Evil: whip-smart, campy horror series is far more than X-Files knock-off

There’s something uniquely fun about monster-of-the-week horror that TV left behind in the 90s. After all, who needs silly makeup effects and self-contained plots when we have legit movie stars to focus on now? But then a show like Evil comes along to remind us: the cheesiness was part of the appeal.

Evil presents itself like a typical procedural by opening on Kristen (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist who assesses criminals before they’re due to stand trial. Things take a turn, however, when her serial killer patient claims he’s possessed, and she loses her job. Desperate for cash, she agrees to help priest-in-training David (Mike Colter) and fellow sceptic Ben (Aasif Mandvi) investigate if paranormal events like this are real, or if they have a more logical explanation.

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And that’s when things start to get wild. Though the series bears more than a passing resemblance to The X-Files – not only in its premise, but also in the way it toys with genre conventions – Evil is something distinctly its own, too. This isn’t surprising when you learn that it was created by Michelle and Robert King, the writers behind The Good Wife and The Good Fight, both shows more subversive than they first appear.

Tonally, Evil swings between sly comedy and surreal, nightmarish scenes of horror that wouldn’t be out of place on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, though there’s a hokeyness to the special effects that stops things from getting downright terrifying. The series also refuses to commit to a science or faith perspective, which adds an unnerving sense of reality to the atmosphere. The cases remain ambiguous enough that you’re never quite sure if malicious forces are at play or if the characters are being fooled by their own minds.

The best thing about Evil is the way it cheerily deconstructs horror tropes and internet urban legends. After getting wedged in an elevator and seeing a mangled ghost drag its half-body towards her, Kristen isn’t suddenly converted. Instead, she angrily calls her therapist. When an assistant thinks her high-strung boss is possessed, it turns out he’s being controlled by an evil Alexa speaker. Everything from exorcisms and zombies to killer Christmas songs receives the same tongue-in-cheek treatment.

This impish tone also translates into some delightfully over-the-top performances, especially from the series’ main antagonist Leland (played by Lost’s always memorable Michael Emerson), who’s responsible for instigating a lot of the events the trio investigate. Is he really in league with the devil, or is he just a rogue psychologist with too much influence over his patients? We may never know, but it sure is fun trying to figure it out.

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The characters’ personal lives aren’t neglected, either, and often end up intersecting with the plot in unexpected ways. Kristen is increasingly corrupted by what she experiences, and bored by her suburban life, left to single-parent four daughters while her husband (Australia’s Patrick Brammall) leads expeditions up Everest. In true Mulder-and-Scully fashion, she also shares plenty of sexual tension with David, who battles his own complex relationships with faith and race as he trains to join what he fears is an inherently racist institution.

Like Hannibal, Evil eagerly pushes the boundaries of what you’d expect from a procedural. And it gets even weirder in season two, which is when it went streaming-only in the US and became unconstrained by the limits of network television.

The good news is, it’s already been renewed for a third season, so if you’re keen to discover this mildly unhinged series for yourself, you’ve picked a perfect time to start watching.