guy wasn’t ready to be back at work. It’s one thing to have a Dirty Harry who doesn’t answer to the law but something else entirely to have a cop who can’t even answer to himself.
Touching Evil tries to mitigate Creegan’s transgressions by showing us his suffering. He’s divorced and estranged from his family, and he cries at night when he’s alone. To me, this felt like the producers were trying to have it both ways: The cop gets the benefit of the doubt while the criminal gets an eye for an eye. Or perhaps Creegan is the perfect hero for our times: an avenger fueled by rage but hobbled by post-traumatic stress. He has experienced the unthinkable and lived, which the producers seem to think puts him above mortal concerns.
In past incarnations of the righteous cop, if crime wasn’t met with justice, the System was always at fault—the Miranda warning was botched or the search warrant wasn’t properly executed. In Touching Evil, Creegan’s partner makes noise about establishing a proper chain of evidence, and Creegan dismisses the whole notion of taking action based on facts. The message of the show seems to be that there is great evil in the world and that we will fight it, but don’t hold us responsible for how.
Correction, April 16, 2004: The article originally and incorrectly cited that Touching Evil “is based on a BBC series of the same name.” In fact, Touching Evil is based on a series of the same name by Britain’s Granada Television. (Return to corrected sentence.)