On "Evil" and Procedural Failure

October 31, 2021   •   By Elizabeth Alsop

In the season one finale of Evil, the series created by Robert and Michelle King which recently concluded its second season, protagonist Kristen Bouchard commits a shocking act of violence. Viewers don’t see the crime, but it’s strongly implied and later confirmed that Kristin, a former climber, has taken an ice-axe to the series’ resident serial killer. It’s a stunning reversal for the character, a forensic psychologist turned employee of the Catholic Church, who, along with aspirant priest David and technology whiz Ben, has been tasked with assessing the evil-doing of others. (Kristin, like Dana Scully before her, has the job of offering rational explanations for seemingly supernatural events, as the church decides whether particular crimes are the work of the devil or more garden variety perps.) In fact, as Kristin gazes into her bathroom mirror post-murder, the image recalls the disquieting conclusion of that other supernatural procedural, Twin Peaks, whose original run ended with the upright Agent Cooper staring into his bathroom mirror, grinning maniacally, and now clearly in thrall to an agency considerably more nefarious than the FBI.

Evil doesn’t just look back to Twin Peaks, however — it also echoes more contemporary series that have dared to imagine the corruptibility of the detective character, and in the process, question revered features of the procedural genre. If the TV crime drama remains a redoubt of the familiar, what distinguishes Evil, along with recent shows like Mindhunter (2017-2019), Hannibal (2013-2015), Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), and Search Party (2016—), is its willingness to disrupt generic business as usual — most radically, by portraying the act of investigation as a destructive rather than productive force. In this context, Evil emerges as a paradigmatic example of the neo-procedural, a subgenre defined by a focus on procedural failure.  

In Hannibal, as in Evil, the revisionist impulse manifests in the representation of a gifted specialist’s slow drift toward depravity. FBI profiler Will Graham may begin the series on rational footing, despite his macabre gifts for empathizing with ritualistic killers. But it’s not long before bureau chief Jack recognizes that his protégé’s morality is up for grabs: “Hannibal thinks you are his man, Will. I think you are mine.” Jack, as it turns out, bets wrong. “I don’t think I can save myself,” Will confesses to Lecter in the series’ finale, shortly before the two, having jointly slaughtered a shared enemy, stand locked in a bloody, frankly erotic embrace. “This is all I ever wanted for you…for both of us,” Hannibal murmurs in Will’s ear, before the two tumble, Sherlock-and-Moriarty-style, off the edge of a cliff.

Evil, for its part, sends its heroine over the proverbial cliff much sooner. The show is especially deft in its use of mise-en-scène to convey the rapid crumbling of Kristin’s morals. If crime dramas have often used reality effects to amplify detectives’ humanity — think of Sarah Lund’s sweaters, Dale Cooper’s hot black coffee, or even Mare Sheehan’s vape pen — it’s worth noting how quickly Evil dispenses with such characterizing details. In the early episodes, for instance, Kristin endearingly chugs canned margaritas, and lives and works in a whimsically decorated house, shared with four high-spirited daughters, that sits in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. But the idiosyncrasies of her home life fade from view in the second season, with episodes focused more squarely on the “monster of the week” plots, signaling Kristin’s growing dissociation from her former self. Her business casual wardrobe grows flashier; she demands her husband wear an animal mask to have sex. As he tells her, having watched her beat a line-cutting grocery store patron with a bag of frozen French fries, “you’ve changed.” 

Crucially, however, the fallout from the Evil ensemble’s paranormal policing isn’t confined to Kristin. We cannot count on this ragtag team to do the right thing, in part because the right thing is often hard to determine, and in part because they seem increasingly at the mercy of the wrong thing. In one episode, the group’s attempt at an exorcism appears to cause the victim bodily harm; in another, a case of demonic possession, the team’s intervention leads, arguably, to a child’s murder. Kristin’s own daughters are regularly, almost casually endangered by her work, and one is encouraged to lie to the cops; meanwhile, her own mother, already of questionable moral fiber, crosses fully to the dark side, and begins making burnt offerings to a creepy doll. Even as David prepares to take on the devil himself, it is not at all clear whether the team’s activities are preponderantly good, or even, good at all.

In the neo-procedural, then, the investigation may beget crimes, just as often or even more often, than it resolves them. It’s a development that directly contravenes the more conservative mandate of detective fiction, which as D.A. Milller has argued, has been to dramatize both the departure from and safe return to normality, achieved through the investigation. In these series, by contrast, neither crime nor criminality can be “deported elsewhere.” Evil’s cryptic, one-word title underscores the prospect of a free-floating, ambient conception of wrong-doing, not readily localized to a single character, or redressed by the efforts of a fearless investigator. 

In the fallen, post-recession world of Twin Peaks: The Return, there’s no doubt that policing exacerbates rather than redresses harm. In season three, Audrey Horne’s “special agent” has been replaced by the evil Dark Coop and doddering Dougie. When Dale does return, in the second-to-last installment, his heroic turn — helping minor character Freddie destroy the evil BOB with a knock-out punch — is almost immediately undone. In the finale, an ambiguously “good” Cooper reprises his efforts to save Laura Palmer, but grows so fixated on his cause he fails to see that he’s traumatized her anew. “What year is this?” the disoriented Cooper asks, in the devastating final moments, as Laura, repossessed of her horrifying memories, screams into the void.

Differently radical in its revisionism is Mindhunter, David Fincher’s series about a gung-ho FBI trio determined to use behavioral profiling to bring down serial killers. Here, the focus is not just on individual failures but systemic ones: the dysfunction of law enforcement, not just enforcers. In the second season, for instance, Agent Holden Ford finds his cutting-edge tactics foiled not by arch criminals but by low-level bureaucracy. “You got your PO number?” a Sergeant asks, in the midst of Holden’s urgent push to paper a neighborhood with flyers. The escalating requests — for a work order, vendor list, and “individual approval for each jurisdiction” — effectively bring plans to catch an at-large child predator to a halt. “If I can help with anything else, though…” the sergeant offers, capping two oddly long scenes whose duration and granular realism seems to be designed to convey a desultory message: even the most beautiful mind is no match for bureaucratic obstructionism. 

In their emphasis on the missteps and blind spots of male investigators, rather than the brutalized bodies of female victims, Mindhunter, like The Return, disrupts the deeply gendered logics that have underwritten so many popular media portrayals of law enforcement. Collectively, then, these series represent a compelling alternative — if not a direct rebuke — to the “copaganda” which, as Kathryn van Arendonk writes, has long been a staple of U.S. television. If American cinema, from the film noirs of the post-war era to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, has been more consistently anti-cop, American TV has maintained a comparably benign view of the police, even across the historical evolution of the crime drama, as Jason Mittell has traced it, from Dragnet, to the more “humanized” portrayals of Hill Street Blues, Homicide, and, in its own way, The Wire.  

In this context, Search Party represents an especially sly and self-conscious entry in the neo-procedural cycle, given its running meta-commentary on the genre’s données. A dark comedy about four millennials who end up searching for a girl they barely knew in college, the show also manages over the course of its four seasons to send up core assumptions — about the inevitability of female victimhood, for instance — that underwrite so much crime narrative. When the ringleader Dory finds her first clue, a copy of Anna Karenina, a stranger tells her, “I’ll save you 400 pages: she dies at the end.” It’s a comment designed to spoil Tolstoy’s novel, but one that also speaks to the depressing ubiquity of the “dead girl” plot. Portia, an actress, later takes a part on a crime serial in which she, as a female detective, is killed off: “[i]t’s just that the show needs you to die,” the writer explains. And when the group finally tracks down the “missing” Chantal Winterbottom — who, it turns out, is totally fine — Dory and ex-boyfriend Drew end up inadvertently killing someone else. “I literally had less than I did before I started looking for Chantal,” Dory says, summing up the show’s central thesis: that the search, often framed as a feature, may in fact be a bug; that investigators are driven by ego, not altruism. Or, as Portia puts it, once the gang is caught, “I lay awake at night thinking about how our lives are going to be taken away from us because Dory wanted to feel special.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with generic formula, which offers, as TV scholar Sue Turnbull writes, “the reassurance of a familiar aesthetic frame within which to contemplate that which may be too off-putting in real life.” Reassurance holds particular appeal during a pandemic. Burnt out by our own unexciting jobs, after all, we may prefer to watch seasoned professionals do theirs. 

But formula also has its limits, as Evil, in a recent episode, most pointedly makes clear. In it, a case leads the group to consult the showrunner of a fictional Law and Order-type series called Justice Served, “the number one cop show in the world.” Waxing nostalgic about Dragnet, Chips, and Starsky and Hutch, the producer enthuses about his own series’ lead, a cop who doesn’t “play by the rules,” but who “gets the job done.” “Even though he abuses suspects? Badgers witnesses?” David asks. The message, of course, is that television reflexively defends the maverick cop, even, or especially, when their behavior borders on criminal. Of course, no amount of “reckoning” by TV executives will fix the problem of police violence. But in a world where cops solve just two percent of major crimes, even fictional skepticism is beyond past due.