TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The fall TV season starts officially the day after the primetime Emmy Awards, which, this year, means the broadcast networks begin unveiling their new shows tonight. Our TV critic David Bianculli says the whole fall season concept isn't what it used to be. But this year, there's at least one new series from the broadcast networks worth sampling from the start. It's from CBS, and it's called "Evil." It premieres Thursday. Here's David's review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Back in the old, old days of TV, before either streaming or cable television, the broadcast networks were king, enjoying a virtual monopoly. And each fall, CBS, NBC and ABC would roll out their new shows at the same time in order to attract the most viewers for their automotive advertisers, who, in turn, were rolling out their new fall models. It's a TV tradition that has persisted, even though neither Detroit nor the networks are nearly as dominant as they used to be. These days, the best new TV shows tend to come from cable or streaming sites not the broadcast networks; shows like AMC's "Better Call Saul," FX's "Fargo" and "Legion," Netflix's "Mindhunter."
In today's TV drama, this is where most of the action is. In fact, the last great TV drama to emerge from a commercial broadcast network was CBS' "The Good Wife." And the creators of that series, Robert and Michelle King, immigrated to that network's sister streaming site, CBS All Access, to produce a worthy spinoff "The Good Fight."
But this season, the Kings are back on CBS and back with a show that's as smart as "The Good Wife," only scarier. The show is called "Evil" and premieres Thursday. It stars Katja Herbers, a Dutch actress who played the daughter of Ed Harris' Man in Black on HBO's "Westworld."
In "Evil," she plays Kristen Bouchard, a single mom with four daughters who works as a forensic psychologist for the New York district attorney's office. Her job is to assess whether accused murderers are sane enough to stand trial, which has her, like the FBI profilers of "Mindhunter," talking to serial killers in an effort to better understand them, as in this early scene when she questions a defendant named Orson charged with several brutal murders.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVIL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson) I blacked out. I already said. Do you think I'm lying?
KATJA HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) I think there are three families dead. I think you're facing life without the possibility of parole. And I think if you wanted to help me, you could take a short test.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson) To see if I'm lying?
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) These are 567 true-or-false statements. You answer as honestly as you can.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson) Sure - not going anywhere.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) True or false, I like mechanics magazines.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson, laughing) Are you serious? False.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) I think I'd enjoy working as a librarian.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson) False.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) I have diarrhea once or more a month.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orson, laughing) False. But thanks for asking.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) I like the sound of a woman screaming.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEAD AIR)
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Orson?
BIANCULLI: Kristen's life changes significantly when Orson's case introduces her to David Acosta. He's portrayed by Mike Colter, who played Luke Cage in Marvel's Netflix TV series. And here, he's playing a role that's a lot less physical than metaphysical.
David is a former priest in training whose job is to travel around the world investigating various claims involving demonic possession, alleged miracles and other phenomena that are not easily explained. Before long, David offers Kristen to join him. And with four kids to raise, she's tempted by any offer that might help pay the bills.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVIL")
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Just to be upfront with you, Mister...
MIKE COLTER: (As David Acosta) Acosta.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) ...Acosta, I don't believe in all that - devils and possession.
COLTER: (As David Acosta) That's OK. See; the problem with my job is that possession looks a lot like insanity, and insanity looks a lot like possession. I need someone to help me distinguish between the two.
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) You don't care that I don't believe?
COLTER: (As David Acosta) I do not.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) How much do you pay?
BIANCULLI: This establishes David and Kristen as a church-appointed Mulder and Scully, with the identical "X-Files" dynamic. She's a skeptic; he's more open minded. Yet they're willing to learn from one another.
Robert and Michelle King, who created this series, have a similar dynamic tension, and "Evil" reflects their strengths as TV writers and producers. As with "The Good Wife," the actors are gifted, the plots are smart and the characters are refreshingly human, nuanced and unpredictable. Even the demonic and sinister elements of this "Evil" series will surprise you. The supernatural spirits being investigated have almost comically common names, like George and Roy. And they have attitude. It's like being haunted by someone who's part-devil and part-snarky David Spade. It's very unsettling and somehow even creepier.
And speaking of creepier, late in the premiere episode, Michael Emerson from "Lost" shows up, playing a guy so conniving and frightening, he's like a mixture of Machiavelli and Charles Manson. He may be the real recurring villain of this new series. But then again, so could the Internet - because the Kings are fascinated with modern media and its impact, as well.
Whatever else ends up emerging or failing to from the new crop of fall shows from the broadcast networks, one thing is clear from the start. This season, at least on CBS, "Evil" is good.
GROSS: David Bianculli is the editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ta-Nehisi Coates. After writing three nonfiction books dealing with race and identity and writing new Black Panther comics for Marvel and writing a much talked-about article about reparations, he's written his first novel. Set in slave times, it reimagines leaders of the Underground Railroad as having a magical power to help people out of slavery. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.