by Steven Lewis
The Movie Guys
Has your autumn felt just a bit different this year? Something seem slightly “off” in your TV-viewing habits? For most Americans, I daresay the answer would be no – even though this represents the first time in three seasons that Ash vs Evil Dead has not been on the air. It was cancelled earlier this year by the premium cable channel Starz – and its demise passed by with nary a whimper. It seems a shame, inasmuch as there was a tremendous amount of initial interest in the project when it was first announced – so much so that it was renewed for a second season even before the pilot episode aired. And online comments from the rabid Evil Dead fan base while the show was on appeared to be largely supportive of what it was trying to do.
For me personally, the show was never completely satisfying, and I largely stopped watching after the first season. However, as a fan of both Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, I wished the project all the best and bore it no ill will. It was also satisfying to see diehard Evil Dead fans – who’d been clamoring over twenty years for a continuation of the saga featuring Campbell’s iconic Ash Williams – get something which seemed to satisfy their deepest expectations.
But did it? In the wake of the show’s rather abrupt cancellation, that now seems a fair question to ask. Though I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I thought I would take this opportunity to share here the main reasons the series was dissatisfying to me: a sort of Evil Dead post-mortem, if you will. Perhaps my objections will seem fanciful or off-base; or perhaps they will resonate with other viewers, too – even those who watched the show with greater regularity than I did, and may have enjoyed it more, but who perhaps became overtaken with a feeling that all things considered, Ash vs Evil Dead was not essential viewing, on a week to week basis.
To me, it all boils down to the writing. Television shows, much more so than movies, thrive (or don’t) largely on the strength of their writing. Limited budgets and compressed shooting schedules don’t allow TV shows to have the same production quality as feature films. This was always going to present a challenge for an Evil Dead TV series, since so much of the appeal of the movies had to do with the specific film directing brilliance of Sam Raimi – who was only going to be directing the pilot episode. But in fact that first episode did an exceptionally good job in setting up Ash vs Evil Dead AS a television show. By that I mean that the rhythms and feel – as established by the editing and pace, the production design and look, and the performances of the actors – conformed to that of a TV series. Just, you know – one where every once in a while someone’s head would explode, or the screen would be splattered with gore. It was actually quite an ingenious stylistic marriage, I thought: Ash’s buffoonery, as well as the breezy camaraderie he shared with his fellow Value Stop co-workers, felt reminiscent of comedies like Chuck or Workaholics; while the parallel plotline of the Michigan State trooper whose life is changed by her confrontation with a deadite, and becomes obsessed with finding out what they are and where they come from, had a spooky X-Files vibe to it. And then of course, there was stuff that was just pure Evil Dead – namely, the gonzo mayhem in Ash’s trailer at the climax of the episode, where both the boom stick and chainsaw make their triumphant, and entirely satisfying, re-appearances. Yes, I have to admit: that first episode had me stoked.
But as the season wore on, it became readily apparent that there was no over-arching PLAN for this show. It seemed primarily concerned with devising crazy scenarios for Ash and his compatriots to get into – ones which mixed slapstick and violence in fun ways – and then using the storytelling as mere pretext to get from one such moment to the next. And, sure – that’s definitely one way to go with the Evil Dead. After all, that’s pretty much what the movies were. And on that level, I suppose you could say the show worked.
The humor was certainly well-executed. Bruce Campbell as Ash was every bit as hilarious as fans could have hoped. And as an added bonus, costars Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo were also extremely engaging, with the three of them gelling nicely as an onscreen team. The scenes of deadite carnage that the writers put so much time into devising were generally very creative and fun – and clearly inspired the directors and the technical team, because the staging of these scenes became more and more accomplished as the series progressed. Nothing that was going to give Evil Dead II a run for its money, but – particularly for a television show – the action scenes were very impressively mounted and shot.
But here’s the thing: what works for a 90-minute movie is not necessarily something that’s going to draw you in repeatedly on a week-to-week basis. Particularly in this new age of television where shows like Stranger Thingsand The Walking Dead (and countless others) entice viewers with compelling ongoing story lines. I feel that Ash vs Evil Dead really dropped the ball in its reliance on speed and slapstick and pure sensation in place of a narrative that audiences could truly invest themselves in.
And it didn’t have to be this way. For all its balls-to-the-wall craziness, the Evil Dead universe actually IS rich enough to have sustained itself in the serialized storytelling format of today’s television – without sacrificing any of its humor or irreverence. “How so?,” you ask? Well … I think there is a series of questions the writers should have asked themselves when setting out to create the show. BASIC questions, relating to the way things work within this universe (as suggested by the movies). Because answering those questions – which the movies didn’t have the time (or, really, the interest) to do – could have formed the basis for some solid storytelling, and led to the creation of a clearer, more compelling through-line to hang all that gonzo invention onto.
QUESTION #1: WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO ASH THIRTY YEARS AGO, WHEN HE RETURNED FROM DEFEATING THE DEADITES?
OK, so this is where the series fell down right away, frankly – right from its first moments. As the pilot opens, we see Ash living in a trailer park, getting ready for a night on the town. Whereupon, he hits a local night spot and bangs away with a cheap floozy in the bathroom ten minutes before closing time. Next day, we see him go into his daily job as a stock boy at Value Stop. What?? Really?!?! Look, I know this establishes a connection with the S-Mart Ash of Army of Darkness – and fans love him in that guise – but come ON! It’s thirty years later, and you still want him as a lame, dead-end stock boy? Who spends his nights trolling dive bars for easy pussy, and getting wasted in front of the TV with his 20-something coworker watching Worldwide Wrestling? This is a guy with the mechanical aptitude to have figured out a way to attach a chainsaw to his arm and make it operational; a guy nerdy enough to have traveled around with a Chemistry 101 textbook in the trunk of his car. And THIS is the best future the writers could have imagined for him? I mean sure, Bruce Campbell playing a lunkheaded horndog is funny – but it’s a short-sighted joke, which comes at the expense of a more richly conceived character and backstory.
And speaking of that backstory – no one seems to have seriously pondered what Ash’s immediate fate would have been upon returning to the cabin thirty years ago, having vanquished the deadites. I mean, think about it: if he comes back and all his friends are still dead, suspicion naturally falls on him and he either gets locked up in prison for life or is declared clinically insane and put away in a mental institution (and yes, I know the show teased that latter option in a second season episode, but it was all an elaborate misdirection, so who cares). The other possibility arising from this scenario is that he goes on the run and is forced to live one step ahead of the law, constantly moving ‘round from place to place, maybe even forced to change his identity on a regular basis. Either way – if he is incarcerated or a fugitive – it’s a more interesting place for him to be, and we are more compelled right away by his story. And there’s no reason that Ash either as a prisoner or as a drifter couldn’t still have been FUNNY. In fact he could have been funnier, simply because the injustice of the situation would have really triggered his annoyance. And wasn’t that really what made his character such a standout in Army of Darkness? He wasn’t just randomly being an asshole – as he is made to be so often on the TV show. He was pissed because he had to deal with all those primitive screwheads and their superstitious mumbo-jumbo when all he really wanted to do was to get back home. In a similar way, you could have tons of fun with Ash as the NON-model prisoner or mental patient; or else as the cantankerous grifter on the lam, who can be counted on to insult and rip off the folks he meets while going from town to town. Lots of potential funny stuff there.
But OK, if the writers didn’t want to take things in that direction – and it is admittedly rather grim, I’ll grant you – there was an alternate route to take. Maybe the opposite happens: maybe thirty years ago, Ash comes back through the vortex, and all the bad deeds he lived through have been undone. His friends are still alive, his hand is back – it’s like the whole thing never even happened. A giant ‘RESET’ button has been hit, as a result of his heroism. There’s humor to be mined from that scenario, too. I mean, suppose you saved the world – but no one else in the world actually KNEW about it?? That would be a great justification for Ash to have become the biggest blowhard imaginable! He goes through the motions of an everyday life – as, say, an insurance salesman or a shop owner or whatever the writers wanted to make him … but he’s always going on to people about his fights with the deadites, how he rid the world of evil, and by all rights the citizenry should really be kissing his hand and thanking him for their very lives. “Uh, yeeeeeahhhhhhh” could be a common response from a customer, “but how much does that ballpeen hammer over there cost?” That’s a funny that arises out of CHARACTER, and not just as a series of “Boo!” and “Gotcha!” moments.
Here’s yet another thought: perhaps, as a way to deal with everything that has happened, Ash writes it all down, all his struggles against the deadites – just to give it some form of tangible reality. And – whatta ya know – it gets published as fiction, and Ashley Williams gets lauded as this great horror writer: the creator of the Evil Dead book series! That’d be a fun way to go, too. You could even get all meta with it: start the series by showing Ash attending an Evil Dead convention, answering all sorts of dweeby fanboy questions – like, how much creative control did he have over the comic book series, say, or the video games; and of course whether or not there’s ever going to be an Evil Dead MOVIE made! Whenever he’s asked how he “came up” with the idea, he simply replies with the truth – that “this stuff all really happened to me” – but of course everyone treats that as simply a clever joke. After several minutes of this, you could then have a fan approach to ask a question, who suddenly turns into a deadite and begins attacking everyone in sight – and we’re off to the races! Ash Williams will have to save humanity again, and this time the full weight of the world’s expectation will be on him – because the whole world knows him as the hero of the Evil Dead stories! There’d also be a mystery element, a puzzle to be solved – since Ash will have to figure out who has the Necronomicon now, and when and how and why it was read from again. Which leads me to the second major question the writers don’t seem to have meaningfully asked:
QUESTION #2: WHAT, EXACTLY, IS THE NECRONOMICON?
In the movies, of course, the answer to this isn’t too important: it’s a book that, when read from, causes bad shit to happen. And that’s quite enough, as a pretext for a rockin’ Sam Raimi rollercoaster ride. But in a long-form storytelling format like television, it helps to have a more detailed answer, one that’s been more well thought out – not to be nerdy or pedantic but because, again, whole STORIES and PLOT LINES can emerge out of such pondering.
So let’s think here – The Necronomicon: who wrote it, and for what purpose? Was it designed from the start as a vessel of evil, or might its purpose have originally been more benevolent? Well, if it was truly “inked in blood and bound by human flesh” – that sounds pretty horrific. But maybe it was the blood and the flesh of those already dead: in other words, people weren’t specifically KILLED in order to create the Book, they simply were used once they were. And this was done because the spells cast within it would not work unless actual human flesh and blood was involved.
Hmmmmm … “flesh and blood” – what does that sound like? Could this have been a perversion of the Christian notion of “this is my flesh — this is my blood”? Perhaps. A post-Christian pagan cult, maybe – who attempted to replicate Jesus’s supposed resurrectory powers. It all goes horribly wrong, of course, and the Book summons back to life only the most heinous and bloodthirsty – who did wicked, sinister things while alive. They must be defeated by those who summoned them, who then attempt to destroy the Book, but cannot. It’s too powerful. And so they bury it, deep within the earth – where it remains until, periodically, someone digs it up again – at different eras of History – and the evil is unleashed anew, and must be vanquished, and the Book re-buried.
You see what I mean? Asking basic questions can lead to some interesting story choices. I’m not saying my conclusion is necessarily the best one possible. But let’s just look at it for a moment. If we were to settle on that as the Necronomicon “origin story”, it suggests a lot about what the series will have to do, from a structural standpoint. The information about the book’s creation will need to be conveyed to Ash somehow – and thereby, the audience. So the writers will need to create a character who will know such things, and contrive for Ash to meet up with that person. It also suggests a backstory of the book over centuries, which can be brought to bear upon the plotline. There could be introduced OTHER heroes from throughout history, who had to defeat the evil when it was unleashed in their own time; maybe Ash could somehow get in touch with them and draw upon their knowledge and strength. And of course the motives of those who search for and dig up the book to read from it anew would be extremely fertile ground for the creation of villains. Things could even build to a time-travel scenario again, with Ash going back to the era of the Roman Empire, to try and stop the book from ever having been written in the first place! It could all help to give the show a sense of trajectory – rather than existing as a series of isolated incidents (however impressively mounted).
QUESION #3: HERE’S ANOTHER QUESTION: HOW IS ASH ABLE TO BECOME “UNPOSSESSED”?
In Evil Dead II, we see Ash transformed into a deadite – twice! Yet, each time he is able to, essentially, “come back” from it, and resume life again as a normal person. The first of these comes at the beginning, and lasts only briefly, as his possession dissipates with the rising of the sun. The second comes late in the movie, and he does go on to chase and terrorize the remaining people alive in the cabin. However, he is able to “overcome” this possession upon recovering the necklace he gave to Linda at the beginning of the film; seeing it somehow forces his humanity back to the surface.
Now, you can certainly say that in both cases plot convenience demanded it, and that there was no heavy degree of thought put into it by the writers. Which is most likely true. However, if you decide that you ARE going to put some thought into it… well, you can arrive at some intriguing answers. And, again, ones that will help to solidify the rules of the world you are building.
OK, the first time: with the Dawn, the possession is lifted. This suggests that possession can only take place at night. During daylight, people are safe. Or at the very least, the hold that a possessing spirit has over its host body is greatly decreased during the day. That can help you to pace your show, and set audience expectations: the real bat-shit crazy stuff is going to happen at night, whereas the daylight hours can be used for planning, or recovering from the previous night’s struggles. You can go on to subvert these expectations later, or introduce cases that go against the grain of that rule – but at least you start out with something TO subvert. Otherwise, things are potentially “bat shit crazy” at any moment, and after a while it begins to feel random and lacking in any tension.
The second one is even more intriguing, though: Ash, alone of anyone else in the entire saga, actually FORCES HIMSELF BACK from being a deadite. Frankly, I am flabbergasted that more wasn’t made of this. I mean, that’s an amaaaaaaaaaaazing thing – more so than our hero’s skill with a chainsaw or a shotgun, really. It means that Ash, through sheer force of will, actually PUSHED an evil spirit out of his body. Is that a special power that only he has, or can other people do it too, if only they are properly motivated? If so, Ash could be a teacher figure, as well as a fighter: something akin to a Jedi Master, instructing disciples in how to eject hostile spirits, so that they too can become unpossessed, and stay on in the fight. That could have added a richness and nuance to the Evil Deaduniverse, as well.
And as long as we are pursuing this mode of thought, allow me to also ask:
QUESTION #4: WHAT EXACTLY IS IT THAT HAPPENS TO A PERSON WHO HAS BECOME A DEADITE?
We see that deadites have the capacity to revert back in appearance and voice to the person in his or her non-possessed state. This suggests that the person is still there, inside, but simply overtaken by a force more strong and powerful than themselves. Which makes sense. This is, after all, the EVIL dead we’re talking about. Those who likely face the torment of Hellfire for their deeds in life, and so look for a way – any way! – to punch themselves back into the Earthly realm.
Having your soul overtaken by such a being must be a harrowing experience. Why, then, do we never get Ash’s perspective on what that was like? Having been possessed should also give him insight into BEING one of the evil dead: he shared head space with one, and so should have a better sense than other humans on how they think and what their plans might be for humanity. And of course more plotlines could emerge out of such knowledge.
But more than plotlines, a real thematic undercurrent. For, if anyone took care to notice, it is only upon coming back from being a deadite that Ash truly becomes a hero. All through the first movie he is meek, weaselly ‘Ashley’, while the bulk of Evil Dead II sees him just fighting to stay alive and maintain his sanity. Eventually he decides he’s had enough – and he straps on the chainsaw, gets groovy, and whips him some deadite ass. But that moment doesn’t come until after he’s been transported back from the evil dead realm. In fact, it happens RIGHT after that point! I mean, how do you not MAKE USE of a fact like that, when you’re trying to build a world and set up a character for an audience to follow over the long haul? Ash’s possession actually made him STRONGER! Irony of ironies, eh? His skill at defeating deadites comes largely from HAVING BEEN a deadite. So too, maybe THAT’S what explains the loud-mouth braggart and asshole he becomes in Army of Darkness. Think about it: he’s not one-liner-ing his way through either of the first two movies; its only in the third one that he becomes the short-tempered, acid-tongued brute that audiences have largely come to associate him with. How fascinating if the reason for that is that he’s still got deadite residue in him somewhere – residue that he constantly has to wrestle with, in order to keep himself above descending into pure evil and madness. And don’t tell me Bruce Campbell wouldn’t be up to the challenge of such a layered, multi-leveled approach to the character: anyone who’s seen him in Fargo or Bubba Ho-Tep knows he’s got true acting chops. Sure, he can bring the comedy and the physical schtick like nobody’s business, but he’s got subtlety and poignance in his bag of tricks, too. It’s a shame he wasn’t asked to bring more of that to bear upon this show. That, too, could have aided in its longevity.
And speaking of longevity … wow, I appear to have rabbited on about this series far more than I ever expected to. Guess I was more invested in it than I thought! Well, what can I say? I’m a fan of the movies, and was dubious of the universe they created ever being able to work within a television format. To have been proven so delightfully wrong by the pilot – only to have the rest of the series so fail to live up to that promise … it kinda ticked me off, I suppose. Ash vs Evil Dead could have spun out an endless web of stories, and possibly still be going strong today, if the creative team behind it had been at all interested in any of the questions I posed above. But they placed their creative energies elsewhere – into crafting and executing gory scenes of deadite carnage, working to make it all as funny and zingingly edited as possible. And, considering the TV budget and time constraints they were working under, they did a pretty good job. But not good enough to compete with the movies on an even playing field, and since the series did nothing to carve out its own unique space in a storytelling way, it seems likely to be remembered as little more than a footnote in the Evil Dead canon. A shame. Truly a shame.