REVIEW: CBS's Evil Is an Uneven Supernatural Procedural

The pilot of the new CBS supernatural-investigation drama Evil sets up a central dynamic familiar in general from numerous buddy-cop stories and specifically from the show's most obvious inspiration, The X-Files. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers of Westworld), a forensic psychologist, is recruited to join priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter of Marvel's Luke Cage) as part of the Catholic Church's team of "assessors": investigators who look into reports of supernatural phenomena like possessions and miracles in order to determine if they are genuine acts of God, or mundane occurrences that can be explained by science. Kristen is a skeptic. David is a true believer. They have plenty of sexual tension.

There's more to the relationship between Kristen and David than a riff on Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. However, it's hard to shake the image of The X-Files while watching Evil, especially in each episode's back-and-forth between scientific explanations and mystical ones. Kristen and David are a little less hostile to each other's viewpoints than Mulder and Scully were at first; David is eager to accept a medical diagnosis over a demonic possession if it can be backed up with facts because it means that he won't have to ask the church for an exorcism. And Kristen, a lapsed Catholic, is willing to consider the existence of forces beyond her understanding, at least in part because she enjoys spending time with David.

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The four episodes available for review expand beyond that basic set-up, deepening the characters' backgrounds even as the individual cases are not always compelling. Those first episodes involve three potential possessions and one potential miracle. The limited range of situations that the team can investigate may get monotonous (unlike Mulder and Scully, they aren't going to be looking into, say, aliens or time travel). Already these episodes have a repetitive pattern of resolutions, with rational explanations that cover just about everything, leaving enough dangling threads to keep the show in that ambiguous middle ground.

The cases of the week may be lacking but the characters are interesting. Creators Michelle and Robert King spent seven seasons balancing episodic stories with long-term character development on The Good Wife, so there's reason to trust that they'll find ways to expand and subvert their premise here too.

The least interesting material in these episodes comes in the courtroom, thanks to Kristen's previous position as an expert witness for the district attorney's office. She's still enmeshed in the legal system, where she's at odds with fellow forensic psychologist Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who is either an actual devil or just a sadistic psychopath (like everything on this show, his status remains unresolved, at least for now).

Emerson is an expert at playing creepy, manipulative weirdos thanks to his years on Lost and Person of Interest, and he provides the show with a perfectly detestable villain. But Leland is also one-dimensional and cartoonish in contrast to the more measured approach to the show's other central characters.

Kristen and David are more than just the skeptic and the believer, and even the third member of their team, tech expert Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), gets developed beyond his expository function within a few episodes. At this point, Leland's long-term plan seems just to sow general chaos, which doesn't give the show's serialized storylines a lot of impact.

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There's enough serialization that it feels like the Kings are building to something big, even if they're being very vague about it. David has a troubled past, coming to the priesthood after years as a photojournalist and a thrill-seeker, and he still has difficulty controlling his baser desires (including his obvious attraction to Kristen).

Kristen is a former top-level mountain climber whose never-seen husband is still dedicated to scaling the world's tallest peaks and works as a guide at Mt. Everest while Kristen stays home to raise their four young daughters. Those daughters are a source of occasional comic relief but also anxiety for Kristen. They're precocious without being irritating. In addition, Christine Lahti is underused as their grandmother, although the family storyline seems to be gathering momentum by the end of the fourth episode.

Kristen's other worries include her finances, her marriage and the potential demon infestation of her home, especially once she starts having what she believes are night terrors featuring a menacing, snarky demon named George (Marti Matulis). Herbers is excellent at balancing Kristen's professional and maternal sides, and the show never gives in to cliches about working mothers. Herbers and Colter have sparkling chemistry, although consummating that chemistry would of course be risky, both for the show and for David, who's supposed to be embarking on a life of celibacy.

There are a lot of solid ingredients to Evil, which is more adventurous than the typical CBS procedural but still feels like it's holding back from going as weird as the creators would like it to. Even its efforts to tackle serious questions about faith or morality are rendered as hastily bullet-pointed discussions.

The Kings have found acclaim with the bold social commentary and narrative experimentation of The Good Fight on CBS All Access (where network-TV content restrictions don't apply). On the other hand, their last effort to combine supernatural storytelling with real-world resonance on the short-lived sci-fi satire BrainDead didn't turn out too well. Evil falls somewhere between those two, fitting its more offbeat tendencies into a fairly staid format. It's a combination that these first four episodes haven't quite mastered yet.

Starring Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, Christine Lahti, Kurt Fuller, Brooklyn Shuck, Skylar Grey, Maddy Crocco and Dalya Knapp, Evil premieres on CBS Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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