Every fall, a parade of frightening new films and TV shows arrive to whet Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for horror. To one-up the competition, most revel in cheap thrills and graphic gory imagery.
Married producers Robert and Michelle King saw an opening to explore deeper questions. Premiering September 26 on CBS, “Evil” begins as an investigation into a serial killer’s grisly misdeeds—then takes a turn into horror and scrutinizing the nature of evil.
“We like scares,” said Robert King in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “[But] we wanted to create entertainment where religion is just the subject matter. Then it’s not like, ‘Oh my G-d, they mentioned the name of Jesus.’ We’re just trying to normalize the conversation.”
While King is a devout Catholic, his wife and writing partner Michelle calls herself a “secular Jew.” Their Emmy Award-winning courtroom drama “The Good Wife,” which ran for seven seasons on CBS, only occasionally involved religion in its storylines.
In “Evil,” a motley crew investigate supposedly supernatural cases unexplained by either church or state. “Evil” features Katja Herbers (“Westworld”) as a forensic psychologist, Mike Colter (“Luke Cage,” “Breakthrough”) as a priest-in-training, Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show” as a myth-busting carpenter, and Michael Emerson (“Lost,” “Person of Interest”) as their mysterious nemesis.
Speaking together in an interview, the Kings revealed their personal religious debates, the psychology research that undergirds “Evil,” and their aim in darkly dramatizing spiritual themes. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
It’s rather ambitious to explore the nature of evil in a network TV series. What led you to invest years bringing this show to life?
Robert King: Two years ago, we wrote a pilot called “Vatican City” which was kind of like “The West Wing” TV show but set in the Vatican with a female protagonist. No one wanted to make it! Everybody passed on it, which we thought was sad. There is this wariness about doing something that dives into religious issues, which we think are fascinating.
Whenever we indulged religion in “The Good Wife,” it resulted in interesting debates and discussions. In that show, we were playing the comedy of a mother who is atheist whose daughter starts to believe. So many people in real life are trying to deal with these issues.
What we wanted to do was find another format that helped us grapple with it. Because we have different beliefs, Michelle and I have this debate about, Why do people do bad things?
Michelle King: We have been discussing these issues for the last 30-plus years of our marriage. This is just a culmination of that.
Robert: I’m the Catholic so I believe in original sin. And I also believe there is a demonic realm that has to be resisted. Michelle—
Michelle: —is more of a secular Jew. I don’t necessarily see the divine as being the answer to everything. When I see evil in the world, I am more likely to jump to psychology or science to explain things.
In pitching such a religion-centric show, did you encounter roadblocks to getting it on the air?
Robert: Thankfully, no. We’ve worked with CBS now for almost ten years. One of the reasons we love working with them is they’ve been deferential to the creative vision.
They test all their shows, including the pilot for “Evil”—about 40 people watch each episode. Those folks are split up by gender, then producers listen to the discussion. Among those test viewers, their interest was all about seeing this debate play out between the scientific and religious.
So we’ve gotten a green light to go further in that direction, which we’re thrilled about. What makes TV exciting is not just about superheroes or the next big explosion. It’s about things that are going on in people’s heads and hearts right now.
Turning to the show itself, how do the three leads represent different approaches to the supernatural?
Michelle: Clearly Mike Colter’s character David Acosta comes from a place of belief. He’s devout and not intimidated by talking about the divine, even to people who don’t necessarily ascribe to the same beliefs.
Forensic psychologist Kristen, portrayed by Katja Herbers, is more of a questioner. She comes from a science background so she doesn’t jump to the same beliefs that David does. Ben, played by Aasif Mandvi, is not really open to the divine at all.
Robert: I would add that Ben is purely scientific, while Kristen sees the world through psychology. On top of that, we’re playing with Aasif’s religious background too. There is a Muslim aspect to his character, which we’ll see in his family in future episodes.
The series premiere includes some graphic violence and horror/suspense scenes. Who do you see as the target audience for “Evil?”
Michelle: I wish I knew!
Robert: People tune in to CBS who want to see interesting stories that get their blood pumping a little bit. We actually don’t have that much that is violent. There are brief flashes, but we’re trying not to be indulgent as you’ll see in future episodes. The second episode focuses on a miracle—so there are scares, but there is no blood or gore in it.
Michelle: Our hope is the show appeals both to people who like a good dramatic story, but also folks who are interested in the core conversation about faith versus science.
Looking Into Psychology—and Beyond
For the pilot, did you research actual cases of serial killers with psychological disorders?
Robert: There is a lot of research about the psychology of serial killers. When you dig through it, it’s interesting to try to see every writer’s bias. If their lens is to assume [natural causes], you wouldn’t see that it might be about an evil that is greater than psychology. But Michelle and I could probably argue about that for the rest of our time.
In one scene, characters wield a wooden crucifix and cite the Lord’s Prayer to combat a demonic manifestation. Why?
Robert: We talked to an exorcist who provided insight. He tries to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession through the use of what are considered holy objects. When a person reacts to the sight of holy objects or a prayer, it tells him he’s working with something greater than illness.
It was a wooden crucifix due to some simple research. Our prop master told us that, of course, no metal content would be allowed in a prison facility.
In a time when some people increasingly avoid religion, why did you go a different route?
Michelle: Our intent has always been to have religion front and center in the show. That’s the appeal of it.
The other thing that’s important to me is that we show characters with very different points of view who are willing to discuss these things and listen to each other in a respectful way. Right now, there is a lot of violent disagreement in the world and not a lot of listening with respect.
Robert: We’ve been reading about a major streaming service not allowing a crucifix to be shown or the image of Jesus. For producers who are secular, they make a calculation not to discuss religion, which is seen as political—because of recent efforts the Republican Party has made to align itself with religion.
It’s similar to issues of race. So many people are wary about [race-based conflict], shows never attempt to portray both sides of stories. There is such an abundance of fear that people will be outraged by religion in some way. In this show, these ideas of faith and science are the river that our characters swim in.
The show examines big questions raised by both science and religion. As it progresses, will audiences come away with any answers?
Michelle: I suspect this show swims more in the waters of questions than answers.
Robert: We were just looking at quantum entanglement—wait, that sounds tedious. Maybe we should try to sell our show and not alienate the audience! But it’s a scientific theory regarding the simultaneous quality of atoms. Atoms millions of miles away from each other react the same way at exactly the same time.
How is that not odder than religion? I’d say it’s weirder than transubstantiation. When you start down that [rabbit hole], you start asking more and more questions… which is what we’re doing with “Evil.” Perhaps it’s not arriving at a certain conclusion, but we keep asking questions.
Rated TV-14 for graphic and frightening imagery, “Evil” premieres September 26 on CBS.