“Spider-Walk With Me”
Wherein Evie ends up in that basement… again.
With the first season of Stan Against Evil coming to an end with these final two episodes, we really need to have a talk about Sheriff Evie Barret. As good and funny an actor as Janet Varney is, in these last two episodes, Evie gets knocked out twice more, bringing her total to just about… every episode so far. This time, she even gets taken down in the same church basement where the fake priest got the better of her, as a fake historian (actually a spider-demon) leaves her ignominiously webbed up while she, once again, is transported to that perpetually foggy netherworld where evil former constable Thaddeus Eccles has nefarious plans for her.
To her credit, Evie knows her constant imperiling is bordering on ludicrous at this point, her exasperated, “God, really?” once she picks up on the fact that she’s been hoodwinked again echoing what viewers must be thinking. Stan Against Evil’s modest means aren’t a problem (even though we only ever see any residents of Willard’s Mill right before they get bumped off), but its modest ambitions are, especially since the show can barely be bothered to meet them. For Evie, that means Varney has had to play a character whose supposed function as the one sane person in town translates to “the seemingly smart and capable female character who gets tied to stakes.”
Even Stan—clearly intended as the show’s crotchety centerpiece—has remained bogged down in the series’ sluggish, perfunctory plotting. Not that watching John C. McGinley do his signature, deliciously hammy schtick isn’t entertaining. It’s that Stan Against Evil isn’t invested in him as anything but a rude quip delivery service, what depth or development there is coming solely from the actor’s sneaky skills of suggestion. I could watch McGinley make up lies about what happened to dippy daughter Denise’s beloved puzzle all day. (Blaming its destruction on a stray owl, he explains, “You know owls… they can’t abide puzzles. Pushes all their buttons.”) And, as he’s done all series, McGinley makes any reference to his dead wife affecting for how vigorously Stan denies his pain. Thinking the historian at his door (Mark Steger) is a Jehovah’s Witness, Stan barks, “God’s dead, so hit the bricks.” When the man reveals that he knows about Claire’s identity, Stan responds that she’s in heaven, and when the man asks how there can be a heaven without a God, Stan’s contemptuous “I believe in McDonald’s but I know damn sure Ronald ain’t for real” is pretty eloquent. As when Stan snapped at the fake priest a few episodes ago that “his boss” took Claire, McGinley manages to give a surprising amount of resonance to a character constrained by his own stubbornness, and the scripts’ flimsiness.
McGinley does have one of his funniest outings of the season in “Spider-Walk With Me,” Stan’s macho grumpiness manifested in some solid Johnny C. show-offery. He can’t do it with the capable Evie, but the way Stan amuses himself in the presence of those he thinks inferior to him (so, everyone) gives McGinley a chance to do some fine goofing around. Bringing the author to Evie’s office, he alternates between ostentatiously making and eating a messy sandwich and taunting the bookish guy’s enthusiasm for Willard’s Mill history. (“Evie, watch this—You sir are a nerd.” [Getting no reaction.] “The guy’s bulletproof.”) And the twist that he’s set a trap for the spider-guy in Claire’s sewing room/arsenal allows Stan to let out his oft-thwarted masculinity in McGinley’s humorously toothy bluster. (“I’m gonna go easy on ya’, cause you’re just a little guy,” he sneers, before being zapped into the same netherworld as Evie, where he again sneers, “I should have punched you right in the esophagus when I had the chance.”)
It’s perhaps a lot to ask for a half-hour, eight-episode series to provide much in the way of characterization or overarching mythos, but Stan Against Evil is so offhand about its genre ambitions that it barely seems interested in trying. Here, we get a new demon, it gets the drop on Evie, Stan comes charging in, and the whole thing ends in an explosion of monster goo. Again, if the show were commenting on the conventions of “monster of the week” TV horror, or just having fun going over the top, that would be something. But, in practice, the series has never done anything else but rather dully screw around with lazy narratives and desultory action. (The spider-guy’s evil scheme is so elaborately nonsensical that it should be a goof, but isn’t.) The actors are the series, but even Varney and McGinley find themselves at the service of a show that seems content with mildly aping the horror-comedy form rather than doing anything new with it.
Wherein Stan finally figures out somethin’ ain’t right.
Hey, a decent plot. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but the plodding repetitiousness of the stories on Stan Against Evil have become more wearisome as a rule than should happen in just an eight-episode season. Here, at least, there’s something new for the series, even if it’s a sci-fi/fantasy plot as old as the hills.
For one thing, the episode finally makes good use of the pre-credit sequence, heretofore given over to flashbacks that merely serve to set up that week’s monster with a quick demon-murder. Here, it’s a grabber, as Stan’s station wagon swerves to avoid a young girl in a nightgown and flips, skidding to a violent halt down the road. (Stan Against Evil’s one moderately priced stunt of the series.) A bloody Evie staggers out, sees the motionless Stan with an ominous-looking pool of blood under his skull, and unholsters her gun, telling the girl, “Look, I’m a sorry about this, but you understand.” And then she shoots. Cue credits.
As it turns out, we’re in a Groundhog Day situation, and Evie, working her way through the puzzle for yet another time, is simply resetting the clock by killing the girl. The episode title is apt, too, as the way Evie—initially brought into the loop by a blown tire—learns painful lessons just like you do in a particularly challenging video game. Let Stan, come to pick her up since he always saw spare tires in cop cars as a “sign of weakness,” get too into his most recent rant, and he runs over the girl as she runs out of the woods. Back to the beginning. Get Stan to successfully stop short, only to get your throat slashed by the secret knife the terrified girl is hiding? Ready player one. The whole setup is edited well, and it’s refreshing that Evie twigs to the whole thing almost immediately and starts trying to figure it out with logical, if messy, decision-making. (In addition to slashings, car accidents, and the like, both she and Stan are decapitated at least once during the course of events.) Sure, she gets knocked out and tied up again at the end, but that’s Stan Against Evil for you.
The whole thing is yet another ploy by Willard’s Mill’s original, super-evil Constable Eccles to open the gateway between worlds, kill the current constable, and/or both, with a side-scheme to send his daughter (the gal in the nightgown) to the present day so she’ll be safe from those who want to kill her. (Keeping with the video game analogy, Evie has to keep both herself and the girl alive in order to keep the loop from starting over, bringing up those game-killing “companion” missions that developers keep sticking in their games.) And it’s undeniably fun to watch Evie think her way through the trap she’s in for most of the episode—even if, once again, she automatically trusts a strange but helpful guy who turns out to be evil. (It’s Eccles, ditching his Puritan garb and putting on a Cajun accent in way of disguise.) Unlike the signature Stan Against Evil stodgy, sketchy storytelling, there’s even some wit to the plot, like when Evie, wondering how to restart the loop (since Stan just had his head lopped off), has her head immediately lopped off by a passing demon. “You’re in luck,” deadpans the stranger.
There’s been no announcement yet if Stan Against Evil is going to continue after this, but “Level Boss” at least rouses the show enough to deliver a decent cliffhanger, as Stan, freed from the time loop by Evie’s apparent death at Eccles’ hands, sits up in his easy chair and realizes that something’s just not right. Yes, Evie is bound to a stake for the third time in the series, and she—a trained police officer—appears to lose all agency once she’s in any way restrained. But, unlike most of the episodes in this short season, I found myself thinking the story was too short. If Stan ever does return, however, it’s going to have to take its storytelling and its mission a lot more seriously.
- Sign outside Willard’s Mill’s all-puzzle store: “Yes we have puzzles!”
- Sometimes, McGinley’s riffing turns almost abstract, as he insults the spider-bit author with, “The guy looks like popcorn and he smells like cod, now he won’t clam.”
- Stan, transported to the netherworld, asks spider-guy, “Is this heaven? Is Claire here? I should have done my laundry, my shirt smells like low tide at asshole beach. Claire hates asshole beach.” Johnny C. makes it work.
- Stan’s cultural references continue to be just all over the place. Previously, he reminisced about I Dream Of Jeannie and ran down Starsky & Hutch. There’s a pro-Nixon bumper sticker on his car, even though the car was made long after Nixon left office, and he waxes rhapsodic about John Wayne, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Bootsy Collins, and Jimi Hendrix. A little consistency in my curmudgeons is all I ask.
- Stan dragoons poor gravedigger Kevin (series creator Dana Gould) into digging up Eccles’ grave as part of the plan to defeat the evil constable. That Kevin was sucked down into the grave of a reanimated corpse a few episodes ago goes unaddressed—I thought Kev might turn out to be a demon, but it seems like he’s just fine.
- As funny as Deborah Baker can be, Denise’s two side-stories in these episodes are deeply unnecessary. In the first, she forgets to take all her mother’s stuff to a storage unit so she can get a self-empowering tattoo, and neither event impacts the story. In the second, her plan to set up an unlicensed tooth-brushing business at the Miller house (complete with unfortunate name “White Power-Tooth Cleaning”) is even less connected to anything that’s going on.
- Same goes for Nate Mooney’s Deputy Leon, who only shows up once, ogling his now-married high school crush. (He calls it a stakeout.) He does get one funny line, musing behind his binoculars, “So it’s three kids now. That’s your move. The dance continues.”
- A line from the narration of the rattlesnake documentary Stan’s watching asks, “What if my penis lived alone in the woods, and was poisonous?”
- One lovely, random moment sees Stan musing to Evie about the peaceful fantasy he has of simply driving and never stopping. Stan and Evie, on opposite ends of their phone call, both pause in recognition.
- And that’s a wrap for the A.V. Club’s coverage of Stan Against Evil, season one. Thanks for reading, everyone. It’s been odd.