The Exorcist is a horror classic, a seminal work that has defined the genre for nearly half a century. It’s a reference point for countless other films, particularly anything involving possession, like The Amityville Horror or Insidious, or the long tradition of exorcism as a horror fixture, in movies like The Last Exorcism. With the success of Exorcist-derivative movies like The Conjuring franchise, it’s likely to continue as a reference point for horror far into the future. Probably no one has ever said, “This is good, but what if it were funnier?” But at times, the CBS drama Evil, which recently premiered its second season on its new home, Paramount Plus, answers the question of what a funny version of The Exorcist might look like.
The series also doubles as a modern version of The Exorcist, one where demons and technology are interchangeable. And sometimes it’s a freaking strange version of The Exorcist, with images that make no goddamn sense and likely won’t ever be explained, like one scene in this season’s premiere, where the main characters are in a field of wheat, and a demon that looks kind of like Baphomet is also there, just vibing as he cuts down wheat with a sickle. These are all reasons why Evil is my favorite show on the air right now: It really feels like it can be anything.
Evil’s actual, ostensible description is pretty straightforward, so much so that it’s easy to dismiss the show. David Acosta (Mike Colter), a priest-in-training, hires Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist, to join him in his work as an assessor for the Catholic church. What that means is the two of them, together with tech specialist Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), investigate reports of supernatural events and determine whether the Church should get involved and, say, perform an exorcism.
This lends Evil a procedural feel reminiscent of The X-Files, where every week, there’s a new supernatural happening, and our trio investigates. Cases run the gamut from classic stuff like “Is this person possessed?” to more modern concerns, like haunted VR headsets and demons that live inside smart speakers and want to drive their owners mad. What makes Evil transcend the rote pleasures of case-of-the-week storytelling isn’t the bonkers-yet-compelling overarching plot of whether the Actual Devil is working through Dr. Leland Townsend (a gleefully wicked Michael Emerson, of Lost fame) but the way each episode is ambiguous enough to allow its characters just enough room to wonder: Is this real?
Even the show’s explanations lead to provocative, difficult ends. An apparition that appears to be an angel in a hospital leads to a discovery of racism in medical care. The haunted smart speaker is really a thorny dive into abusive bosses. And imagined online malevolence gives way to potential real-world violence as a young man becomes radicalized after a crush turns him down.
In its second season, the series shifts from an exploration of whether something unusual is fueling other people’s evil, and considers the opposite question. Where that first season seems to be built around a line in the pilot about how we’re facing unprecedented problems because “bad people are talking to each other” in ways they never could before, the second season turns inward. Its characters are haunted by darker impulses and strange apparitions that introduce more ambiguity than ever before, and episodes that are as playful in their horror as they are with moral quandaries. The premiere, available to stream now, has Dr. Townsend, the first season’s villain, asking the protagonists to help him get an exorcism — mostly, it seems, because he thinks it’ll fuck with their heads, and he loves the idea of fucking with their heads.
The ensuing season, of which four episodes were made available to critics, is all about messing with heads. In its shift toward horror and surreality that’s more directly tied to its characters, the supernatural becomes a temptation to avoid culpability. Kristen, who may have killed someone in the previous season, is presented with the idea that a demon may be courting her. David, who wants to complete his training and join the priesthood, has visions of an angel that is more terrifying than the demonic entities shown in previous episodes, which compels him to confront the Church’s conservatism. And Ben, the Muslim-raised skeptic who resolutely does not believe in any of this, is haunted by something that makes him wonder how much longer he should let his colleagues’ Catholic perspective override his own beliefs.
Evil was always shockingly daring for a show on CBS, a network so perfectly tuned for broadcast success, it’s hard to imagine anything transgressive airing there. It shares that transgressiveness with NBC’s Hannibal, a series that’s bewildering, in retrospect, to imagine airing on a broadcast network. Because Evil’s first season already felt like the product of a prestige streaming service, the show’s Paramount Plus incarnation feels pretty seamlessly integrated. Very little has changed — episodes are a few minutes longer, someone says “fuck” once or twice, and there’s the briefest flash of nudity. Mostly, though, it’s the same mesmerizing series as it was on its network home.
Evil is wildly compelling television, a genre exercise that confronts our broken world without being preachy about it. It always maintains an air of twisted fun. It irreverently adopts the mythology of one of the United States’ dominant religions to seriously consider what ails American society. Unlike the Church, the show’s writers make no promises about the danger facing our souls, or how we might preserve them. They allow that the scope of the horrors America is facing can be daunting, and that there are some answers we don’t get to have. But we don’t have to respond to the horror with fear. Sometimes we can laugh at it.
Evil’s first season is currently streaming on Netflix, and season 2 is airing new episodes weekly on Sunday on Paramount Plus.