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Evil makes sense of a messy world

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It’s the rare show about the world getting worse that doesn’t feel hopeless 


Earlier this month, CBS’s Evil dropped its first season on Netflix. It arrived after what had felt for me like a listless few months; very little pop culture could hold my attention. And then out of nowhere I was transfixed.

Evil is a show that surprises you, which to me makes it one of last year’s best dramas. While the show is essentially a network procedural — perhaps the least surprising genre of television — the series is interested in stretching the boundaries of what that means, starting with its premise. Evil follows Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist, and David Acosta (Mike Colter), a priest in training. Together, the two work as assessors for the Catholic church, investigating claims of the supernatural in order to determine if the church should get involved, usually for an exorcism.

Their dynamic is at least two kinds of broadcast staple: a will they / won’t they and believer / skeptic, a pairing at least as old as The X-Files. Their occupation, however, is unusual — and, as far as I can tell, an extremely liberal interpretation of what real-life Catholic assessors do, which according to a quick online search, seems to be something more like an ecclesiastical paralegal. And the job immediately provides fuel for interesting twists on shopworn stories. Like in the pilot, where Acosta must determine whether a serial killer is in fact possessed by a demon named Roy. A demon that then seems to haunt the skeptical Bouchard.

In Evil, there is usually an explanation for the supernatural, but the show always leaves just enough room for doubt to creep in: sometimes it’s an image no one can explain, a culprit no one ever sees again, or a smoking gun that makes no sense. In a genre largely concerned with wrapping everything up in an hour, Evil rejects closure. The only thing it believes, definitively, is that things are getting terrible in a way that they really haven’t before.

“The world is getting worse,” David Acosta tells Bouchard toward the end of the pilot episode, “because evil is no longer isolated. Bad people are talking to one another.”

I’ve been thinking about that line nonstop since I heard it. Bad people are talking to one another. It feels too neat and reductive to be completely accurate, and yet I feel its truth every time I see a pundit parrot white supremacist talking points or run-of-the-mill disinformation that’s come from the president of the United States himself. These conversations are happening every day. So, yeah. Evil seems stronger than before, and technology is good at helping it.

It’s the inverse of a lot of mass messaging about technology, which still trends toward vapid boosterism: Facebook connects us, Uber takes you places, GoFundMe helps you raise money to do things you believe in. This cheery facade was always rotten, red meat for investors propped up by a trembling skeleton of venture capital, but now it is absolutely putrescent. Facebook empowers dictators. Uber and Lyft lobby for legislation that will deny gig workers the employment status that would provide them with things as basic as minimum wage and paid overtime. GoFundMe is a testament to our failed health care system, where only people who are lucky enough to go viral can raise the money to pay off lifesaving care.

Social good is great branding, but technology is always an accelerant. You don’t see the evil until it’s too late, when the products are entrenched in the marketplace and the status quo has reasserted itself in devious new ways.

In Evil, technology is crucial: Bouchard and Acosta investigate their horror stories with the help of tech specialist Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), who is usually integral to proving there’s a rational explanation to some supernatural occurrence. In one fun episode, he has to determine if a smart speaker is haunted. In another, a hacker breaks into a VR game to trick children into thinking a ghost controls their headsets. In Evil’s universe, technology functions as an explanation, and never as a tool of outright subjugation. If there is anything truly supernatural, it’s outside of the digital realm.

After some shoe-leather investigating, it usually turns out Evil’s occult concerns are — like any moral panic — a smoke screen for more everyday horrors. Like in a later episode, when a disillusioned young man is rejected by a woman he’s attracted to and is encouraged by another, older, more manipulative man to do something about it. The world is horrifying enough as it is.

I am not particularly interested in art that tries too hard to be “of the moment” — I find the harder art tries to reflect my experience back to me, the less interested I am. (I’m already living the pandemic, thanks very much.) Evil is different, though. It’s a show that asks “don’t you feel like something is wrong?” and walks you through it. That can feel radical in a landscape where half of our political discourse comes from a right-wing grievance machine that howls in protest whenever anyone suggests that something in our country or our culture might be just a little broken.

What makes Evil powerful is that it’s not about denial. It believes there is a rot in the world, and, as a consequence, that there’s a collective refusal to look it in the face. Bad people are talking to each other, sure. But there’s power in confronting that — in remembering that good people can talk to each other, too.