Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert are the last believers in the half-hour drama format. Back in 2000, after the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series wrapped, the brains behind Renaissance Studios filled Herc's time slot with two shows: the sci-fi action series Cleopatra 2025 and the Bruce Campbell vehicle Jack of All Trades. Neither lasted long but it was an interesting experiment. Raimi, Tapert, Campbell et al are back with a much-belated follow-up to their most beloved property, the Evil Dead movie franchise. Campbell, of course, is Ash Williams, at once hero and zero and little changed, except in girth, from when we last saw him -- though for this show's purposes, and for legal reasons, that last time was Evil Dead 2 rather than Army of Darkness. It makes no difference, though. Ash is still a loser who sometimes rises to a crisis, especially when the Evil Dead are involved. Of course, the Evil Dead are involved again because Ash, in a stoned attempt to impress some girl, reads "poetry" from the accursed Necronomicon. Realizing his error, Ash embarks on a quest to end the horror by finally destroying the hated book. Since this is modern television, he can't be alone on his journey. Along for the ride in his trailer are two fellow employees of the ValueShop store: Pablo (Ray Santiago), an earnest, eraserheaded young man who inexplicably idolizes Ash, and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), a more hard-boiled young woman whose family gets wiped out by the Deadites early. On their trail are a policewoman (Jill Marie Jones) who has survived an Evil Dead attack and suspects Ash of committing serial atrocities, and the mysterious Ruby (Lucy "Mrs. Rob Tapert" Lawless), who owns some alarming relics, including Ash's amputated, possessed hand, and is willing and able to torture Deadites for the info she needs. We meet many other characters along the way, most of whom suffer grisly deaths before becoming Deadite tormentors of Ash and his allies, until the chase leads back to the cabin where all Ash's troubles began so long ago.
At more than five hours long, including Sam Raimi's extra-length premiere episode, the show is the ultimate test of Ash's staying power as a character. In any given episode, Campbell has to hit a range of notes: arrogance, ignorance, horniness, and a capacity for self-sacrifice. Ash careens from irresponsibility to responsibility, anchored, burdened and emboldened by an awareness that fighting the Evil Dead is the only thing he really does well. Santiago and DeLorenzo make good foils for Campbell. Pablo is a well-meaning weakling while Kelly becomes something more like a genre-tv badass female, but the contrast works to both actors' advantage. Jones's policewoman becomes a sort of straight man for the main trio and for Lawless, whose character and role seem to have evolved as the cameras rolled, given the difference between how Ruby was described in preview interviews and who she turns out to be by the season finale. I'd bet that the early assurance of a second season gave everyone more ambitious ideas of what to do with Lawless, who by virtue of her work on Xena:Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus is more or less the dowager empress of genre TV.
But the main attaction of Ash vs. Evil Dead is the gore. Airing on Starz, the home of Spartacus and Black Sails, the show is constrained only by budget, but when have low budgets stopped the Evil Dead franchise? The show is predictably, exuberantly, hilariously violent. So far it has not run out of interesting ways to destroy Deadites, my favorite being to feed one face first into a deli meat-slicer. The blood flows and flies in such volume hear that The Hateful Eight's vaunted gore hardly made an impression on me. The Deadites, too, are their old charming selves, taunting and cursing and kvetching in fine counterpoint to Ash's laconic-badass mode. When you take that element away, you get the generic blandness of the Evil Dead remake movie, but for the Renaissance crew it's second nature. You wouldn't really want anyone else to mess with Ash and his world. The remakers just tried to make a horror movie, but Ash vs. Evil Dead, with all its over-the-top mayhem and accompanying attitude is one of the funniest shows on TV right now. If it actually scares anybody, that's a bonus.