Unbelievable as it seems, “Evil” was supposed to be a more mainstream series, maybe even a CBS hit. But in its own way, “Evil” was also a response to a terrifying era of cruelty and hypocrisy, to the rise of a legion of trolls, repairmen and tricksters. “I don’t like the truth not being clear,” Robert told me. If The Good Kings series was about navigating a corrupt world, Evil was about a more crude, broader subject: the struggle to find meaning in a culture that often seems, quite literally, to tilt to hell.
In November, the first episode of “Bad” – a regular brainstorming session just a month earlier – was in full swing. The kings developed the script over the long weekend. Robert directed something he does once or twice a season, including a fancy, silent episode in season two, set in a monastery; said it almost killed him. The visual bravado was heavy on the budget, but Kings and their cinematographer, Fred Murphy, tried to give each show a distinct, non-network look: in “The Good Fight”, elegant horizontal compositions to capture the dynamics of power; on “Evil,” vertical shots that caught the viewer’s gaze upwards to mimic the show’s theme of looking at something “beyond human”.
In the case of “Evil,” Robert also had a specific aesthetic model: the 1955 movie “The Hunter’s Night”, the only film directed by British star Charles Laughton. An invigorating black-and-white tribute to the silent movie era, the psychosexual thriller in which Robert Mitchum played a sociopathic preacher used amazing images against an inky backdrop that Evil never recreated to Robert’s satisfaction. At the production meeting, he suggested that he would try again: the bedroom scenes in David’s father’s rectory could be filmed to suggest the darkness surrounding the set, “as God would see it, almost as if it were Thread outside our walls ”. He chuckled and added, “Let’s play, and if that doesn’t work, I’m the only one embarrassed because I’m pushing it for as little time as we have.”
On the sound stage in Brooklyn, Greenpoint, Robert gently wrote to the actors. “Let’s just adopt the set,” said Katji Herbers as they worked on the envelope slapstick. “We’ll be more cinematic later.” During the sequence where the daughters were making fun of Leland, one of the girls froze on a ruler urging her sister to pretend she had cancer. “I swear, if you laugh, nobody on the internet will blame you you“They’ll blame the writer,” Robert assured her. “It’s you – they will blame you!” the girl said, laughing. The designer showed him three zombie-headed jars, and he selected one; he later experimented with dipping the zombie’s head in the toilet. He looked exhausted but radiated joy.
In between the takes, we talked about Robert’s tastes. Suffers from insomnia, watches TV – seemingly all in the middle of the night, from critics’ favorites like Station Eleven to reality shows like Below Deck. His opinions were as vivid as any critic: he hated The Real Detective, summing it up as “the kind of performance where the child ends up in the microwave oven”; and he loved “The White Lotus,” though he wondered if he was showing a little bit of his ideological underpinnings. Among his heroes was Ben Hecht, the writer of a surprising series of classic films whose philosophy he modeled on his own: an omnivorous, energetic adoption of many genres, without concern for status.
Michelle was more careful in her opinions and sometimes impenetrable – a Magic 8 Ball wrapped in a fluffy Patagonia coat. Did she like classical music? “Not quite.” Did she like Ben Hecht? “Probably not.” When I asked her what she was best at, she replied that she was the best at figuring out what everyone else was doing otherwise was the best at.
But she was witty and direct to Hollywood. “There is no question on TV that cannot be answered with” time “or” money, “she said as Robert struggled to quickly execute the scene with the envelope. She had no regrets about her life, except that she hadn’t switched to TV sooner. “We have to broadcast something” is Great“she said.” It brings everyone together. “In the movie industry, people tended to” misbehave, with a little “b” – flaking, rude – out of the need to “impersonate characters.” By contrast, her television colleagues, especially women , impressed her “adults”, her highest form of praise. The TV industry was full of “people who go to bed early because they have to get up early, vote and are citizens”.
The kings are passionately pro-workers, and their marriage coincided with the 1988 WGA writers’ strike, which was a formative experience: Michelle was fired, and Robert turned down the scab performance, although they badly needed the money. But now she was one of the managers – a diplomat and strategist, doing most of her work privately via email. At one point, the production team discussed a difficult reschedule, which meant forcing the show’s designer to advance plans for a “business” demon (on a treadmill, with a towel around his neck). Robert saw Michelle’s face.
“What is that look?” He said.
“An apology never hurts,” she said simply.
When I asked which King was the more cynical, they both laughed and pointed to Michelle. Her parents – who hid in the Netherlands during WWII and met in Los Angeles in the 1950s – built a rich, fulfilling life. Her mother was a nurse, her father a high school teacher (and for a short time before her birth an actor – he had once played a bully in a gangster movie). But, like many surviving children, Michelle was well aware of how quickly the world could turn to darkness. While Robert was filming the scene, Michelle told me she was concerned that the #MeToo movement was over. She said it with a dry look from Realpolitik: the door opened and then closed – and she saw people’s empathy wane, turning into declarations. Her own experiences weren’t terrible, mostly old-fashioned bosses calling her “dah-ling.” But she saw her share of cruel behavior embellished as the cost of genius. She said the monstrosity was always a risk when you climbed the ladder – for both her and Robert: “Being a showrunner is a very infantile job if you let it. If you run naked on the set, cry and starve, there will be no wardrobe with a robe! The catering service will run out of food and the deputy director will dry his eyes.
Several people spoke to me about Michelle’s generosity as a mentor. Her friend Julia Schachter joked with her husband: when you wrote a thank you note to Michelle, she wrote back. But she was also cleverly aware of how she could be taken for granted. Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who wrote for The Good Wife, told me that Michelle gave her excellent career advice: “Take this guy with you to the meeting. Then check that the person you are dating is always looking at him. “
Kings had another value in common: telling the truth. One day in Greenpoint, during a break in filming a game between a secular psychiatrist and a fierce fundamentalist nun, Robert joined me at the video monitor where we talked about the liberation Kristen felt after picking up that pickaxe, feeling that all bets had been turned off.
I said people fantasized about committing such a justified murder. “I think so,” replied Robert smiling. It was part of a lifelong debate between kings. “Michelle thinks she can be an ethical person – and she … is ethical person – without the ten commandments to guide you. And some authority to apply it. Although I think without it people always fall apart. They will to pretend do not fall apart, but inside them it is only because they believe in the Ten Commandments on some level, and in some force it keeps them away from bad things. Without God, it was too easy to deceive yourself about your own decency.
It worried me: Couldn’t people behave well without the threat of hell? Yes, Robert said, but they will inevitably fall back, “unless there is,” he paused, then shrugged helplessly. “It’s a crazy time to talk like this,” he admitted. “Because eighty percent – that is, almost every Protestant Christian – think Trump should be president! Which I find crazy and obviously bad. And they believe Biden is burning in hell. “