Michelle and Robert King have a groovy split personality when it comes to creating television shows. On the more reputable side, they’ve brought intelligence and theatricality to a pair of highly regarded dramas about lawyers and politicians, “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.”
But you get the feeling their hearts are really in their horror shows, an equally smart but less celebrated lineup that includes “BrainDead,” “The Bite” and, most notably, “Evil,” a stylish blend of religious thriller and procedural mystery that begins its second season Sunday on Paramount+.
If you missed the first season of “Evil” when it premiered two years ago on CBS, here’s the outline: The psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), the priest-in-training and budding exorcist David Acosta (Mike Colter) and the science-first tech guy Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) work for the Roman Catholic Church as a team of “assessors,” investigating cases of possible possession. The weekly question, which has a powerful kick in our troubling times: Is it Satan, or are people just really screwed up?
In the new season’s first four episodes, the team’s subjects include an adopted girl suspected of setting fires and a blue-collar worker who starts giving away all his money (in a twist, he says the archangel Michael is making him do it). The Kings maintain their attachment to a traditional case-of-the-week structure even as the show has moved to streaming, but “Evil” is also a reasonably seamless episodic-serial hybrid. It has a Big Bad — Leland Townsend, a primly malevolent nemesis played with a marvelous comic spitefulness by Michael Emerson — whose ratio of psychopathy versus supernatural dominion is teasingly unspecified. And it has an overarching, slow-boil conspiracy involving a shady fertility company prepping children for something big, maybe a demonic takeover.
When you’ve got the end of the world as we know it on one side of your narrative equation, it exerts a certain pressure, and maintaining a show’s balance can be tricky, especially when your method tends toward cerebral and high-comic stylization. “Evil” took a while to find its stride in its first season — it kicked into gear around the fifth episode, when Leland expanded his campaign of harassment against Kristen by dating her mother, a conniving narcissist played by Christine Lahti. (As with all King shows, the cast is stellar.)
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The early episodes of Season 2 have some of the same treading-water feeling, as if the show doesn’t want to dial up the intensity too early. Apparently essential plot points, such as whether Kristen committed murder (killing a serial killer) at the end of the first season, dance in the background. The central question of Kristen’s involvement in the mechanics of evil — as target or unwitting tool or unrevealed perpetrator — remains a question.
Such delaying tactics are the price of doing open-ended horror 13 episodes at a time. Happily, the business in the foreground of “Evil” remains more than sufficiently entertaining. Mandvi takes on a larger role in the new season, as Ben’s confidence that demons don’t exist is shaken, and his and Kristen’s rationalist alliance against David shows cracks. The Kings play to their strengths, deftly inserting elements of workplace comedy and bureaucratic satire, with Peter Scolari and Dylan Baker providing pleasure as priests who are as obsessed with public relations as any politician or corporate executive.
The process of exorcism is subtly and amusingly infused with the clichés of the addiction-recovery drama, as a wealthy person who claims to be possessed is provided with the equivalents of a sponsor and a therapy group. The Kings’ delight in playing with genre is demonstrated in an episode that riffs on J-horror, with a Japanese-style creepy online game and a lank-haired, double-jointed specter. And when they do go for straight-on horror effects, the show is still effectively creepy and sometimes downright frightening, a feat TV does not often achieve.
Beyond what some might consider a too-deliberate pace, there isn’t a lot to complain about with “Evil.” The motif of Kristen’s four young daughters as a cacophonous chorus, enveloping her in questions and neediness, may have worn out its welcome; conversely, the mutual attraction between Kristen and David is curiously in abeyance early in Season 2. A couple attempts at inclusiveness stand out, to varying degrees, for their self-consciousness — an episode that employs a character from Islamic mythology (echoing Starz’s “American Gods”) fits into the narrative fairly well, while several sequences that use David to address racism in the church seem to be there just for their own sake. (Perhaps that theme will be developed as the season goes on.)
Leaving network TV has allowed, so far, for a sparing use of strong language and a tiny bit of nudity. Robert King told Variety that the move would allow the show to escape the “42-minute straitjacket,” but the lure of downstream sales remains strong, and in a final bit of good news, the straitjacket has only expanded to 44 minutes.