Michelle and Robert King have led some of the best TV shows of the past decade, and while it’s still too early to put their latest among the ranks of “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” their CBS drama “Evil” took little time becoming one of the most compelling shows on network TV right now.
It all starts right at the top, with each episode taking a modified cold open approach and delaying the show’s title sequence until right before the first commercial break.
“We’re trying to drag people in. Also, I think people are in it before they realize, ‘Oh, this is a TV show,'” Robert King told IndieWire. “Our first acts are always the longest — like 19 to 22 pages long. It’s always trying to get people to forget they’re in a TV show for a little while and then there’s that percussive element to having that title there.”
It’s those gradual tweaks that have taken a well-worn procedural template and allowed “Evil” to thrive. Working within constraints has led to a more effective final product, especially as the show tries to live in the realm between recognizable and inexplicable. As the show’s central on-screen trio — psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), priest-in-training investigator David Acosta (Mike Colter), and perpetual skeptic Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) — encounter weekly entanglements with potential demons and probable psychopaths, most of those stories have been told through more practical means.
The occasional VR game calls for some digital enhancement, but a good chunk of the power of “Evil” comes from the grounded nature of those core performances and the tangible nature of what the audience is able to see.
“We’re obviously in Peak TV time and there’s a lot of money swirling around on some shows. Sometimes the CGI is very powerful. But a lot of times it’s like, ‘OK, I get it. It’s a CGI thing,’ and the drama is kind of sapped out of it,” Robert King said. “Michelle and I, we have an attraction for old-world solutions to new-world problems. A lot of is diving into the unnerving-ness of four little girls in their bunk beds suddenly hearing this disturbing voice. On the set, obviously it was silent. That was all post-production. But it’s using the techniques that have been alive for 100 years now that you can use to unnerve people. I think that’s cool.”
The song that Robert references plays a pivotal part in the opening season’s Christmas episode, which features a group of schoolgirls who can’t stop singing a melody that’s half jingly holiday tune and half weaponized earworm. Kristen eventually discovers it’s a song from a viral video — one written and performed by frequent Kings collaborator Jonathan Coulton — that quickly has ramifications for her own daughters. (For those who haven’t experienced it yet, you’ve been warned.) In the process of researching the real-world phenomena that helped inspire that story arc, the Kings realized the show’s story had even stronger roots in reality than even they realized.
“That idea that there are sounds that younger people can hear that those over 20 can’t? That’s real, by the way,” Michelle King said.
“We didn’t believe it. All the writers in our writers room were above 25 years old. They played it and no one heard anything. And then one of the interns came in from the other room — who I think was 19 — and said, ‘Oh, turn that off! What is that?’ Unless they paid him to do that, that was real,” Robert King said. “It was kind of creepy. It makes you think, ‘OK, what do I not know about human nature?'”
That search for something real also helped to guide how they address the Catholic Church. Early episodes don’t shy away from the Church’s historical shortcomings, and in giving Kristen, David, and Ben their own footing, “Evil” doesn’t feel obligated to be locked into one true way to approach faith. David’s personal journey isn’t cheapened at the expense of Kristen and Ben’s perspective. If anything, their interplay only provides more strength for how this trio sees the world, both as a group and individually.
“It was very important to me to not go to the TV cliche about Catholicism or priests, which is if they’re introduced in Act One, by Act Three they’re molesters. And I wasn’t interested in that, because we’ve seen it done before. The core of the show for me is two people with very different points of view, disagreeing, but listening to each other respectfully. So I feel like as writers, then we need to treat the characters with respect as well,” Michelle King said.
“We also were worried that it not be preachy. A lot of these Monsignor characters ask, ‘OK, what about our liability?’ We want to keep it as a motif that’s comic, too — he’s not even worried about finding devils or angels. It’s like, ‘How can I limit the many ways we’re going to be sued?'” Robert King said.
Most of these ideas helped shape the show at the outset, and there’s also been room for the show to succeed by changing strategy as its needs have evolved. After the opening episode of “Evil,” it seemed like the dream demon George would be a constant presence throughout the rest of the show. Though that was part of the initial plan, the restraint in using the character sparingly allowed the show to build out a broader world of possible nefarious forces within “Evil.”
“The original idea was that he was going to be our therapist. Basically, he was her id. At night, she would have these discussions with herself through George. but at a certain point, there were no new avenues to go and we just said, ‘That’s not working,'” Robert King said. “The worst thing is, you see the shark every scene in ‘Jaws,’ and at a certain point it’s not scary. And that was even fine if you could go comic, but when you have something scary and you make it comic, then you’re a real kind of parody, farcical territory.”
Puzzles have been both an implicit and explicit theme throughout the season. Making something with a dense greater mythology that adds up over the course of each successive episode may not seem like an easy fit for a CBS series. But not only has the network renewed the show for Season 2, the “Evil” approach has carried over a bit to the Kings’ other upcoming work as well.
“We started out with probably our best-built season since Season 5 of ‘Good Wife.’ You let absurdity hint and foreshadow where we’re going to see if the audience will take all those pieces of foreshadowing and be able to put it together to solve the puzzle,” Robert King said. “In the third episode, Clark Johnson’s character says, ‘God draws in straight lines, the devil speaks in anagrams and puzzles.’ And I gotta tell you, in ‘The Good Fight’ this year, there’s an element of that. I think you’ll see that when you see the first episode, there’s a little bit of freedom to color outside the lines of reality.”
“Evil” Season 1 is available through CBS and CBS All Access.