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Questions of faith and sanity bubble to the surface in season 3 of 'Evil'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Robert and Michelle King, the husband and wife production team who created "The Good Wife" and its still-running sequel series "The Good Fight" return this Sunday with the third season of another drama series. It's called "Evil," and like "The Good Fight," it's presented by the streaming service Paramount+. But "Evil" didn't originate there. It started on the CBS broadcast network. And the series has taken full advantage of the relocation from one platform to another.

"Evil" premiered on CBS in 2019, pre-pandemic. It's kind of like a more spiritual version of "The X-Files," featuring a team of experts assigned to assess the validity of a series of unexplained phenomena, including reports of demonic possession and angelic visions. There's an aspiring Catholic priest, David Acosta, played by Mike Colter, a tech expert, Ben Shakir, played by Aasif Mandvi, and a psychologist, Kristen Bouchard, played by Katja Herbers. The tech expert is a skeptical debunker. The man of the faith tends to believe. And the psychologist is all over the place. Sometimes she's a rational doctor. Other times, she is so fiercely protective of her four daughters, she could kill - and at least once in this series, she already has. But Kristen wields less deadly weapons as well, such as legal documents. The team's longtime nemesis on this show is Leland Townsend, a smarmy guy who's used his influence to getting good with the local church even though he's an agent for, well, evil. Leland is played by Michael Emerson, who was so wonderful on the ABC series "Lost." And he's wonderful here, too.

In the third season premiere, Leland is in a meeting with the monsignor and the other members of Kristen's team when Kristen enters suddenly, envelope in hand, and walks right up to Leland nose to nose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVIL")

AASIF MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) Yes, Mrs. Bouchard?

KATJA HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Hello.

MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) Hello. Would you mind backing up a few feet? What is this?

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) A restraining order. You've been served.

MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) Monsignor, can't we settle our disagreements without these ad hominem attacks?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mrs. Bouchard, this is not necessary.

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Oh, it's not a restraining order for me. I can take care of myself. It's for my 11-year-old daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Excuse me?

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Mr. Townsend has approached my daughter at school on four separate occasions, and he's asked her to keep it a secret from me.

MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) No, this is...

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) And he's also made her uncomfortable with his touch.

MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) I did not. What are you talking about? This is insane.

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Luckily, one of my daughters took a photo, and that is why the court granted me this injunction.

MANDVI: (As Leland Townsend) That is a misinterpretation.

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Oh, I guess it's a good thing that the Catholic Church has no issues with older men touching children.

BIANCULLI: Kristen hardly seems like herself these days, and sometimes she isn't. She could be possessed or imaginary or impersonated by a demon. In defending her children and investigating her cases, she's found and embraced a new inner strength. But she's also fighting her inner desires because even though she's married, she's attracted to David, who has just joined the priesthood officially. The attraction is mutual. And David suffers from visions or fantasies, which include Kristen visiting his bed at night and climbing on top of him. And because this show is so paranormal, you're not sure whether David's nightly encounters are fantasies, and neither is he. They could be real or demonic or both.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVIL")

MIKE COLTER: (As David Acosta) Hello?

HERBERS: (As Kristen Bouchard) Over here.

COLTER: (As David) You're not real.

HERBERS: (As Kristen) Exactly. Check your catechism. This isn't forbidden - unless you want it to be forbidden, unless you want me to do things to you that are truly forbidden.

BIANCULLI: I've seen the first five episodes from this new Season 3, and they manage to be outrageously funny in some spots and genuinely scary in others. Everything works in concert here. The writing by series creators Robert and Michelle King and others is clever enough to keep you constantly second-guessing, even third-guessing. The acting is terrific all down the line. The show lost Peter Scolari, who died between seasons, but Andrea Martin, as a nun who sees demons, has stepped up as a major factor in this season's storyline. And just as with Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy in "Schitt's Creek," it's great to see another old Second City veteran making the most of a meaty new role.

Also hitting nothing but home runs here - Christine Lahti, as Kristen's mother. This season especially, she's been able to do a few things and say a lot of things that she could never have come near on CBS. I can't play you any examples, but in this new season, "Evil" may have become the most profane TV series since "Deadwood." But sex scenes with demonically forked tongues and dialogue that blisters with intensity and profanity aren't the only changes in this Paramount+ version of "Evil." Each member of the team is questioning his or her faith and sanity. And the stakes of the battles - and not just against Leland - have only increased, as one of his evil allies points out to our three heroes, in a chillingly topical warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EVIL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Have you ever noticed people are getting meaner? They yell at each other more. They hit each other on airplanes. There are more violent crimes. You must have noticed. It's all over the news. Do you know what it means, all this anger and hate? It means your team is losing. That doom you feel, it's justified.

BIANCULLI: The series theme song for "Evil" builds and builds, getting more foreboding all the time, just like the show itself. "Evil" is one of the two best TV series to have begun on broadcast TV, moved to a streaming service and gotten even bolder and more ambitious and entertaining as a result. The other is "The Good Fight," which started on CBS in 2017, moved immediately to CBS All Access and now also resides on Paramount+, where it will return for its sixth and final season in September. It, too, like "Evil," is a series created by Robert and Michelle King, who clearly have proven themselves to be the reigning kings of both broadcast and streaming TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, MSNBC anchor and NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. In a new book, she writes about her childhood, early professional career and family relationships. Her father, she says, was a charismatic and talented reporter but also had a volatile temper. Her dad came out as a trans woman in 2013. Tur's book is "Rough Draft: A Memoir." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE TRIO'S "HALLELUJAH TIME")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE TRIO'S "HALLELUJAH TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.

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