Janet Varney, John C. McGinley, Deborah Baker Jr. (Photo: Kim Simms/IFC)

“Let Your Love Groan”

Wherein the battle against evil pauses for some speed dating.

A modestly budgeted—or just modest—genre show like Stan Against Evil has to convince viewers of its mission. With only eight half-hour episodes to do so (and with those episodes whizzing past at a two-a-Wednesday clip), there’s precious little time to waste. And “Let Your Love Groan” feels like, if not a waste, then a filler episode in a season without room for one.

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This episode, where Evie drags Stan and Denise along to a speed-dating event only to hook up with a charming guy who turns out to be a shape-shifting, soul-sucking succubus, is like a season one Buffy episode (complete with endearingly rubbery pig-monster). Except that even Buffy had 12 episodes to get a few monster-of-the-week episodes out of the way while it discovered itself.

Here, what enjoyment is to be found—and there’s quite a bit, with this cast—lurks around the margins. There’s a sitcom dating plot for all, where Evie slowly gets her soul sucked, Denise (for the second episode in a row) finds a new animal friend/soulmate who turns out to have no soul (see: pig monster), and Stan attracts a brassy, age-appropriate lady who’d be perfect for him if she didn’t immediately start throwing out all his junk food.

It’s the sort of piddling cul de sac Stan Against Evil can ill afford, especially if it wants to establish itself as anything other than an Ash Vs. Evil Dead riff/goof. Naturally John C. McGinley has the best time of it here. His alpha male shtick always plays well against strong women who have his number, and Gwen Hughes’ Gloria, health food kick aside, has him pegged right from the first time he tries to brush her off with a dismissive, “Go ahead and make this snappy. I gotta whiz.” Sizing Stan up in an instant, Gloria immediately challenges his manhood (literally, as she guesses the sitting Stan is about 5’9”). “Six-foot-two, eyes of blue, sister,” Stan boasts in return, and they’re off to the races, so wrapped up in besting each other that Stan—brought along by Evie to help her weed out Willard’s Mill’s creeps—doesn’t notice when she leaves with the charming and handsome Neal (John Patrick Jordan).

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Evie, as sensible as she is in the face of her new job’s admittedly challenging and unexpected supernatural challenges, really needs to stop getting imperilled. (See next episode as well.) Janet Varney keeps bringing her innate smarts and deadpan comic chops to her role as new sheriff, but, here again, a baddie gets the drop on her. Naturally, Neal’s solicitous bachelor looks too good to be true to lonely single mom Evie, but it takes him too little time to win her over (accompanied by a truly annoying parody happy love song) and too much time for Evie to notice that she’s getting weak and sprouting zombie veins.

Meanwhile, Denise, who’s been pining for a pig pet (“I mean, I have pig money, but not pig money, if you know what I mean,” she confides to a bored speed-dater) finds an adorable piglet in a basket on her doorstep and, being Denise, simply thanks God for hearing her wish.

Janet Varney (Photo: Kim Simms/IFC)

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All the plots come together when Evie, finally noticing she looks like an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers pod person woken up halfway through its transformation, comes to check out Claire Miller’s witch hunter book. Stan greets her with his signature sensitivity (“You used to be pretty and now you look like the business end of a baboon’s asshole.”) before joining Evie’s quest to rid the town of this week’s scourge. In the end, the book only proves half necessary as always, with Neal going CGI splat when he tries to strongarm Evie at the local watering hole while she struggles to read the necessary incantation and the bartender (Jwaundace Candece) brains him with her trusty baseball bat. When the book does come into play, it’s so Evie can essentially rip off Ash’s “Klaatu barada nikto” scene from Army Of Darkness as she again struggles to use the spell on the giant pig-succubus Denise’s little pal Murgatroyd has turned into (since Evie wrote it on her sweaty hand). The pig fight is both loud and perfunctory, with the endearingly cheesy pig monster, lots of wind and yelling, and that final Stan Against Evil goop explosion.

Apart from the inconsequential nature of the goings-on here (there was some talk about 171 evil witches out to kill Evie as I recall), Stan’s plot hinges on some tired stuff, with the potentially interesting Gloria being reduced to a few mostly silent scenes tossing away Stan’s meat (not a euphemism) and Stan making “women be crazy” wisecracks. Being McGinley, they’re pretty amusingly delivered wisecracks. (“It’s hard to even imagine that you’ve been divorced.” “Is that what we’ve become in this country, a bunch of nancies afraid to eat bread, countin’ our steps? I tell you the first thing I wanna count is how many steps it takes me to run my head into a band saw.”) But there’s so little to this episode that Stan’s temporary conviction that Gloria’s another succubus and not just a strong-willed divorcee out to see that he lives longer gets dispatched with a single lame joke. Plus, for a 21-minute running time, Stan Against Evil continues to have pacing issues. Denise’s near-succubus experience sees her (as veiny as Evie was) watching TV right next to Stan who never once notices his daughter’s condition until Evie shows up to point it out.

“Life Orr Death”

Wherein there are stakes.

Now this is more like it.

For one thing, Stan Against Evil picks up the motivating witch plotline, tossing in both some compelling backstory and some additional shades to the “witches are evil” issue. For another, “Life Orr Death” brings back some of the hidden soulfulness that Stan sequesters behind all his macho bluster and supposed callousness. That the motivating factor behind Stan’s final emotional beat here comes from his love of a dumb old hockey stick is just right, too.

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Of course, it’s not just any old hockey stick that he finds Claire donated to the church auction before she died. It’s Bobby Orr’s stick, tossed into the stands (and to Stan) and treasured above all else as a memento, not only of Stan’s all-time sports hero, but of the “men were men” halcyon days Stan compares all this newfangled, touchy-feely stuff to every day of his life. John C. McGinley is never better than when his mask slips, and there’s something so right, and touching, about his speech to the not-getting-it Denise about Orr’s helmet-less heroism that expresses both his loss of Claire and his sudden understanding of his own vulnerability. Packing up Claire’s roomful of witch-fighting weaponry with plans to turn it into his own private hockey shrine, he explains to Denise:

I know what you’re thinking. How did his head not get pulverized by a puck traveling 90 miles an hour? Because he didn’t believe it would happen. [whispers conspiratorially] So it never did. And that’s what I’m doing from now on. Bobby Orr’s helmet. You don’t believe you’ll need it, and you never will.

So when he finds out about his stick and goes to retrieve it, there’s more behind Stan’s bullying bluster to the new priest (Drew Matthews) than the usual assholery. Explaining Claire’s mistake as something she did “before she was stolen from me by your boss” is shockingly effective coming from McGinley, who takes the priest’s refusal to release the stick with more than usual belligerence. “Stan’s about to assault a priest. Have fun with that,” explains Deputy Leon to Evie after taking the police call, and Evie, brushing aside Stan’s attempt to turn his anger on her, assures him that she’ll get the damned stick back if he backs the hell off. He does, but only after, again, impressing upon a nonbeliever (Evie only pretends not to know New England icon Orr to piss him off) the greatness of the pre-Great One great one. “Bobby Orr, number four,” is his chant, McGinley again lowering his voice to a gravelly whisper as he tries to explain just why he needs his stick back from “mackerel snapper” Father Donovan.

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Naturally, Father Donovan’s a demon and, just as naturally on Stan Against Evil, Evie gets hoodwinked, being swept into a foggy dimension where she’s, for the second time in four episodes, tied to a stake. At least this time, she’s not alone, as the spirit of Abigail Goodwin (Adelle Drahos), the woman burned in a 1693 flashback at the start of the episode, explains that she was never a witch, but that her unjust immolation by Willard’s Mill’s first constable sent her to this “space between spaces” where she and other victims are turned into the minions of “the Master.” (Possibly the bird-headed fellow who’s been lurking and beheading on the sidelines all season.) Despite that fact that Evie, again, doesn’t cover herself in professional glory, as it’s only her tearful pleas to see her daughter again that attracts the woman’s attention, it’s good to see the show burrowing deeper into its own scanty mythology. For one thing, Abigail’s fate suggests that there’s more than one side to the whole “burn the witches” narrative than previously thought—in flashback, it’s clear that the terrified woman didn’t deserve her fate, and, even in this purgatorial afterlife, she’s still willing to help out the town’s newest constable.

And, for another, Abigail’s advice that only by piercing the evil fake priest (Stan finds poor old Father Mike mouldering in the church basement) with a wooden stake can Evie be returned home sets up the symbolic but deeply satisfying ending. Stan—using Denise’s suspect lying skills to distract Father Donovan—sneaks into the basement once he discovers Evie’s disappearance, hears Evie’s ghostly voice giving him the stake advice and, after his call to Leon sees his former deputy fleeing immediately in terror, winds up impaling the demon with Bobby Orr’s stick. “You’re gonna explode,” Stan tells the stuck demon, before snapping “Called it” once the thing has exploded in a shower of gore.

Sure, Stan’s stick is reduced to just the battered and befouled blade in the act, but, again, there’s something uniquely touching about Stan laying the shard of the famed defenseman’s stick in his new hockey shrine (formerly the sanctuary of his secret protector wife) with a solemn, “Rest in peace, hallowed defender.” Stan Against Evil is, one suspects, never going to ascend above its current mix of wiseassery and genre parody, but this episode paints an affecting and entertaining portrait of the not inconsiderable charms of a show like that.

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Stray observations

  • Evie lures Stan to the speed dating event by promising there would be a bear vs. Russian guy fight. “Bear fight. That’s the stuff dreams are made of,” muses Stan, sadly.
  • Stan successfully repels a cat-loving would-be dater by describing a cat vs. snake fight. “Like a cat blizzard…”
  • Flustered Evie, asked what she’s doing later by Neal, stammers adorably, “Just… sheriffing.”
  • Stan, to Murgatroyd: “Probably shouldn’t offer you an apple standing this close to the oven, huh?” Stan amusing himself is always, well, amusing.
  • “I’m from Belmont, you knob,” explains Evie, after finally revealing to Stan that she knows as much about Bobby Orr as he does.
  • Comedy loves a slow thinker, as the saying goes, and Deborah Baker, Jr. continues to make Denise’s spaciness uniquely endearing. After she guesses that the star attraction of Stan’s hockey shrine will be Bobby Orr’s helmet, McGinley’s patiently baffled response is a delight. “No. That was the whole point of my lovely story. How can I have it if it doesn’t exist?”
  • Denise’s fake confession comes to her in a flood of inspiration once she settles on Jesse James’ crimes.
  • Stan refers to his stick as “the last remaining source of joy I have on this planet.” Denise: “Oh.” Stan: “Give or take.”
  • “You’re gonna tell me where Evie is or I’m gonna rip you open like a bag o’ Pop Tarts.”
  • Nate Mooney’s Leon remains predictable but amusing. When introduced, his opportunistic fatality about Evie’s prospects hinted at some perhaps darker shades, but it turns out in these two episodes that he’s most likely just what he seems—a moderately creepy horndog who’s not especially useful as a deputy.

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Nate Mooney (Photo: Kim Simms/IFC)