Exploring the Roots of Evil, a New Series on CBS

Heather Taylor gives an overview of Evil, a new CBS series by the Robert and Michelle King, featured at the 2019 Tribeca TV Festival in New York City.
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Heather Taylor gives an overview of Evil, a new CBS series by the Robert and Michelle King, featured at the 2019 Tribeca TV Festival in New York City.

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In its third year, the Tribeca TV Festival celebrates the pioneers who have broken boundaries in episodic storytelling, and those who will continue to do so this fall and beyond. Over four days in September, this newer festival focuses on bringing the small screen to the big screen, with a full roster of creators and stars present to support their work. On the docket this year, was a preview the first episode of the new CBS series Evil from the husband-wife duo Michelle and Robert King best known for creating The Good Wife and The Good Fight.

Still photo from the CBS series EVIL on the CBS Television Network.

From the CBS series EVIL on the CBS Television Network.Pictured (L-R) Mike Colter as David Acosta, Katja Herbers as Kristen Bouchard, and Aasif Mandvi as Ben Shroff. Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS 2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Evil follows Kristen (Katja Herbers), a skeptical clinical psychologist, as she joins David (Mike Colter), a priest-in-training, and Ben (Aasif Mandvi), a contractor, to investigate supposed miracles, demonic possessions, and other extraordinary occurrences. Their mission? To discover if there are scientific explanations behind these phenomenon, or if something truly supernatural is at work.

This series explores the origins of evil and the dividing line between religion and science. The Kings chose to tackle this heady subject as it’s something they’ve been discussing throughout their 30-year marriage and creative partnership. But they don’t see the roots of evil in the same way. Michelle King is more likely to jump to the psychological or the scientific explanation. Robert King typically thinks the origins of evil are based in something religious, or demonic.

“When you look around and you see some of the evil goings on in politics, you kind of think there's something beyond what science can explain. Or if you see what's going on with racism in this country, there is something that holds people and I don't think it's all in genes.”

Building out the antagonists

Still photo from the CBS series EVIL on the CBS Television Network

From the CBS series EVIL on the CBS Television Network.Pictured (L-R) Katja Herbers as Kristen Bouchard, and Michael Emerson as Leland Townsend.Photo: John Paul Filo/CBS 2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to the antagonist of our Scoobie gang: Leland (Michael Emerson). He presents as the living embodiment of evil, playing games and stirring things up for Kristen and David. According to Robert King, one of the reasons Leland is fun is because he encourages people to answer their problems with evil. For instance, he introduces himself to an incel character in the sixth episode. He basically says, there's no reason you have to be this way where women rule you, you should rule women. "What Leland’s really trying to do is groom him into being a lone gunman. So it starts where evil kind of pulls you in because it's fun and then it becomes this villainy and danger, which is what we're seeing with a lot of social media now."

Not only is Leland bent on making things difficult for the team, he also claims there are 60 “friends” who are interested in helping him with his evil activities. The leads, and the audience, are left questioning if these friends are demons, or more corporal beings.

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Expanding the world of the series

Having the potential of 60 evil friends opens the show up to the possibility of a string of guest stars. This also gives the writers a good opportunity to go into the wide variety of types evil the Kings want to examine in society. “Some may be in the White House. Some may be in ICE. There are elements of evil all around so it’s a great world to explore. Dante had so much fun putting people in hell,” Robert King extrapolated tongue-in-cheek.

“What's fun about the 60 is it allows actors to play other roles in the King universe [outside of The Good Wife and The Good Fight]. When we were doing those shows, we couldn’t repeat roles because they already played that character. Christine Lahti (who plays Kristen’s mom Sheryl Luria) played a real villainous lawyer in The Good Fight. Now we can cast her again as something different. Mike Colter was a drug dealer and now he's going to be a priest in Evil.”

To the delight of the audience, Mike Colter defended his character Lemond Bishop, with a line taken directly from The Good Wife: “Excuse me. I was a businessman with a diversified portfolio: real estate, dry cleaning, horse stables. I had so many things other than the drugs.”

Bringing authenticity to Evil

In order to ensure the show is authentic, the Kings employ Monsignor DeSoto as a consultant to address the religious side of the story. He was even included on set during an exorcism to make sure they were doing it properly. The team also have a forensic psychologist who addresses the other side of the King debate. In terms of the cases they cover, there’s a backlog of exorcisms and miracle appraisals to refer back to. in fact, there are currently 500,000 throughout the world according to the last count.

To keep the show consistent, each episode has quite a few scares in it, but also the trademark King humor. This consistency means you always feel like you're in their world. Another important part of the show was to not always focus on the bad. Evil is an attempt to explore different ways of looking at evil that don't have to do with the operatic aspects of people, or be all exorcism all the time. Instead, when there are exorcisms, the Kings want to experiment with it to try and do it differently than The Exorcist the movie or the series. The show also questions if medical singularities mean that there's something miraculous that happened or just something that science and medicine hasn't been able to explain yet.

Exploring the many facets of evil

When the cast was asked about their thoughts on the exploration of evil in the show, Christine Lahti professed her fascination with the question of people being born evil. “Is it nature or nurture? Someone can be really empathetic and not a psychopath. But because of trauma, because of poverty, because of really horrible things, it erodes one's empathy. And after you have enough of that, then do you lose it entirely? And then do you tip into evil? I mean all that is so interesting psychologically too.”

Kurt Kuller, who plays Kristen’s psychologist Dr. Boggs, shared that one of the most compelling things about the show to him is how interesting the characters are. “It's a character study, exploring their interactions and their hopes and their dreams. Several of them are really damaged and trying to save themselves at the same time as they're trying to solve this problem of evil. For me, that's the most compelling thing. And that is called great writing."

How the writers connect the stories

As you can imagine, writers on a King show have to be smart, and the room for Evil consists of seven smart writers, all of whom are passionate, either about religion or science or both. With a show this complex, the story board in the writer's room looks like the control room for the subway system. There's different colored cards for every character. For instance, Leland is red so the team can track where he's going over the course of the 15 episodes, while Kristen is pink. Outside of the characters, the story lines also have their own colors. So it's like watching how a serial killer works a the writers constantly coming up with fresh ideas.

But it’s not coming up with new evil that’s the most challenging part of making this series. Michelle King believes that part unfortunately writes itself. It's more about the characters. “We were looking back to the start of The Good Wife and realized how hard it was to get that balance among the characters. There were five major characters. It was hard just trying to keep a balance among all the characters so they all had something to do."

"Evil is feeling like the same thing. With our cast, it's an embarrassment of riches. You really want to spend time with all these characters. The other thing is trying to create new varieties of character interactions. With The Good Wife, we realized by the third or fourth season that Archie Panjabi’s character, Kalinda, had never really interacted with Alan Cumming’s character, Eli. So you just try to create new combinations with the characters, and I think that was the hardest thing.”

The place of politics in the King universe

If you look at any King production, it incorporates what's going on socio-politically in the world into the narrative. In Evil, they incorporated the Parkland shootings, the Charlottesville riots, and 4Chan as part of the storytelling. Even when they don’t mean to be topical, it ends up that way. Robert King explained why: “It just seems if you're not writing about that today, I don't know if you're awake. Because you're watching what's going on with lone gunman; you're watching how people are creating communities based on anger, frustration, bitterness, racism. They're trying to create little communities for themselves. And I think there's an element of evil in that, but that seems to be the disagreement in the show.”

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In The Good Wife, they always centered the show on how the world is corrupt, and law's corrupt. What do you do to treat it like a heist? How do you get around the corruption? How do you find the loopholes there? Evil looks at the world more idealistically: does this person need to be weeded out of society because they are a psychopath? Or is there any hope in the case of people who do villainous things? That’s the key to this series, and big difference between Evil and The Good Wife. That...and the demons.

To prove this point, Robert King told the audience more about an upcoming episode about televangelism and how it's a way to explore the fervor around Trump. "Can you have the best instincts because you support his politics? Is the process corrupted through it? Is that a version of evil or is that just a partaking of evil? Is it just someone being misguided, or is it not? I don't think this show will play as binary as it might seem Oh, this is evil. This is good. There's all this confusion in this gray area between the two extremes.”

What’s next for the Kings?

Robert and Michelle King are now executive producers on three different series (Evil, The Good Fight, and Your Honor) that are in production at the same time. But how do they balance that many shows? At the time of the screening, they were 9 scripts into Evil with The Good Fight’s writer’s room starting the next week. The Kings were upfront with the audience: They weren’t sure how they were going to maintain balance. They never had two rooms that they showran going at the same time. Both are good rooms, but as The Good Fight has been running for the past three seasons, they were hopeful they could balance their time between the two rooms. That they could give time to the room that needed it most.

The difficulty will be in the multitasking because Your Honor shoots in New Orleans. Peter Moffat is the showrunner, the Kings are executive producing and Liz Glotzer, who heads up their company, is down in New Orleans constantly. The Kings gushed about their excitement over the new series. Peter wrote incredible scripts, Edward Berger, the filmmaker who shot Patrick Melrose, is shooting it, and Bryan Cranston stars in it.

Only time will tell how this expansion of the King empire will fare. But with their mix of humor, horror, and politics, while answering life’s large questions, their shows should have a long life to come.

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