Stan and friends
Stan and friends

IFC’s Stan Against Evil is a slight and subversively funny show that is somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Stomping along in the wake of Ash vs Evil Dead’s success, Stan Against Evil is charmingly well-cast and cheerfully quirky, yet saddled with predictable plotting and a very thin mythology. But it still manages to throw some worthwhile curve-ball jokes into the mix, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The set-up is pretty simple. The small, rural town of Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. It seems that back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except one.

And that’s how we get our hero, Stanley Miller (played by the magnificently crusty John C. McGinley). He somehow survived long enough to resign his post after attacking a witch at his wife’s funeral.

Stan’s replacement is Evie (Janet Varney, veering wildly between competent and oblivious), a transplant from the city, divorced and with a daughter who functions more as a character trait than a character.

The small core cast rounds out with Leon (Nate Mooney) the Barney Fife-esque deputy who is friendly, loyal, and truly and deeply perverted, and Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s unlikely daughter played as a bizarre take on the manic pixie dream girl.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

In many ways Stan Against Evil simply retools the basic premise of Ash with new characters and a new location, but it fails to aspire to anything more. It lacks (so far) a larger theme or a detectable sense of purpose. The characters generally just show up, kill some monsters, and go home in time for dinner. There is also a lack of skepticism from any of the characters that makes the show feel even more formulaic and one-note, since everyone is on the same page from the first ten minutes of episode one.

It’s hard to tell exactly when the show is set—the combination of flip phones, old cars, and references to Tinder make it hard to pin down, as do Stan’s perpetually 1970’s cultural reference points. There is also an unexpected Buffy library vibe, as our heroes must rely on hard copy books for the information they need to fight evil. The option of looking anything up online does not exist in this particular reality.

My impression is that Stan Against Evil plays more as a sketch comedy than as a series. The actors all inhabit their characters fully, and each is nicely fleshed out–but they don’t really mesh into a dynamic group. Over the course of eight episodes there is no character development, no learning curve, and no layers to be peeled back.

Contributing to the character stasis, this is very much a monster-of-the-week style of show, loaded with cheese-tastic special effects but with precious little continuity and even less common sense. The scripts are perfunctory and remarkably superficial, broadcasting their twists like a toddler with a secret. What you see is what you get, in half-hour increments.

But Stan Against Evil is still very funny. Created by comedian Dana Gould (The Simpsons), the show is full of background gags and oddball references that keep it lively. And McGinley as Stan delivers some of the best throw-away lines—when he goes off on something, the turns of phrase are remarkably, crudely, hilariously accurate.

All eight episodes are available on demand now from IFC, and despite its shortcomings I highly recommend binging it. Stan Against Evil is empty calories, but it is sharp enough, charming enough, and funny enough to make it worth the small investment of time.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!