Good vs. ‘Evil’: Interview With the Husband-Wife Team Behind the Hit Show
Co-creators Robert and Michelle King have done ‘good’ with other shows, but their new show is about a seminarian and a skeptic taking on Evil.
When does bizarre behavior point to mental illness and when does it look more like a sign of demonic possession?
When might a recurring nightmare be something more than an ordinary bad dream?
What’s the difference between a medical mistake and a miraculous resuscitation?
Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife producing-writing partners behind The Good Wife and The Good Fight, are interested in questions like that — although they don’t necessarily agree on the answers. Robert is a believing Catholic; Michelle is Jewish and skeptical.
Such questions are far afield from the political and social themes of their acclaimed series The Good Wife and The Good Fight.
Their new CBS show, though, sets its sights squarely on Evil.
Evil teams a seminarian named David Acosta (Mike Colter, Netflix’s Luke Cage) with a skeptical forensic psychologist named Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers of Manhattan) to assess possible supernatural phenomena, from possible demonic activity to potentially miraculous healings.
Intriguingly, the Kings and their writers have managed to avoid leaning too hard one way or another. Even when a mundane explanation is offered, often it merely pushes the question back a step or raises a new question.
Sometimes, too, one thing doesn’t exclude another. Is a psychopath less likely to be demon-possessed than a non-psychopath?
I spoke with the Kings recently by telephone.
SDG: Given that the phenomena that David and Kristen investigate on the show includes potential miracles and healings and the like, as well as demonic manifestations, why is it called Evil?
RK: It’s basically because of Michelle’s and my original fascination with why the world seems to be getting worse, even without massive societal evil like wars or Stalin or Hitler. There seems to be a more individual evil.
It’s like a version of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The idea is that there’s worth in looking at badness, if only because you then are more aware of the good and how it can either be corrupted or pulled away.
I’ve been looking back on past episodes and what’s coming up. There’s an episode on innocence: innocence in children, in people who have not yet been touched by evil.
It’s an accurate title — even when it concentrates on miracles, it still focuses on what the miracles are represented against — but, yeah, it could be an off-putting title, too. Sorry about that!
SDG: Well, I wasn’t looking for an apology! [laughter] It does seem, though, that, in a lot of pop-culture dealings with the supernatural, the forces of darkness are often much more prominent and present than the forces of light. We see a lot more demons than angels in pop culture. Do you have any thoughts about why that is?
MK: Everyone likes to write a villain!
RK: If you look at Dante’s The Divine Comedy, obviously the fascination is more with Inferno. There’s still drama in Purgatorio, but there’s not that much drama in Paradiso.
I mean, once you’re there, you kind of know where you are heading. Beatrice is there, and everything has been settled. I think the difficulty is that in drama you need to be unsettled.
I think angels are turned into cartoons, and I think it’s harder to understand what angelic life would be like.
We have a vision of heaven in the second episode, and we tried to go to Dante more than present-day cartoonish views of heaven, which is almost like a scientific phenomenon, like looking straight at the sun.
I think it’s hard to get angels right.
SDG: I think you’re right, and this is something that I keep looking for a movie to tackle: to make angels something that are really alien and yet have their own specificity. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, for example, did something really interesting with angels.
RK: Oh, yeah, that’s interesting. You are right: They were terrifying, right?
RK: When you look at the accounts of angels in the New Testament, basically everybody is terrified. Part of it is like seeing a ghost, but part of it also seems to be about seeing something that violently rips apart reality.
We may go there, but the problem is that it always feels a little bit like you are blaspheming more than when you try to do it with devils.
RK: Even Dante kind of goes on in his last canto there, saying, “Forgive me, God, if I get this wrong.” So I think the difficulty is that it could seem very blasphemous if you get it wrong.
SDG: The ambiguity of the show is one of the most fascinating things to me about it. The questions are: “Is this supernatural work here? Is this mental illness? Is it deception? Could it be more than one in some cases?” Can you speak to that?
MK: Well, first of all, thank you, and it certainly is deliberate. We wanted to show people of good faith (and I mean that with a small “f”) working together. David is obviously deeply religious, and Kristen isn’t, and both of them are working together to figure out what, in fact, they are looking at. And at times, absolutely, it could be both.
RK: Also, we wanted the scares to sometimes be scarier when they [have mundane origins].
In one episode the kids are playing on an augmented reality game where they put goggles on and walk around their house looking at scary things. And then it turns out that someone has accessed their Wi-Fi and appeared in their house as a little girl. And you’re not sure if it’s a supernatural apparition or if a child molester has accessed their Wi-Fi. At least, that was our intent.
So, is it scarier to have a demon in your house or to have a child molester accessing your Wi-Fi? I think that’s what we’ve always wanted to do: is have that ambiguity of whether it’s scarier if it’s scientific or it’s supernatural.
SDG: Do you think you will be able to sustain it? I mean, there was a certain ambiguity in The X-Files in the beginning, but after a while, you start looking at Scully the skeptic and going, “Really?” At some point it’s not ambiguous anymore!
RK: That’s a very good question.
We have a glossary of terms for how we talk about things, and one of them that we really don’t want to do is to “Scooby Doo” it — like at the end of the Scooby Doo episodes, where it’s explained that some music-park director is dressed as a ghost.
What we are trying to look for are things like scientific phenomena — like decibel levels, that younger hearers hear certain content that older hearers don’t, which we’re using to do an episode about earworms. Is there something that is accessed by supernatural beings, like demons, in order to communicate with the young over the ears of the old, or is it just a psychopath?
So, I think we want to stick with it, even though, obviously, the easier way to go is just something supernatural. Because then you could have anything happen. You could have Santa come down on a bicycle with Benjamin Franklin on his back. Anything is open to you.
SDG: Your show has a Catholic milieu. Roger Ebert wrote, in one of his reviews:
When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery. Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case.
Do you think that has any connection to what you are doing in your show?
RK: Oh, yeah. I mean, the bottom line is that Catholicism has ritual, which is drama. To my mind, Catholicism takes devils and the demonic more seriously.
I think that the drama of religion and the drama of faith is not just the fight for good, but the fight against evil, and that fight against evil is not just in my mind personified by demons. Michelle and I disagree on this, but I believe demons exist. Michelle?
MK: Robert believes demons exist.
RK: [laughter] The bottom line is the Catholics have an edge on belief not just in the good but also in the belief that there is evil that has to be conquered.
SDG: So are the two of you actually Kristen and David?
MK: Without the really great wardrobe!
RK: And I really don’t look anything like Mike Colter! But the bottom line is that Michelle and I really have these discussions — I wouldn’t say arguments; I would say discussions …
MK: Yeah, discussions!
RK: …over the 31 years of our marriage. You are always looking for a release for the conversations you have at home, and the TV show offers that.
The discussion about miracles and whether God plays favorites … how can you be a priest when the Church does awful things … those are the kinds of conversations we have had.
We aren’t Kristen and David, but we’d like to be them!
SDG: In some cases, the demonic in pop culture seems to function as kind of a backdoor to God. In other words, if the devil exists, that must mean that God exists, too. Is that a dynamic that you are pursuing in the show?
RK: Yeah. I mean, another way to put it is Stanley Kubrick asking Stephen King, who wrote The Shining, “Isn’t it a very optimistic thing to think in terms of ghosts, because that means that there is an afterlife?”
Part of the discussion on the show is that with great badness comes great goodness. The show is a way to talk seriously about transcendent issues. Some of them involve faith and religion, and some move beyond that. And that the best entertaining format for that discussion is probably demons and possession, because there’s so much inherent drama in that kind of invasion of your life.
To live a normal life, like in The Exorcist, and suddenly not to know how your life has been turned upside down, and to realize that science and medicine doesn’t really have an answer for it — it’s highly dramatic.
SDG: I can’t believe this: You’re the second person I’ve interviewed in the last 24 hours who quoted that conversation between Kubrick and King …
SDG: … and the other was Paul Harrell, the director of Light from Light, which is also about ambiguous supernatural phenomena and whether or not there’s a ghost. Harrell also mentioned King’s response about the optimism of ghosts, which was: “It’s not optimistic if you believe in hell!”
RK: Yeah, right, exactly! I’d forgotten that response. And that is weird!