'Stan Against Evil': TV Review
The title of IFC's new John C. McGinley horror-comedy isn't the only thing that will remind you of 'Ash vs Evil Dead.'
If you absolutely need to watch one half-hour horror-comedy about generation-spanning demonic possession and witchcraft featuring a sacred instruction book and eponymously pitting the concept of "evil" against the forces of good (led by a square-jawed character actor born in 1957 or 1958 playing a brash alpha determined to turn these underworld miscreants into exploding sacks of blood and viscera), you should stick with Starz's Ash vs Evil Dead, which has become more confident in its tonal lunacy in the current second season.
If, however, you crave two shows that fit that convoluted description, IFC is set to premiere Stan Against Evil, an inconsistent but sporadically effective horror-comedy that often rises to the level of "just fine" and periodically even hits "pretty good," thanks in huge part to the central star turn by John C. McGinley.
[Note: McGinley and Bruce Campbell worked together on Burn Notice. It feels like if Ash and Stan could somehow work together, "evil" wouldn't stand a chance. Also note that the Stan Against Evil pilot premiered on Halloween, but will re-air on Wednesday, followed by a new episode.]
Created by Dana Gould (The Simpsons), Stan Against Evil features McGinley as Stan Miller, former sheriff in a small New Hampshire town with a dark past. Willard's Mill was the site of 17th century witch burnings that made Salem look quaint and witch-tolerant and, since then, every single town sheriff has met with an untimely end. Thanks to erratic behavior after the death of his wife, Stan somehow manages to leave the job alive ... by getting fired. He's forced to partner with his replacement, Evie Barret (You're the Worst scene-stealer Janet Varney), to take on as many as 172 demons associated with the witches persecuted in Willard's Mill.
Providing assistance in this gory spiritual battle are Stan's daughter Denise (Deborah Baker Jr), who is either really sheltered and young or else a wee bit touched in the head, and Deputy Leon Drinkwater (Nate Mooney), who also may be simple. Through the four episodes I've watched, it's only a quartet of regular characters and I've yet to get a handle on Deputy Drinkwater other than a funny name, so my notes [and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia fans] just call him "Ryan McPoyle."
While Stan has shades of Campbell's chainsaw-toting Ash, McGinley's greatest skill, highlighted in both Scrubs and Ground Floor in recent years, is giving characters prone to TV-friendly motor-mouthed tirades actual grounding when they aren't saying inappropriate things. I get that certain audiences will love that when Stan confronts a possessed she-beast he says things like, "Anybody ever tell you you look like a barrel of assholes?" and nobody's going to question McGinley's ability to nail lines like that, but the actor keeps Stan from being just that guy. He's a grieving widower who also finds himself without the local authority he held for decades and he's clinging to this newly discovered fight against evil as the only thing giving him purpose.
The Stan that I latched onto is a sad guy. You can feel free to laugh at his unreconstructed boorishness, but if you view that uncouth side as almost a defense mechanism, it makes it a lot easier to be interested in Stan's budding partnerships with Evie and Denise. This is a guy who lost a wife who we assume was the anchor to his relationship with all women, and he now has a daughter he can't understand and a female authority figure he doesn't know how to respect and he's just clueless on how to respond to them. As "old school sexism," the show's treatment of Stan's behavior is a bore, but as "unmoored obliviousness," it's better, so it's a matter of interpretation and I'll be generous. Stan is easily the most developed character thus far, with Evie relying on a wide-eyed incredulity that Varney excels at and Baker making the ambiguity of Denise's IQ very likable.
The show either gets away with the thin ensemble or renders the cast thin by having to concentrate a lot on establishing plot and structure. We know from the beginning the number of demons that have to be dispatched and they take a slightly different form each episode, and as long as Stan and company take them down, Willard's Mill remains intact. There are shades of a Buffy or of The CW's Reaper in the initial simplicity, which I appreciate. Even after two seasons, Ash vs Evil Dead often feels like it's doing the same things in every episode, covering for a lot of wheel-spinning with flash and budget-busting innovation. Stan Against Evil has a lower budget and so the various goat monsters and malevolent hags have desirable silliness, but never find that extra level to simultaneously be scary. The horror effects here are also quickly repetitive and limited, but sometimes good for a chuckle. The early episodes are directed by Justin Nijm & Jack Bishop and although the washed-out aesthetic and frequent arbitrary Dutch angles seem to nod in the direction of '70s grindhouse or Hammer studio productions, nothing's quite gung-ho enough for the style to become a pleasure on its own.
The setting also does the show few favors, since Georgia is standing in for New Hampshire in a way that screams "We're saving money!" more than "This is New England!" When the lighting, accents and points-of-conversational-reference are committed to this haphazardly, what ought to be a point of specificity instead reads as corner-cutting. The fourth episode, with its ample Bobby Orr references, comes close to getting its focus right or authentic, but also includes Stan misquoting Orr's scoring stats. Viewers without New England ties are likely to be less bothered, so plan accordingly.
Speaking to Gould's animated background, Stan Against Evil has some moments of broad, snarky humor and commits aggressively to pop-culture references, without exactly coming across as post-modern. As with much of the show, everything could stand to be pushed a little more aggressively, as if Gould is worried about making this too cartoonish, which really shouldn't be a concern. For now, it's McGinley, with assistance from Varney and Baker, who serves as the best reason to check out Stan Against Evil and the best hope that if the series survives past its eight-episode first season, it might eventually forge an identity unique enough that a second season review might not even mention Ash vs Evil Dead. For now, that is a restraint I don't possess.
Cast: John C. McGinley, Janet Varney, Nate Mooney, Deborah Baker Jr.
Creator: Dana Gould
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (IFC)