Created by Robert King and Michelle King
Executive Producers: Liz Glotzer, Robert King, Michelle King, Rockne S. O’Bannon, Benedict Fitzgerald
Season 1 Broadcast on CBS/Season 2 and 3 Streaming on Paramount+
(Rated TV-MA, 2019—)
***Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Seasons One, Two and Three of the CBS/Paramount show Evil.***
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One of the best-reviewed shows currently streaming features a seminary student who takes hallucinogens to receive visions from God (I must have missed that class during my own seminary stint) and a succubus demon that wears a retainer. This kind of absurd, off-beat humor has come to define Robert and Michelle King’s CBS supernatural procedural Evil, which only recently concluded its third season on Paramount Plus. With its creepy content, scares, and quirky humor, the show has managed to carve out a niche in popular culture, receiving acclaim for its writing, direction, cinematography, and acting. If that near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score is to be believed, Evil is actually quite good.1
But how well does the series handle its lofty subject matter? After all, Evil attempts nothing short of an exploration of the crisis of evil in the modern world. Each episode or “case” plays a bit like a parable, though the show trades the distinct moralism of that genre of storytelling for something more ambiguous. While the more obscure approach to the material will certainly frustrate viewers looking for a singular take on the supernatural, there is no denying that Evil has grown into one of the twenty-first century’s most unique series with a strong religious bent.
The Believer and the Skeptic. Standing at the center of the series is Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist recruited by the Roman Catholic Church to aid seminarian David Acosta (Mike Colter) in assessing the validity of claims of miracles or demonic activities. Kristen is an atheist who does not believe in the supernatural, while David is committed to his beliefs and believes that he has “seen God” with the help of hallucinogens. Rounding out the team is lapsed Muslim Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), who runs technical support.
The central tension rests between David and Kristen — Ben usually siding with Kristen. These two characters slot snugly into the “believer” and “skeptic” archetypes perfected and launched into the pop culture mainstream by the success of Chris Carter’s 1990’s and early aughts hit television series, The X-Files — an inevitable comparison that many reviewers have made.2 Yet Evil emphasizes to a far lesser degree the science fiction elements that Carter’s masterpiece often tapped in its storytelling in favor of a more psychologically-oriented and “spiritual” approach. At its best, Evil channels classic psychological-thriller episodes of The X-Files like “Beyond the Sea” (1994) and “Paper Hearts” (1996) and the more absurdly comedic episodes like “Jose Chung’s from Outer Space” (1996).
At its worst, however, Evil embraces its move from network to streaming by doubling down on the profane. I suppose many series that make the jump to streaming and are suddenly without the usual network censorship have a sense of newfound freedom, but the truth is sometimes these constraints require more creative solutions to build suspense and generate tension. Believe it or not, audiences truly do not need to have profanities dubbed into episodes simply because there is no rule written telling them not to do it; in fact, it sort of makes the final product look more than a little ridiculous.3 Just because nudity and profanity are suddenly permissible does not mean the execution is worthwhile — again, I would point to traditional network series The X-Files as a clear counterpoint to Evil, frequently dealing with the same genre materials with infinitely more restraint and class because it dares to play within network boundaries rather than run rampant without them. Evil certainly looks pretty and cinematic, but it does not feel like the “miniature movie” that The X-Files did on a week-to-week basis.
Catholic Guilt. As Roman Catholicism has expanded with western culture, so, too, has the notion of what is commonly, though pejoratively, referred to as “Catholic guilt,” which might be described as “essentially an excess of healthy guilt.”4 While its validity is the subject of debate, the idea that lies behind this felt sense of guilt is rooted in the stark morality of the Church’s system, a morality that has found itself wrinkled by more and more scandals in recent years, which the series also acknowledges. How David, for example, can commit himself to an organization that has a sketchy history with issues such as racism and sexual abuse is a question more than one character dares to ask.
Guilt lies at the heart of Evil, explored through the characters of David and Kristen, specifically.5 David’s guilt over sleeping with church lawyer Renée Harris is a major plot point earlier in the show but is arguably less significant to the narrative than Kristen’s eventual killing of convicted murderer Orson LeRoux, the guilt over which she wrestles for an entire season before finally confessing to David.
The series gets some mileage out of developing these dramatic beats, yet one cannot help but wonder if the series would be stronger if those beats could breathe a little more than they do. Kristen’s confession to LeRoux’s murder at the end of season two is an appropriately histrionic affair, the catharsis of which is immediately sabotaged by a forbidden kiss between herself and David — paying off a tension hinted at as the series develops, a tension that feels profane and forced and not natural at all.
Consider again The X-Files, which was conceived with the idea of the believer and the skeptic maintaining a professional, platonic friendship — of course there would be complications in that relationship, as would naturally arise between two strong-willed and fiercely intelligent people of opposite sexes. But it took five seasons and over one hundred episodes for Mulder and Scully to come even remotely close to the moment that David and Kristen (working in similar circumstances) share in episode twenty-six.
As a result, both Kristen and David come into season three looking less dignified as a wife and a priest, respectively. And for all the guilt-wallowing done in season two, the same conscientiousness is strangely absent from most of season three, in which David struggles against a succubus that takes the form of Kristen. Which leads to what is both the show’s most compelling and problematic element — sexuality.
Sin and Sex. Perhaps the show’s most intelligent move is to link the demonic, sin, and sexuality.6 What sets Evil apart in its portrayal of demonic activity is that it never makes definitively clear whether one is experiencing some mental psychosis or true demonic oppression. When David encounters the succubus in season three, it could just as easily be a fantasy, a metaphorical rendering of his attraction to Kristen, than an actual encounter with a demon that manifests while he sleeps. Similarly, when Kristen encounters her night terrors in season one, audiences are left wondering if there is truly something supernatural happening, or if she is suffering from extremely cogent nightmares.
What Evil does extremely well is remove from its characters the ability to say, “The devil made me do it.” Well, at most, their characters can say, “The devil tempted me to do it,” which seems far and away more in line with a biblical understanding of the demonic than those presented in many pop culture artifacts (Blatty’s The Exorcist 7, for example). In so many films and series in which demonic activity is the focus, at some point in the narrative, personal agency is removed. Part of this likely has to do with storytellers trying to adhere to traditional storytelling methods, setting up a definitive villain for the heroes to conquer. But Evil, wisely, always toes the line, and suggests that even its heroes are at risk of moral compromise if they do not “walk circumspectly,” as the apostle Paul encourages his readers to do in Ephesians 5. The impetus to sin rests within the characters themselves, not outside demonic forces that, in the series, always manifest as metaphorical apparitions or dreams.
Kristen, for example, spirals in season two after the murder of LeRoux — her guilt drives her to more and more excessive lengths to divert her attention from the fact that she did a very terrible thing. This manifests itself in the forms of increasingly taboo sexual escapades, first with her husband, and then with a truly warped individual who claims to be a Satanist (though the jury is still out on whether he truly believes what he sells, or if he is just in it for the money). For someone who does not have a shred of religious belief (she often insists she does not believe in “the Church” or “God”), she is nonetheless driven by conviction throughout the series, and her moral compass is frequently sharpened by the religious David. Through her character, the show does an admirable job of showing how small concessions (a willingness to bend a rule here or there, as she does legally in season one) can lead to major compromises (the murder of LeRoux), which in turn leads to increasingly personal and perverse sins. The link between sexuality and sin is painted in very strong colors here, and that is hardly coincidental.
Problematic and Profane. Evil is an undeniably compelling series. Yet I think the show would be stronger if it ditched the absurdities and showed more restraint. In some ways, Evil would benefit from taking a good, long look at its own subject matter and treating it with an extra dose of gravitas. Paul Schrader’s little-remembered film, Dominion (2005), a prequel to The Exorcist, shows that it is possible to approach this material with a straight face that does not stumble into the ridiculous. We live in an age where self-aware and oddball humor is paramount. No doubt, this has contributed to the show’s success. But personally, I would prefer the series take a different slant on the material.
This is the kind of series that people of faith should be interacting with; in fact, this is one of those rare series that seems to invite that kind of interaction. Yet the way the story is told, the “execution,” is done in a way that seems determined to alienate the very audience it desires — perhaps this contributed to why the series was forced from network to streaming in the first place. Evil is a series that wants you to believe it is as equally concerned with the sacred as it is with the profane; however, the way in which it tells its fascinating stories suggests otherwise. And the show’s adherence to the postmodern idea that reality is shaped exclusively by social and cultural contexts becomes tiresome by the third season.
No Christian should watch the sexual deviancies portrayed in Evil. Even with fast-forwarding of certain scenes, given the subject matter and graphic sexuality of seasons two and three, whether the series is worth the Christian’s time is questionable — some will say “no,” others will say “yes.” I will say that Kristen and David are no Scully and Mulder. Go and watch The X-Files instead of Evil, as that classic series moves in similar directions with infinitely more depth and nuance. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture
- “Evil,” Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango, n.d., accessed September 21, 2022, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/evil.
- Emily St. James, “CBS’s Evil Is One of TV’s Wildest Shows, Disguised as a Network Procedural,” Vox, October 25, 2019, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/10/25/20926068/evil-season-1-episode-5-october-31-recap-cbs-halloween.
- Kelly Lawler, “Review: ‘Evil’ Is Darker, Sexier, and More Glorious after Move to Paramount+,” USA Today, June 18, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2021/06/18/evil-season-2-review-darker-sexier-paramount/7656453002/.
- Madeleine Burgess, “Catholic Guilt Is Complicated,” Lithium Magazine, January 20, 2021, https://lithiumagazine.com/2021/01/20/catholic-guilt-is-complicated/.
- Kimberly Roots, “Evil EPs Break Down David’s Literally Crippling Guilt, [Spoiler]’s Eerie Return,” yahoo!entertainment, January 9, 2020, https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/evil-eps-break-down-davids-040035021.html.
- Tony Sokol, “Evil Season 3 Gives in to a Sex Demon,” Den of Geek, June 26, 2022, https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/evil-season-3-episode-3-review/.
- William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay for The Exorcist (1973) movie based on his novel, The Exorcist (Harper & Row, 1971).