Television

Evil Is Finally Good

The Christian horror drama about investigating demons leans into the silliness of its premise in Season 2.

Michael Emerson, as Leland Townsend, examines red liquid on his finger. The wall in front of him is covered in dripping red letters spelling out "you stupid pig."
Michael Emerson understood the assignment. Elizabeth Fisher/CBS 2021Paramount+ Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Evil, the horror-drama about a Catholic anti-demon taskforce investigating possessions, hauntings, and other religious mysteries, took a while to find its footing. The first season of the show, which follows Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) as she joins priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter) and mythbuster Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), wasted too much time on church politicking and Dan Brown-style intrigue. We simply do not need to see fusty investigators from the Vatican show up with a book of ancient prophecies and a demonic org chart, nor the church getting sued because of a botched exorcism. Evil kept getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

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But in between the show’s alarmingly gruesome exorcisms and actual courtroom drama, you could still find comedic bits in the first season, like a demon with an ordinary name like George, or Bouchard’s nemesis Dr. Leland Townsend, played with a permanent smirk by Michael Emerson. From the moment Emerson appears, it’s clear he knows what show he’s on, just waiting for the rest of the cast to catch up. And as of Season 2, which saw the series jump from CBS to Paramount+, they have. For all its holy trappings, Evil is really just another iteration of the procedural, but with crosses and bibles instead of handcuffs and cop cars. And once it figured out how seriously it should be taking Christian mythology—which is not seriously at all—everybody could loosen their ties and start having fun.

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Sure, in a church, Christianity deserves reverence and awe, but when it comes to television, the writers can’t treat their source material as more reverent than the show they’re making. If Evil is going to be goofy and scary—the winning formula for any supernatural procedural—then it needs to treat religion as goofy and scary. The X-Files struggled with this balance, handling Scully’s religious ideals with irritating delicacy. I always dreaded the maudlin twinge of those episodes, and it’s part of why I so deeply embraced Supernatural when it ran in the opposite direction. On Supernatural nothing was sacred, or even grounded in reality, so they could get away with whatever Christian nonsense they wanted. Satan could wind up in demon jail, and God could be a frustrated novelist with a more powerful sister he banished to a nether realm. Nothing is heretical when everything is.

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Thankfully, Evil has come around to that approach. By the end of the first season, Evil went full-on Christian horror comedy, with a giant, horned demon acting as a therapist and a creepy fertility clinic infecting children with evil so every family can have an Omen of their very own. The second season sees Evil taking the assignment further as each episode starts on a pop-up book displaying the episode’s title and a playful horror illustration, reminding the viewer that they’re watching nothing more than a collection of fairy tales, even if those fairy tales are Christian.

Creating this sort of narrative distance from religion has freed the show up to start exploring different avenues of source material. It can branch out from Christianity into other world religions and urban legends, because for Evil’s purposes, all these stories are equivalent. Seen through a more academic lens, the series could even serve as a commentary on how religious beliefs collide in the modern age. Episode 3 features a dueling exorcism as an imam and a priest try to cast out an evil spirit from a preteen arsonist. The parents, being of different faiths, have called on their religious leaders for help, but when the wife’s imam suggests the girl is possessed by a jinn, the husband scoffs that they’re not in Aladdin—as though that’s any more outrageous than his daughter being possessed by a demon. It’s a brief moment, but it highlights the absurdity of dismissing somebody else’s supernatural beliefs while bullishly believing in one’s own.

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Evil reminds us that these are all just stories, yarns to help us survive in the world. And when we start treating those magical stories as more important than actual people, we’ve fully lost the plot. Many of the show’s mysteries are revealed to be the work of more mundane human machinations than evidence of dark forces at play. Evil knows the evils of humanity are human, and by not taking the face of religion seriously, it can access a real truth: At night, fear of the boogeyman can keep us safe—but so can laughing in the daylight at those same scares.

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