Horror is a genre I avoid. Halloween used to make it palatable, shrinking the monsters and taming irrational fears into catharsis. Then we grew scared of our own rituals. Rosy apples held razor blades! Candy was poisoned! Neighborhood kids now go to the Baptists’ Trunk or Treat instead of knocking on people’s doors, and I can no longer hold out a bowl of sweetness as I pretend to gasp at a four-year-old’s scary costume. Meanwhile, the real goblins and witches roam the nation, haunting our psyches and tugging democracy apart from both ends.
Which is why I got hooked on Evil.
The show grew out of amicable marital wranglings between Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Robert is a devout Catholic who traces evil to the supernatural, Michelle a secular Jew who finds psychology a sufficient explanation. They were used to their own debates, but a few years ago they noticed, watching the news, that “there was something almost viral about how evil acts were happening.”
That was the impetus. And when the Kings learned that the Catholic Church uses assessors to determine whether someone is truly facing a demonic possession or infestation, they had their framework. The show would feature a team of assessors: a Catholic seminarian, David Acosta, played by Mike Colter, and the two skeptics he pulls in to check his own bias: a no-longer-Catholic psychologist, Kristen Bouchard, played by Katja Herbers; and a no-longer-Muslim tech guy, Ben Shakir, played by Aasif Mandvi.
Critically acclaimed, with top scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and praise from The New Yorker and NPR, Evil dances on the devil’s pitchfork, coming off as playful even as it wrestles with our deepest questions. The show’s first stroke of genius is the team’s camaraderie. In a time when we dare not even hint at our beliefs to a stranger, Evil gives us three people with entirely different world views who—here is the miracle—respect one another’s points of view. Gentle teasing proves their affection and then stops, drawing no blood. David hopes but does not evangelize; Ben and Kristen want nothing to do with organized religion but admire his faith and seek his counsel. Maybe facing unfathomable questions together has kept them all humble?
The second bit of genius is the Kings’ diabolically clever use of the everyday. Evil resides in toys, a YouTube influencer; suburban homes and schools, elevator shafts, old cabinets, an abandoned medical school, a fertility clinic where babies are engineered toward evil. “What is belief in Satan about?” David wonders aloud, and the answer is power, rejection of authority, manipulation, violence. All of which are easy for the show to find in contemporary society, weaving the demonic into plotlines about police shootings, medical racism, domestic violence, mentally ill children, and the manipulation of teenage girls’ body image. Because the settings and victims are so normal, all the weird irrational fears that flash through your head late at night find purchase. Demons move into the new addition to Kristen’s house; blood overflows from her toilet; a gobbet of flesh refuses to flush. This overlapping of domestic and supernatural cuts both ways, normalizing the bizarre even as it lifts the veil of normalcy to reveal what seethes below.
Ben keeps tapping on walls, decoding technology, suspecting toxic chemicals, and guiding the other two through physical reality. But the show more freely mixes the psychological and the supernatural, stirring so fast that the categories start to blur. Is the succubus who visits David just a sexual fantasy? Or should we reverse our usual question and wonder if our fantasies are the work of demons?
The character of Leland Townsend, a nondescript, dorky psychologist whose life in high school was marching band, is all the more sinister for his Midwestern mediocrity. He seems clearly to be serving Satan—on the days when he does not seem just as clearly to be suffering from psychopathy. He manipulates the Church into performing an exorcism on him and is shown shaking convulsively in the aftermath—yet he emerges unscathed, evil as ever. “Just kill him,” my husband yells at the TV, but maybe the point is that evil is resilient enough to evade all attacks, wiggle out of all consequences. (Or that psychosis is stubborn.)
Kristen and one of her daughters both go through experiences lurid enough to suggest that they are possessed—but soon the notion of possession expands, and you begin to think less about the devil and more about women moving from powerlessness to strength (with the moral quandaries that can entail). The show is so casual about possessions and infestations that I begin to imagine them happening to all of us. Look how easily obsessions, vices, and dark thoughts seize hold. So there, I have psychologized away the evil. (At least until I start to wonder where those obsessions, cravings, and ruminations originated—and why we are so vulnerable to them.)
In one of my favorite episodes, the question is whether bodies weigh less after death because the soul has left. When Wallace Shawn, playing an old priest who does not quite die, loses not only a bit of weight but his fears and inhibitions, is he now soulless? David decides that perhaps the soul is weightless after all, and it is our demons that weigh us down.
Evil’s third piece of genius is that each episode’s “case” manages to resolve without a black-and-white answer. The scary bit ends; safety and normalcy are temporarily restored. You turn off the TV and turn to your partner: “So was it just a faulty machine in the operating room, or did she actually come back to life?” Neither of you is sure. The episodes are written along parallel tracks, empirical and supernatural, with plausible solutions on both sides. Instead of feeling desperate to land on one side or the other, I find myself more comfortable than usual in that gray place, eager to speculate but okay without closure. Somehow there is enough catharsis to wean me from certainty.
One way Evil manages to loosen up our brains is through tone. Its horror is genuine, spawned from human vulnerability (worries, sexual temptations, loneliness, ego, family issues), and carried to extremes that would sound like fever dreams if you recited the plot summaries. Yet the horror is also cheerful: one of the demons is named George; the New Ministry of Satan wants to be tax-exempt; Ben’s succubus removes her retainer before going down on him. From nightmarish scenarios, we are shaken awake by humor, wisdom, kindness, or the lively fun of Kristen’s daughters. “We wanna sweeten every scare with comedy,” Robert explains, “and distract from every comedy with some kind of scare.”
Christian theologians, though somewhat appreciative, are not laughing. “Guilt lies at the heart of Evil,” writes one. A secular critic, meanwhile, finds “remorse and forgiveness” at the heart. Personally, I would take them both back a step: to desire and vulnerability. What we really fear is not the made-up goblins and devils but the malevolence and temptation they represent—and our weakness in the face of it.
This would not surprise Sr. Andrea, one of the show’s toughest, funniest characters. Her asides are apocalyptic; she watches David with a jaded eye and regularly reminds him that a war is coming between good and evil. Tempted to retreat to an easier, happier life free of demonic conspiracies, he mutters, “This is crazy.”
“No, David,” she replies, “normal life is crazy. This is how things really are.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.