If our fantasies hold the key to our fears then what fears inspire CBS’s acclaimed new series, Evil? While reviewers have compared the Evil‘s mystery-chasing duo to the X-Files’ Scully and Mulder, the show’s creators point to their own dinner-table conversations as the real inspiration for Evil. Michelle King, who is Jewish and skeptical, and her husband Robert, a practicing Catholic, have said that it reflects their ongoing conversations about faith, reason, and the nature of evil. Beyond that, however, the show provides a fantasy-meditation on what it means to be part of a deeply problematic Catholic Church at a time when violence and moral decay appear to be gaining ground around us. The Church itself might be corrupt, but where else can people turn when confronting the abyss?
In the pilot episode, forensic psychologist and skeptic Kristen Bouchard, played by Westworld‘s Katja Herbers, is approached by David Acosta, played by Mike Colters, the title character from Luke Cage, who wants her help to determine whether a man accused of multiple murders is possessed or merely pretending to be for the sake of an insanity plea. Bouchard is, at first, relieved to learn he’s not working for the defendant’s smarmy attorney. But when David reveals that he’s a priest in training and that the Catholic Church employs him to investigate supernatural claims, she exchanges one set of doubts for another. “That’s a job?” she asks.
The Church, it turns out, is an employer, not much different from the DA’s office that’s just cancelled Bouchard’s contract. With four little girls and a husband off guiding climbers up Mount Everest, she needs money. David’s partner, Ben Shakir, played by former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, a non-believer who delights in debunking supernatural claims, says the job “pays the bills.”
While it’s unlikely that the Church currently employs lay demon hunters in real life, it is true that the Church has for quite some time been preoccupied with supposed supernatural phenomena like demonic possession, miraculous claims of saintly intervention, visionaries and stigmatics—in short, the stuff that fuels Gothic fiction. Possible possessions are usually handled at the level of the local diocese, though other miraculous phenomena might draw the Vatican’s attention if they involve the canonization of a saint or the doctrinal implications of a mystic. This territory has been explored in other programs, including the BBC’s Apparitions (2008), the story of a priest who leaves a distinguished career investigating claims of miraculous cures and ends up combatting a demonic legion that plans to unleash havoc upon the globe; and Japanese anime series, Vatican Miracle Examiner (2017), in which the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints looks more like MI6, with two young priestly protagonists who travel the globe like a pair of 007s, combatting a sinister group that seeks to infiltrate the highest levels of the hierarchy.
While these fantasies focus almost completely on clerics at the highest levels of the Church, Evil presents a more mundane world of parish priests whose struggles mirror those of ordinary working people—too much to do, office politics, and lots of loneliness. Acosta’s mentor grumbles that he has three exorcisms scheduled in the next two weeks; while a priest who may have played a role in a miracle hits the bottle and complains that God is “the quietest roommate I’ve ever had.”
Non-Catholic characters in Evil tend to treat priests with varying degrees of polite condescension and suspicion. They assume Acosta is hunting for miracles, while his boss, an unnamed Monsignor, sees every supernatural claim as a potential source of embarrassment. When Acosta assures him there was nothing miraculous about the resuscitation of girl who was believed dead for three hours, the older man is visibly relieved.
Of course recent history provides ample reason to be suspicious of priests. While all branches of Christianity have experienced a decline in membership in the U.S., in the case of Catholicism this is due in no small part to scandals over clerical sexual abuse and the high-level coverups. Shame and humiliation have become part of contemporary Catholic life and pose a more obvious threat to the real-life Catholic Church than an army of demons or a secret society. Given that corruption in the Church isn’t fantasy, even those who remain faithful have to ask “why stay?” Indeed, many do not.
Asked if she’s Catholic, Bouchard responds “not anymore,” a sentiment shared by 13% of all U.S. adults. She speaks for many when she asks why, given the scandals and the Church’s treatment of “the gays” [sic], Acosta still wants to become a priest. Rather than attempt to defend the Church he says that these very problems are the “reasons we need good people.” In his humble way, he’s no less heroic than the high-flying priests in other television depictions of Catholicism, even if his answer isn’t likely to convince anyone not already committed to remaining.
Bouchard seems to be asking whether you can participate in the Catholic Church without being complicit in its corruption and homophobia. Of course, if the answer is “no,” she is arguably no less compromised than Acosta. She does, after all, accept a check from that corrupt and homophobic Church, even if she insists she’s no longer Catholic. She believes in science, not demons, she tells Acosta, but Bouchard is conflicted both by her lack of faith and by the work they’re engaged in. She complains to her shrink, “I’m a lapsed Catholic, a lapsed mountain climber, a lapsed psychologist. I quit everything!”
Acosta’s commitment to the Church is no less conflicted. A former photojournalist, he tells Bouchard that he’s seen a shaman put his soul into a dying child. What he doesn’t tell her is that he sometimes uses psychoactive drugs in a desperate effort to reproduce an ecstatic vision he once had—and perhaps to glimpse the soul of his lost “friend,” Julia. As the two of them spar over questions of faith and reason it feels like a spiritual striptease, with each character becoming increasingly vulnerable. It would be easy to supply rationalizations were Bouchard and Acosta to give in to the resulting mutual attraction. They’re both attractive, her husband is AWOL, Acosta hasn’t yet taken a vow of celibacy. Would it be so wrong?
That question exemplifies the lines Evil draws between the familiar situations of day-to-day life and the inscrutable, possibly cosmic, roots of evil and suffering. If the Church is just another, deeply flawed, employer, then the flirtation between Acosta and Bouchard might be just another workplace romance frowned upon by HR. In this context, however, it might be a weak spot ripe for diabolical exploitation. An apparent resurrection might be an unexpected artifact of unconscious systemic racism; a Boss-from-Hell might in fact be under the influence of a devil. The mysteries of digital technology and the Internet give grim plausibility to what once seemed like obvious paranoia. Is the voice coming from that virtual assistant an impersonal algorithm, a malicious hacker, or something worse? The serial killer might not be possessed, but what if the person chatting with him on 4chan is? The line between the human and the demonic is a fuzzy one, particularly in the case of Bouchard’s professional rival, Leland Townsend. His description of the eventual fate of a teenage boy he hopes to have tried and convicted as an adult is so monstrous and yet so utterly convincing that even hardened skeptics might ask whether possession isn’t a real possibility.
Whether it’s the mysteries of technology or the inscrutable malice of the people around us, Evil explores the individual’s sense of powerlessness. However problematic, the Catholic Church, as represented by Acosta, Bouchard, and Shakir, is proffered as hope when scientific reason offers little. As one woman explains, she and her family “aren’t good Catholics,” but she’s called upon the Church because she’s exhausted every other option in dealing with a nine-year-old son whose behavior, whether psychopathic or demonic, is terrorizing his family. Believers or not, viewers can’t help but hope that Acosta, Bouchard, and Shakir will succeed in helping. It’s to the show’s credit that it offers no false assurance that they will. By the end of the fourth episode, the team of investigators have, at best, a 50% success rate. Ultimately, the fear that inspires Evil is that they, and the deeply flawed Church for which they work, will fail.