Evil Dead has come a long way. From the short film Within the Woods in 1978 to the Ash vs. Evil Dead Season 1 finale here in 2016, we’re looking at 38 years’ worth of entries all starring the same lead actor (and it doesn’t even have the words Star, Wars, Rocky, or Creed anywhere in its title). But Ash vs. Evil Dead might not have even existed had it not been for the two-decades-long badgering of its bloodthirsty fanbase demanding an Evil Dead 4. Sure, they tided us over in that time. They gave us stylish action figures, mediocre video games, and bland comic books, but on the movie front, they gave us a whole lotta nothing. Then the 2013 remake seemed to quell any hopes of returning to the glory days of chainsaw-handed deadite-slaying. Until rumblings of an Evil Dead TV series began in 2014. Would this be another reboot like in 2013? Nope. Would it be a follow-up to the 2013 reboot? Nope! Would Bruce Campbell be in it? Yup. Would he play who we want him to play? Yup! Would this finally be the follow-up to the Evil Dead Trilogy that we thought would never actually happen? You bet your Ash!
Taking place 30 years after the movies, Ash (Bruce Campbell) has grown from stockboy to stockboy-with-seniority. He spends his nights nailing middle-aged drunk girls in bar bathrooms. That is until he meets a poetry fanatic who gets him stoned enough to read from the Necronomicon, unleashing the evil he put away all those years ago. Strapping on the chainsaw and boomstick one more time, Ash ventures off to destroy the evil once and for all. Joining him are two of his young co-workers who’ve gotten caught in the middle of this: Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo); and together they form an unlikely but highly entertaining trio. Hot on their trail is disgraced police office Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), who’s determined to clear her name of murder charges with the apprehension of Ash. And lastly there’s the mysterious Ruby (Lucy Lawless), a highly-skilled deadite-killing warrior who’s also the proud owner of Ash’s severed right hand. And with that, Ash and his team follow a blood-soaked trail eventually leading everyone back to where it all started: the cabin!
10 episodes may seem short. Shorter when factoring in the 30-minute runtime. But that just means no time is wasted and entertainment is preserved. But it also means creative movement is restricted, resulting in several single-location episodes. You get the “house” episode, the “bookstore” episode, the “restaurant” episode, and so on. It’s a formula that becomes predictable early on, especially since the characters spend most of their downtime on the road heading to their next location. It’s only when the cabin is mentioned late in the season that we realize we’ve been the victims of delayed gratification all along, causing us to ignore all other locations, past, present, and future. In this way the show betrays itself, as just when we’re getting accustomed to the formula, we suddenly wind up at the cabin, where it should have taken place all along. (So why didn’t it?) Another creative restriction is Army of Darkness, whose rights are owned by another company, which means those events sadly go unmentioned (but not forgotten). The focus is kept on the here and now, and once they reach the cabin, it’s all about the cabin. Because let’s face it, that’s where we wanted Ash to end up anyway, even if 3 episodes there feels brief. But when we do get there, it’s regrettably easy to forget the events before the cabin episodes, like they were just biding their time before the main event, something I should have seen coming but didn’t because the episodes were so short and quick. Still, ten 30-minute episodes is longer than the entire Evil Dead Trilogy, even if it seems like they accomplished less in that roughly 5-hour runtime.
Where the show really shines is in pleasing the fans. While the style and tone differ greatly from the movies, there are non-stop nods to events of the past, especially in the cabin episodes. Ash takes charge, even if he has grown more childish in his old age. Bruce Campbell just knows how to entertain, and has a whole lot of fun with this character. Maybe too much fun. Where his younger self would rise up and become manly when the time called for it, this Ash always has another sarcastic comment up his sleeve. And while making poor decisions seems to be his new thing (even though he really only made one bad decision in the entire movie trilogy; although it was big one), I still find it hard to believe even a stoned Ash would read from the Necronomicon. That seems like a bit of a stretch (although a very funny one). And the season finale? Where he makes by far the worst decision of his life, knowing in advance what the consequences might be, that then has a lasting impact on the entire world? That really felt like a contrived plot device to bring back the show for a second season. Maybe on subsequent viewings I’ll be more forgiving, but right now it just feels completely out of character for someone who’s been fighting evil for so long. The rest of the characters’ development is at the mercy of the 30-minute, 10-episode structure. Ash is about as open and in-your-face as a person can be, but some of the newer characters, namely Ruby, have some questionable motivations to say the least. And the all-too-obvious romances feel squeezed-in rather than fleshed-out. But while there were some nice surprises with the new characters, there are still many unanswered questions, which makes me think they’re saving the really good stuff for later.
First seasons are notorious for struggling to set a tone for an entire show. It doesn’t matter how old the Evil Dead movies are, this is a beginning in every sense. While entertaining as hell and horrifically hilarious, it suffers from a familiar over-dependence on future seasons, propping itself up on shoulders that aren’t there yet. But rest assured, if you’re an Evil Dead fan, you’ll get everything you want and more. Every scene with Ash is expertly handled and makes you love him even more. And the cabin episodes, the season finale in particular, feel the most “Evil Dead“-ish. But if you’re at all familiar with modern TV, then you won’t be able to look past certain elements, such as the now-awkward pacing of the pre-cabin episodes, or whether the new characters truly belong in the Evil Dead universe. But hey, we finally got our Evil Dead 4! And there’s no stopping Season 2 now. The franchise has grown beyond Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. A lot more names are involved now, which means we’re going to get a lot more ideas, a lot more stories, and a lot of different takes on the mythology. It may be an adjustment for some, but one that’s well worth it. And there’s nothing groovier than more Evil Dead!
4 out 5