David Acosta, the Catholic “priest-in-training” at the heart of CBS’ New York-based Thursday-night drama Evil has some decisions to make — not about his faith, but about discerning natural from supernatural threats, and his vocation.
This summer, at a press conference for Evil at the biannual TV Critics Association Press Tour, I asked the show’s creators — the husband-and-wife duo of Robert (a Catholic) and Michelle (a self-describe “agnostic Jew”) King — about why they didn’t call the character a seminarian. They answered that they wanted him out in the world more … which makes sense, since the ordinary academic life of a real seminarian wouldn’t make for gripping TV.
Not long ago, I got on the phone with the Kings and discovered that I started a little something.
“By the way,” said Robert King, “your question has pushed the writer’s room to answer it within the next few episodes. So, we’re trying to at least make a nod to what reality is.”
Anyway, in Evil (official site here), David (Mike Colter) works for the Catholic Church, investigating possible demonic possessions, hauntings, etc. On his team are Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), a non-practicing Muslim with a background as a contractor, and Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist, who’s raising four daughters without the help of an absent adventurer husband.
Says Robert King, “Kristen is more of an agnostic. She’s a lapsed Catholic. Ben is an atheist with Muslim parents, and it helps us bring Islam into the story. But Ben is someone who thinks purely empirically.
“He has great respect for anything scientific, but he has to face that, sometimes, science chases its own tail, as it tends to with quantum entanglement. And he finds himself facing people’s superstitions wherever he looks.”
Fans of the plumbers who were at the heart of Syfy Channel’s unscripted Ghost Hunters may get a kick from Ben’s storyline as well.
Says Robert King, “We’re planning this idea that he’s obsessed with this show called Gotham Ghost, and that he really just thinks they’re ridiculous in the way they pursue ghosts. So, he’s become their resident skeptic in a way, over the course of the season.”
Both of David’s helpers generally reject the notion of supernatural evil, but Kristen’s perceptions could be challenged by Dr. Leland Townsend, an occult expert who may be more than he appears. Leland has already surreptitiously obtained Kristen’s therapist’s notes and used the information against her. He also seems to know about a few things from David’s past.
“Leland is a very fascinating character to us,” says Robert King. “He is a character of disruption and chaos. He is, as Kristen would define it, a psychopath who is trying to connect with other psychopaths on social media, and encourage them to do bad — almost like the way the Heath Ledger character was on The Dark Knight, someone who’s into chaos just as the fun principle.
“David thinks is he’s demonic. He’s basically like Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters. He’s using the Internet as a way to advance temptation to the world. And at a certain point, you have to throw up your hands at that, because they’re both sort of right and both sort of wrong. The guy’s a little bit of both.
“What’s good with, obviously, Michael Emerson, is he brings an element of dark and villainous comedy to that. But we wanted someone who serves both functions in the plot as someone who’s like Hannibal-Lecter-scary, but also possibly and probably demonic.”
Adds Michelle King, “What is also nice is how the Leland character shows the connection between David and Kristen, because at the end of the day, while they have different ideas about what caused Leland to behave the way he does, they’re in complete agreement at the level of his depravity.”
Getting back to David being a seminarian, this works in a couple of ways. First, it keeps open the possibility of romantic feelings between him and Kristen without the complication of him having taken a vow of celibacy (but there is the matter of Kristen being married, so it’s not good either way).
Robert King points out the other angle, saying, “It’s also the Church scandals. Because what we really wanted to do was have someone who’s questioning not only about, is it the path for him, but does he worry about being part of an institution that he often has to, in his mind, apologize for. So, that’s why we left it in a bit of a gray area“OK, he still has a major choice to make. Even if he ends up on the verge of being ordained, does he make that extra step? So, when you’re writing a drama you’re always looking for those moments of dramas you can write towards, and this gives us one.”
One thing I thought when I watched Evil is that, before the era of mass communication and especially social media, demons mostly had to work one person at a time. That’s pretty labor-intensive. But with the Web able to transmit thoughts from one demented person to millions of others in a nanosecond, one wonders whether the demonic is even necessary now to do the dirty work.
Says Michelle King, “You bring up an excellent point, and hopefully that will allow for tension in the show, and people that have different points of view being able to enjoy it, and see validation for their different ideas.”
Adds her husband, “It also touches upon how David, the character, works, because he wants Kristen’s character around even though she believes only that these things are mental illness … So, being able to differentiate between possession and mental illness, as far as he’s concerned, is part of the necessities of his job.”
Along with being a psychologist, Kristen is also a mother. As any parent knows, you don’t even need to go the supernatural to find plenty to worry about.
“Kristen is trying to take care of four daughters,” says Robert King, “and their innocence, and trying protect it, but she finds it under assault by things like the Internet.
“By opening ourselves up to the Internet is, what is scarier? Is it scarier to have something demonic online with them, or a child molester online with them?”
Asked whether doing Evil has challenged their worldview one way or the other, the Kings generally said no, but they had other concerns.
Says Robert, “It’s very difficult when you have such reverence for the subject matter, because you know you have to tinker with the subject matter to make it applicable or dramatic.
“TV is difficult because of the need to repeat it. With each episode you need a new challenge, and the worry is it was going to seem like X-Files, which would be reductive. So, I guess, it was a fear of reductiveness which was most a challenge to me, because I think there’s worth in pursuing the subject matter and opening it to lots of people.
“But you’re also worried that you’re kind of … not being blasphemous, I think that’s too strong, but there’s an element of blasphemy in having to do so much when you do TV.”
And from his wife, “I don’t know if my point of view was challenged so much, as much as my wishing at times that exorcism could solve it. That there are intractable problems, and mental-health issues that don’t respond to treatment, and just wishing that there were a rite that could take care of it.
“But even hearing from exorcists that, in fact, typically they will have to repeat the rite over and over in order to have success; much is the way a mental-health professional will not be able to solve anything in one session either.”
Robert King would also challenge the writers among his co-religionists to tackle the big themes, saying, “I don’t think Catholics have embraced enough of what TV can do, but the whole idea of original sin is as dramatic as you can get.”
Evil airs Thursdays on CBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT, and also streams on Amazon.
Image: Jeff Neumann/CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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