For fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Mountaintop is pretty much a must-see.
Every so often, a show comes along that earns, even demands, a little something extra in a review. It’s a chip you rarely throw down because every time it’s used, its potency is lessened. Even off the page, with friends and colleagues, you don’t want to toss this one out recklessly. It nearly always follows the description of a show’s premise, and reader, I deploy it now: CBS’ “EVIL,” all-caps, is a procedural starring Luke Cage, a woman from “Westworld,” a former “Daily Show” contributor, and the scary guy from “Lost,” in which a priest-in-training and a psychologist team up to determine whether or not a murderer is demonically possessed, after which they turn their attention to a world full of potential possessions and divine interventions, with funding from the Catholic church and a will-they-won’t-they in the making.
That sounds ridiculous, I know. So here’s my chip: Just trust me on this one. Watch it. It will not be for everyone, but it just might be for you, and regardless, it is excellent.
Created by Michelle King and Robert King, the combined force behind the juggernaut that was “The Good Wife” and its weirder, more daring successor “The Good Fight” (the former for CBS, the latter streaming on CBS All Access), “EVIL” shares a few things in common with those two shows—particularly the latter. Like both of its King predecessors, it’s a case-of-the-week deal with a few potent throughlines and rich characters who grow more interesting, and sometimes appealingly contradictory, with each episode. Like both, it walks an interesting line tonally, with very real professional stakes for our primary cast, equally important personal stakes for the ongoing characters as well as those only around for a week, and a reliance on the occasional sharp pop of humor, often punctuating or being punctuated by something that hits heavy and hard. (Anyone who thinks “The Good Wife” was a run-of-the-mill, self-serious legal drama has never met Carrie Preston’s Elsbeth Tascioni.) And like “The Good Fight” in particular, it trusts that its audience is smart enough to understand that the best stories, and characters, can be many things at once—funny and terrifying, familiar and strange, sexy and sad, good and fundamentally flawed.
“EVIL” trusts you to understand that a mother can love her children and wish for selfishness, and that a decent, honorable man can walk dark paths by night. It knows you are capable of holding contradictory ideas in your head. It knows that you know that tropes can still be scary, that they’re tropes for a reason, that a quick turn can somehow make them feel new. It knows how comfortable the procedural can be, and it uses that to its winning, and often uncomfortable, advantage. It asks you to doubt and question everything you see, even as it tries to scare you into abandoning reason.
Your potential discomfort could never rival that of Kristen Bouchard. A psychologist working almost exclusively as an expert witness for the New York District Attorney’s office, Kristen (the excellent Katja Herbers of “Westworld”) first encounters David Dacosta (Mike Colter, an alum of both “Wife” and “Fight”) when he questions the defendant of a case she’s assigned to see if he might be demonically possessed. She’s skeptical to the point of being angry—that is, until a cross drawn in the dust coating a table sends him straight into the air, snarling and attacking, an event of which he later claims to have no memory. She’s still skeptical then, but rattled, and when she withdraws her previous assessment to request more time for analysis, she’s fired. Dacosta then swoops in with a job offer: She should join him in evaluating the subject, as “possession looks a lot like insanity, and insanity looks a lot like possession.” Both her skepticism and her expertise are not only valuable to his work, but necessary.
They’re joined by the equally skeptical Ben (Aasif Mandvi), a one-stop tech/home-repair/video analysis/doxxing/quips expert, and set out to determine what exactly is going on with the defendant. Is he really possessed by a demon named Roy (yes, Roy)? Is this caused by delusions, hallucinations, or some other mental irregularity? Is he an unwitting vessel, or an expert liar? Could it be both? It’s got what you might call “The X-Files” energy—and that’s no small thing.
And that’s when the night terrors begin. Kristen begins dreaming (or not dreaming) of a demon named George—yes, George—a figure that’s equal parts “American Horror Story” and “Tales from the Crypt.” Here’s where the “Could it be both?” tension gets really interesting. Maybe George is real, maybe he isn’t, but the fear he creates in her, the suspicion and self-doubt, are undeniable. She wields her training and her intelligence like both weapon and shield, diligently fighting to reclaim territory for her own logical mind. She shuts it all away as soon as her four cacophonous daughters enter the room. She searches for answers, but the fear takes root.
Herbers is excellent, and it’s on Kristen and that visceral performance that “EVIL” hinges, but this is no one-woman show. Colter, a winning if not always fascinating actor, is well-cast, open-hearted yet still a cypher, guided by the purest of intentions but stalked by personal demons (though they never seem to take the form one expects, literally or metaphorically). Mandvi isn’t simply there for comic relief, and while he has far less to do than Herbers, he makes Ben’s struggle as evident, if not as pressing, as Kristen’s. Christine Lahti is there as Kristen’s mother, though in the three episodes provided for critics, she’s underused. And then there’s Michael Emerson, TV’s best disruptor, first arriving as Kristen’s replacement but quickly asserting himself as a force, inexplicable or otherwise, to be reckoned with.
“EVIL” is a show where even the conclusions, the cases most firmly closed and doors most solidly barred, only lead to more questions. Both the writing and direction take the time to make sure that the emotional repercussions linger and build on each other, but the in-the-moment stuff is sometimes active for both characters and audience. Robert King, who directs the pilot, shoots Kristen’s first night terror in intimate fashion, hanging low, as if it, too, is paralyzed in bed, and the paralysis itself is left for us to discover; it’s evident well before she describes her experience, because of the precise positioning of one hand. As with its two King predecessors, “EVIL” also occasionally takes stylistic risks, and not all of them work—a few montages, a creepy girl, and an “American Horror Story”/”The Haunting Of Hill House” parody range from marginally successful to odd—but even the missteps are entertaining. The same goes for the topical stuff (an Alexa-like device, AR glasses).
Maybe a possessed Alexa sounds just ridiculous. Maybe Michael Emerson singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” isn’t your speed. But there are real scares here, and genuine laughs. The questions are earnest, the answers not readily provided. So here comes that chip again: “EVIL,” is a finely constructed, thoughtful, potentially addictive procedural about a hot priest-to-be, a gifted psychologist, and a dishwater-fixing hacker who team up to fight demonic Alexas and prove or disprove miracles, and you should watch it. Just trust me on this one.
Three episodes screened for review.
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