Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews season 3 of the unique Paramount+ thriller Evil.
Michelle and Robert King’s shows are interested in what might be the most important question of the modern era: how do we make sense of a world that makes less sense than ever? It’s a question the pair have tackled admirably and creatively in The Good Fight, a genre-defying series about lawyers who hallucinate bruises in the shape of Donald Trump and uncover Citizen Kane-like secrets about Jeffrey Epstein. But their wild, of-the-moment sensibilities are even better suited to Evil, the surreal, contemplative, and gory horror procedural that’s now in its third season on Paramount+.
Evil is ostensibly a show about demons. Its latest season structures itself around The Pop-Up Book of Contemporary Demons, a text from which the show’s episode titles are illustrated in simultaneously charming and horrifying fashion. The series’ first two seasons played out a bit like a magical realist take on The X-Files, one in which both the skeptic and the believer – Catholic priest-in-training David (Mike Colter) and forensic psychologist Kristen (Katja Herbers) end up haunted by the unknown and unknowable.
In the new season, the show maintains its case-of-the-week structure, with Kristen, David, and faithful tech expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi) investigating whatever inexplicable incident the diocese wants them to look into each episode. Meanwhile, ubiquitous and sinister Leland (Michael Emerson) insinuates himself further into the Church’s business, while Kristen’s mother Cheryl (Christine Lahti) steps further into the shadows of Evil’s strange, mind-bending reality.
The new season treads some familiar narrative territory but also breaks new ground. Kristen’s plots in particular feel a tad worn out: across the show’s three seasons, she’s spent a lot of time perched on the precipice of violence or infidelity, yet at a certain point, it’s tough to tell what purpose her random bouts of impulsiveness serve. David’s path this season is more intriguing, as he’s pulled into a deeper level of demon-hunting that feels like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Evil, like The Good Fight, is often a show about conspiracies that turn out to be true.
That’s because, though Evil is ostensibly a show about demons, it’s clearer than ever that it’s actually a show about cultural derealization. It’s a concept one character explains to another in the show, right before – as if in demonstration of its definition – a severed eyeball floats up from the depths of a clogged toilet. It’s a sense of unreality specifically tied to the onslaught of logic-defying information we’re all taking in at all times.
This gets to the root of Evil’s genius: the show attempts to grapple, over and over again, with the utter nonsense that is living in America in 2022. It’s political horror, imagining a devil who runs not on any sort of ritualized evil, but on the power of doomscrolling, cryptocurrency, and self-esteem that’s sapped away by influencer culture. The series is especially fixated on the internet and the insidious impact it has on young people. As Kristen’s four daughters grow, they only become more inextricably tied to the dangerous pull of targeted ads and clout-chasing social media challenges. Evil’s most brilliant secret is that it has less in common with hellfire-based horror touchstones like The Exorcist, and more in common with the post-modern, tech-informed anxieties of Bo Burnham’s Inside.
There’s something primally satisfying about seeing one’s most grotesque fears and anxieties relayed through a prism of horror like this. In an era of bad news oversaturation, it’s hard to think at length about something like America’s descent into a haze of misinformation, or the Catholic church’s poor track record with social justice, but Evil asks us to look at these issues askance. It filters them through its own funky mythology, reinventing them as something more substantial, that can maybe just maybe be exorcised. The show has an impressive ability to make its issues both literal and metaphorical at once. Is your bad boss “a monster,” or is he a real, actual, monster? In Evil, a series that’s endlessly inventive and seemingly not interested in sticking with any rulebook (even its own), the answer is often: why not both?
Evil is as funny as it is scary, alternating scenes of freaky disasters and disturbances with those of cartoonish, face-pulling demons. The new season ups the screentime of Andrea Martin, who plays the brassy and fearless nun, Sister Andrea, with an indelible wryness. In fact, by this point the whole ensemble cast is just as at ease with comedy as they are with drama, reacting to the absurdity of the world around them in appropriately absurd ways of their own.
If Evil has a slight weakness, it’s that the show seems satisfied to contemplate every minute angle of its central themes forever, with little mounting tension and release. But it’s so clever, so creative, and so committed to both its horror mythology and its political undertones that it’s a joy just to watch the Kings contemplate. Three seasons in and going strong, there’s nothing else on TV like Evil.