ASH VS EVIL DEAD Season 1 Review – Sometimes Dead is Better…

Ash-vs-Evil-Dead-Bruce-Campbell

I feel like I’ve been putting this off for awhile now. Well, at least a week or so, and in this fast paced existence that we’re all living through, that feels like for god damn ever. I had my reservations about this series before I even saw a single frame from the production and, unfortunately, most of my fears were pretty well founded as it turns out. I know. It hurts me too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Even though I had my reservations, reservation that I felt were well founded, I went into this series with an open mind and an open heart. I really wanted it to be good. It didn’t have to be the “amazing” and, honestly, I would have probably been totally satisfied with a show that was serviceable.  It just needed to tick a few boxes, rather than all of them. It was never going to be Army of Darkness/Evil Dead 2, and it totally shouldn’t have tried to be. It’s not just because it’s been over 20 years, but because this is a TV show. It requires a different skill set. They have to tell a story that can sustain 5 hours, rather than 2 hours. They need to be satisfying 30 minute chunks of narrative that have to have their own little arcs, almost as if they’d be viewed in a vacuum, but they also have to feed into the larger arc and mythology of the new series.

It’s a tricky thing to balance, and most shows aren’t at the disadvantage that Ash vs Evil Dead is. The series doesn’t have a very deep or complex lore about it. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t really have a lore to it at all. It’s pretty much a “what you see is what you get” type of situation, and that’s because that’s the way it was intended to be. It’s not a hard horror series, it’s more of a light romp, especially once they got to Army of Darkness. So they have to expand and build upon something that didn’t exist before. The challenge isn’t just a new adventure for Ash and company, but creating context for the things that already existed just fine with out it. The danger is making things convoluted and alienating  fans that really love the simple fun that the film series provided. There was a lot going against this series on just a level of basic narrative functionality. Would they be able to deliver something bigger, broader, and less idiosyncratic than the movies were? Could they produce something that was more than passively entertaining?

No. No they couldn’t, apparently.

Now, I realize that sounds mean, but it’s just the way it is. It actually kind of broke my heart a little bit, which was weird because I didn’t think it was going to work all that well to begin with. I know what it was! It was that damn pilot. The pilot was too good. That pilot is a liar. That pilot makes you think that they made it work; that they figured it out. I was excited by the time the credits rolled on that thing. There’s reasons. There’s always reasons.

The pilot is the only episode of Ash vs Evil Dead that Sam Raimi, creator/director of the series, has any real involvement in. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, he was a producer and was involved in the writing to some extent, but the pilot is where his visible influence starts and ends. He has a very specific style, a mixture of Three Stooges slapstick and kinetic camera work and pacing, it’s what made the older films so unique. It made them stand out, and he brings that Raimi energy and flair to the inaugural episode. It was a joy to be back in this world, and to be reacquainted with an older, but just as stupid, Ash. It’s a dense 42 minutes that introduces all of the shows main characters, sets up the series premise, and still manages to be a fun and breezy experience, encapsulating all the hallmarks that series fans already loved. Other than a few subtle and clever nods to the original films, it’s pretty much all new, forward moving material. It started the new show on a really good foot, and left me feeling optimistic about what was to come.

Then I kept watching…

Following the pilot are 7 episodes of what feels like formulaic filler, the status quo never changing, nothing interesting really happening, and the overarching plot moving at a glacial pace. This show is missing more than just it’s hand, it had it’s legs cut off at the knees and is forced to crawl through it’s timeline.

Almost every episode is built the same way. The main characters drive somewhere, go into a building, shed, or cellar, and then fight off some form of deadite. Any growth that the characters might go through is completely discarded from episode to episode. Even the awkward romance between a few of the co-leads ends up feeling inconsequential. At times it feels like many of the episodes, and the scenes contained within them, could be remixed in almost any order and it wouldn’t really matter all that much. Other than them getting slightly closer to their goal at the conclusion of an episode, the rest of the elements hold very little consequence.

There’s no stakes, like, at all. Emotionally or otherwise, we are never invested in anything, and the times that the show decides I should suddenly care about it’s out of left field relationships come off as weird. How serious am I supposed to be taking these poorly developed trysts? Seriously. I have no idea, because they come off like such a lark up until the moment the show says I should feel differently. The vast majority of the show is played for laughs, so when it wants to do anything else it has to subtly pivot, but the show never does that. It goes from laughs to pathos and then back to laughs without so much as a change in the score.

It does kind of manage to bring it together during the last 2 episodes, which is really just one big episode cut in two, but it’s too little too late. They waited until the final hour of the show to do anything even remotely interesting, and calling it interesting is being kind. The revelation concerning Lucy Lawless’s character made me audibly groan. It’s an example of the possible overly convoluted route that I was talking about earlier. In the 11th hour it falls into that trap, it just needed to be more straight forward. And, adding insult to injury, once they reveal her character’s true nature, they pretty much neuter her. No, they don’t explain it, or build to it. Suddenly, our weak heroes can pretty much just kick her ass. Well, in a manner of speaking. It’s all just incredibly flimsy.

The formulaic nature of the show, and it’s filler like contents, are due to a few factors, in my opinion. Firstly, I think the show-runners behind this series have an incredibly antiquated view of what a television show is. The whole thing feels very 90’s for some reason. The episodes have a real disconnected feel to them, and there’s more than a few of them that could almost be viewed in a vacuum. As long as you were aware of the show’s basic conceit you’d be able to follow most of the episodes. It’s indicative of the shows that most of the creative forces behind this series. Namely, Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules. They were built largely in the same way, a lot of one off episodes and then a few mythology episodes, usually mostly at the beginning and the end of a season. The difference between those shows and Ash vs Evil Dead is that those type of stories and that type of structure is supported by the world and the characters. Ash and the world of Evil Dead isn’t built that way, mostly because it was never built really at all. Also, Ash isn’t a character that’s a mythological archetype whose original incarnations were literally them roaming around and taking on singular, episodic adventures.

The second thing that worked against the show was definitely the budget, which actually kind of pains me to bring up. I’m a big fan and supporter of low/no-budget cinema, and nothing makes me happier when people can wrangle something out of nothing, but Ash vs Evil Dead doesn’t make good use of it’s limitations, and doesn’t scale to meet what they had available to them. It’s almost as if they decided during the initial writing phase that they were going to make an epic “on the road” adventure, and refused to budge from that conceit. So what we end up with a show that is pretending to have a larger scope than it does. The vast majority of almost every episode takes place inside of a single location. It makes the show feel small, claustrophobic, and cheap. It was actually really distracting but, having said that, if the writing had been better than maybe I wouldn’t have noticed at all.

Even though, at the end of the day, the show didn’t really work for me( And, to be clear, I’m a lifelong fan of this series.), it isn’t completely without it’s bright spots, which makes it even more of a shame that they didn’t add up to anything significant.

The characters are all entertaining enough, though. The obvious standout being Bruce Campbell, who probably puts in a career best performance as the character. He’s dumb, funny, but capable enough, and while characterization is not super consistent with what came before, he’s even more over the top than usual, it’s clear that Campbell is having a good time and it’s definitely infectious. Even though I was watching the show more out of obligation than pleasure at some point, I was never not enjoying Ash.

The rest of the main cast are all pretty serviceable for the most part. The thing that lets them down the most is the writing. It’s really inconsistent and they never feel like people going on a journey where they are growing and changing; there’s no clearly defined arcs, and the characters change and do things based on the needs of the plot over what should be their internal logic. At some point they all just become plot devices rather than characters. So anytime you may feel connected to what they’re going through, the plot needs them to do something contrary to who you think they are to move the story along. It sometimes comes off as really contrived. Seriously, it actually feels distracting.

I do have to point out, though, that the visual effects, when it comes to the practical gore and creature designs, are actually pretty good. I have a feeling that they allocated a lot of their budget into this stuff, probably assuming that that’s what the “fans” wanted as a priority. If only they had balanced that stuff better with the rest of what the season needed.

I feel like there is probably a good 2 1/2 hour movie somewhere in this show, and it would be really cool if some industrious editor or film nerd put something like that together. Like I’ve been saying, there’s so much filler in this first season and it would be interesting to see it in a more bare bones iteration.

The show has already been picked up for another season, so, who knows, maybe they’ll be able to address some of this stuff. I’m not going to hold my breath or anything, but I’m sure I’ll be there for the premiere this fall. Yeah, it’s definitely a mixture of obligation and my penchant for media masochism, but I’m nothing if not loyal. The problems that the show has aren’t insurmountable, but to rectify some of the problems the series has would probably require a change of development philosophy. BUT! Who knows…

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