Wherein it’s evil flowers versus TV Hitler.
Stan Against Evil’s short season and its two-a-week broadcast schedule means that, after tonight, there are only two installments left to stop screwing around. Of course, a lot of deadpan screwing around is built into the series’ comedy-horror floor plan—John C. McGinley and Janet Varney’s knowing reactions to all of their town’s supernatural shenanigans are the main attractions here. But that’s left Stan Against Evil skirting the crumbling edge of inconsequence much of the time.
Poised somewhere between its apparent influences Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Ash Vs. Evil Dead, Stan Against Evil hasn’t yet formed an identity of its own. Unlike last year’s similarly goofy and New England-set Neon Joe: Werewolf Hunter—which used the monster-of-the-week TV genre to spin off in its own surreal directions—Stan Against Evil doesn’t bring anything unique to the party. As the monsters explode in goopy showers every week, the show’s investment in them is on par with McGinley’s Stan Miller. Like Stan, the show’s offhand approach to all the mayhem suggests an ambivalent and perfunctory engagement with the coming apocalypse.
But don’t count out McGinley and Varney, whose unlikely and unwilling partnership keeps pulling the show back from mere, rather indifferent parody. “Ouija Bored” opens on the night Claire Miller died, meaning not only do we get to see The Lady Who Knows in action (using her handy garden trowel to destroy a gross demon-flower), but also Stan’s reaction to his wife’s death. Susan Williams plays Claire Miller as the surreptitious, matronly badass she was as she protected Willard’s Mill (and her clueless husband) for decades. In the end, no demon—not even the scary one guarding the flower—can beat Claire, as she finally just succumbs to a heart attack mid-battle. The next scene is Stan in bed, grumpily answering Deputy Leon’s phone call telling Stan about his wife’s death. Stan sneers, asserts that Claire’s right next to him where she always is, then reaches out to pat the empty bed. McGinley can do this sort of scene with his eyes closed, but he always sells the hell out of it, here, his weak “Claire?” registering the truth of Leon’s call before even the single syllable leaves his mouth.
That theme of loss, and Stan’s complicated reaction to it, runs all through “Ouija Bored,” as Evie—discovering more of the truly disgusting stench flowers (“the butthole with teeth,” according to Leon) popping up all over town, accidentally sends Stan to another dimension while trying to contact Claire. It’s there that the befuddled Stan all-too-willingly sinks back in his easy chair to drink the beers that Claire offers him, his hopeful, “Is this a dream, or is that other stuff the dreams?,” explaining how easily he succumbs. It’s not Claire, naturally, but that flower-demon’s guardian, acting out the prophecy that’s going to bring about the end of the world through a very Hellmouth-sounding portal. After Evie plots the locations of the stink-flowers on her office wall map (they form a pentagram, of course), Leon asks, “Should we get a new map now? That’s kind of a weird thing to have hanging in a sheriff’s station.”
It is, but Evie, with the sighing resignation of a competent, rational person stuck as sheriff of cuckoo-town, heads to Stan’s in order to raid Claire’s monster-fighting tomes. Varney, as often as Evie gets captured on this show, makes the sheriff formidable simply by being the one person in Willard’s Mill who can put two and two together and come up with “demon” every once in a while. And, sure, her seance plan to contact Claire ends up with Stan stuck in a lulling alternate dimension with a demon, but, without Caire, they’re flying by the seat of their pants here. And Evie does come up with the plan to contact Stan through his favorite WWII-themed documentary TV series, leading to her sending helpful advice through a ranting onscreen Hitler (Neal Kodinsky). “To be clear, I’m supposed to kill my wife because Hitler told me to do it on TV,” asks Stan, McGinley drawing out the absurdity along with his deadpan delivery. “Yeah, it’s a leap,” responds Hitler/Evie, sheepishly.
In the end, it’s fake Claire’s offer of breakfast for dinner (a no-no in the Miller house) that convinces Stan, and McGinley makes Stan’s anger at the intimacy of this betrayal sting. Taunting the demon (once an innocent woman burned in Willard’s Mill because her philandering husband wanted her out of the way), Stan sneers, “If you’d just made your husband one decent meal he probably wouldn’t have dumped you for your sister.” Sure, he gets immediately knocked out with a skillet, but it’s still a solid burn.
Meanwhile, Evie battles the five flowers and their attendant five curses (some poor guy gets eaten by his dog at one point), doggedly pursuing a climax Stan Against Evil, once more, doesn’t have much time for. These are not tight scripts, is what I’m saying, the exposition and setup of each episode’s requisite monster leading to a fizzling climax. Here, Evie figures out that she needs to cut Denise to free Stan, something she does with an ill-advised gleam in her eye as she stalks Denise with a kitchen knife, and the last flower screams, and we’re outta here. What works, again, is the sneaky subtleties the actors bring in along the way. Evie tests out the stench of the newest flower at a crime scene and immediately regrets it, Varney’s “Oh, why would I smell that? I know it’s terrible!” a throwaway gem of a reading. And McGinley, after brushing off his experience with the fake Claire as “Two days of shit food and Hitler,” strides out on his porch before his face collapses at the reality of what he’s lost.
“I’m Gleaning My Coven”
Wherein Willard’s Mill is overrun with Goths, revelations.
With the season rushing to a close, another promising (if tardy) development is Stan Against Evil coloring in the reason why Willard’s Mill is such a monster-magnet. At the beginning, there wasn’t much going on here but “Witches bad! Burn witches!,” which marked the show out as something more lunkheaded than it’s turned out to be.
Tonight, when a trio of predictably silly TV Goths (Devon Hales, Micah Ballinger, and Jonathan Baron, all pretty funny) try to raise the spirit of one Minerva Garrett, supposedly the greatest practitioner of the dark arts in Willard’s Mill’s storied history, things do not go well. In fact, they end up raising the spirit of the town’s original, witch-burning Constable Eccles (Randall Newsome), who promptly possesses their leader and seemingly snaps the neck of poor Denise, brought along because all good evil rituals need a virgin and, well, the Goths just assumed.
Stan and Evie are forced to put aside their latest neanderthal versus rational lady cop feud (Evie wrote Stan a ticket, Stan responded by tearing it up and then paying it all in unrolled pennies) in order to combat the latest evil witch attack. Except, as they discovers upon talking to the demon possessing Denise, there never were any witches in Willard’s Mill. Eccles was the one with the dark arts, and all of the 172 women burned were innocent victims of his plan to make them his minions. It’s been hinted at at points this season, but this revelation—seconded by the spirit of Minerva in the climax—does at least ground Stan Against Evil in some sort of moral universe more complex than it appeared at the outset.
Which brings up the interesting idea that Stan’s admittedly amusing macho act is in for some deconstruction, too. While it’s true that Stan’s blusterous rants are, in John C. McGinley’s voice, undeniably entertaining (tonight explaining to Evie how he can’t let people see him add sweeteners to his coffee he cites John Wayne’s habit of drinking “battery acid”), there’s not a lot to the character. For one thing, his cultural markers are all over the place—it’s fine if Stan’s patterned himself after Archie Bunker, but he keeps citing references as if he were the same age as Archie Bunker. But, more importantly, the show hasn’t really examined Stan’s reaction to the fact that his seemingly gung-ho, manly tenure as the only town Sheriff to last past his first week only happened thanks to his wife keeping him safe. McGinley’s always made the depth of Stan’s love for his wife (and for Denise, even if he exasperates him with her nonsense) some of the show’s most affecting moments. Tonight, his response to Denise’s possession is all the more touching for how fiercely he confronts the thing inside his daughter, growling and snarling in return to the thing’s demonic noises, and relishing in asking it, “Let me cut to the chase here. Have you ever been hit with a bag of oranges?” Stan’s keeping up his tough guy front, and confronting a demon harming someone he loves allows him to flex those muscles (especially since Denise is duct taped to a dining room chair), but on some level he has to know that all his bravado and all of his faith in his masculine power were only enabled by a woman’s protection.
In the end, and after some humorously desultory ritual dancing from Evie (in a horse mask) and Stan (in a scowl), the battle of wills between Minerva and Eccles looks to strike at the heart of both thematic threads. Eccles is male power, gained and maintained through fear and violence, while Minerva, who sneers, “I have no master” while resisting Eccles’ attempts to kill everybody suggests that the “witches” of Willard’s Mill aren’t as subjugated as he’d like to imagine. Again, this being Stan Against Evil, there’s the chance that next week’s final pair of episodes might drop all this and screw around for an episode before getting back to business, but it’s intriguing, nonetheless.
There’s the usual Stan Against Evil pot slackness all through the episode. For a good cop, Evie keeps doing dumb things, like leaving the two remaining Goths alone in her office so possessed leader Craig can stab goofy acolyte Keanu through the chest—with a rifle. (“Stabbed… by a gun,” is all the returned Evie can say.) That Charlene is missing suggests bad news, or a plot twist. But, nope. She just ran back to the Inn where they were staying to pack up her stuff. And Denise’s neck was snapped by Craig—how does exorcising the demon out of her fix a broken neck? There’s no problem with making a horror satire, but unless you at least pay some attention to the horror underpinnings (or, you know, basic storytelling), it’s hard to care about anything.
- Leon, on the smell of those demon-flowers: “Smells like that pillow we found in solitary—the one with the clown drawn on it.”
- “You love it when the Italians hang Mussolini.” “You know I do!”
- The first time we see Minerva, it’s back when she was a midwife in 1936, where she gets strangled by—and I’m coining it—some vagina tentata. Again, the idea that Eccles is targeting strong women—midwives were common witchhunter targets throughout history.
- Evie, on Willard’s Mill’s attraction as a Goth hot spot: “It’s like Burning Man, except they were burning women. For real.”
- Jonathan Baron’s Keanu confides that they got into the whole Goth coven thing after they played out their bond over rollercoasters.
- Devon Hales’ Charlene keeps dancing around whether coven leader Craig was really her boyfriend. Evie: “You know, I don’t have a dog in that fight.”
- Stan, being Stan, not only pays his $65 dollar ticket in pennies, he leaves one out, daring Evie to take him to court over the difference.
- I like how the coven simply cannot freak out Denise, who, it was revealed in “Ouija Bored”, had an appropriately creepy flirtation going with now-late gravedigger Kevin (played by series creator Dana Gould).