As unlikely as it sounds, “Evil” was meant to be a more mainstream show, maybe even a CBS blockbuster. But in its own way, “Evil” was also a response to a chilling era of cruelty and lies, the rise of a legion of trolls, fixers and cheats. “I don’t like it when the truth isn’t clear,” Robert told me. If the Kings’ “Good” shows were about navigating a corrupted world, “Evil” was about a darker, larger subject: the struggle to find meaning in a culture that often seems to tip, quite literally, to hell.
In November, the first episode of “Evil” – a simple brainstorm only a month earlier – was in full swing. The Kings had worked out a script over a long weekend. Robert was directing, something he does once or twice a season, including an elaborate silent episode in Season 2, set in a monastery; doing so almost killed him, he said. Visual bravado was tough on a budget, but the Kings and their cinematographer, Fred Murphy, tried to give each show a distinct, non-grid look: on “The Good Fight,” sleek horizontal compositions, to frame power dynamics; on “Evil”, vertical planes that draw the viewer’s eye upward, to mimic the show’s theme of looking at something “beyond human”.
For “Evil”, Robert also had a specific aesthetic model: the 1955 film “Night of the Hunter”, the only film directed by British star Charles Laughton. A bracing black-and-white homage to the silent movie era, the psychosexual thriller, in which Robert Mitchum played a sociopathic preacher, used eerie imagery isolated against an inky backdrop, a look ‘Evil’ never had. reproduced to Robert’s satisfaction. At a production meeting, he suggested trying again: Scenes in Father David’s parsonage room could be shot to suggest darkness framing the set, “as God would see it, almost, as if there were nothing outside our walls. He laughed and added, “Let’s play, and if it doesn’t work, the only one who’s embarrassed is me, for insisting in the short time we have.
On the soundstage, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Robert gave the cast soft notes. “Let’s just accept stagnation,” he told Katja Herbers, as they worked a bit of slapstick with an envelope. “We’ll have more movies later.” During the sequence in which the girls prank Leland, one of the girls freezes on a line in which she urges her sister to fake having cancer. “I swear if you laugh, no one on the internet will blame you you– they’ll blame the writer, Robert reassured her. “It’s you, they’ll blame you!” said the girl laughing. A designer showed him three zombie-head jars, and he picked one; later he experimented with plunging the zombie head down the toilet. He looked exhausted, but he was beaming with joy.
Between takes, we talked about Robert’s tastes. Insomniac, he watches TV, apparently everything from television – to middle of the night, from critic darlings like “Station Eleven” to reality shows like “Below Deck.” His opinions were as strong as any critic’s: he hated “True Detective,” summing it up as “the kind of show where a baby ends up in a microwave”; and he adored “The White Lotus”, even if he wondered if it didn’t show its ideological underpinnings a bit. Among its heroes was Ben Hecht, the screenwriter behind a surprising range of classic films, on whose philosophy he had modeled his own: an omnivorous, energetic embrace of multiple genres, regardless of status.
Michelle was more cautious of her opinions and, at times, impenetrable – a Magic 8 ball wrapped in a puffy Patagonia coat. Did she like classical music? “Not really.” Did she like Ben Hecht? “Probably not.” When I asked her what she was best at, she said she was the best at understanding what everyone other was the best at.
But she was witty and straightforward about Hollywood. “There’s no question on television that can’t be answered by ‘time’ or ‘money,'” she said, as Robert struggled to make the scene of the envelope is made quickly. She had no regrets about her life except for not being on television sooner. “’We have to get something on the air’ is great,” she said. “It’s got everybody focused.” In the movie industry, people have looked to “bad behavior, with a little ‘b'” — flakiness, rudeness — out of necessity to “turning into characters”. In contrast, her television colleagues, especially women, had impressed her as “adults”, her highest form of praise. The television industry was full of ” people who go to bed early because they have to get up early, who vote and who are civic-minded”.
The Kings are passionately pro-worker, their marriage coinciding with the 1988 WGA writers’ strike, a formative experience: Michelle was fired and Robert turned down a scab gig, despite being in dire need of ‘silver. Now, however, she was one of the managers – a diplomat and strategist, with much of her work done privately, via email. At one point, the production team discussed a tricky schedule change, which involved pushing the series designer to rush plans for a “business” demon (on a treadmill, with a towel around the neck). Robert noticed Michelle’s face.
“What is that look?” he said.
“It never hurts to apologize,” she said simply.
When I asked which king was more cynical, they both laughed and pointed at Michelle. His parents, who had hidden in Holland during World War II and then met in Los Angeles in the 1950s, had built a rich and fulfilling life. His mother was a nurse, his father a high school teacher (and, for a short time before he was born, an actor – he once played a thug in a gangster movie). But, like many children of survivors, Michelle was hyper-aware of how quickly the world could spiral into darkness. As Robert was filming a scene, Michelle told me she was worried the #MeToo movement was over. She said it with a dry-eyed Realpolitik: a door had opened and then closed – and she could see people’s empathy diminishing, turning into words. His own experiences hadn’t been great, mostly old-school bosses calling him “dah-ling.” But she had seen her share of cruel behavior presented as the price of genius. Monstrosity was always a risk when climbing the ranks, she says – for her and Robert too: “Being a showrunner is a very infantilizing job, if you let it. If you run around naked and cry and get hungry on set, the wardrobe will run out with a bathrobe! The catering will run out of food and an assistant manager will dry your eyes out.
Several people have told me about Michelle’s generosity as a mentor. Her friend Julia Schachter had a running joke with her husband: when you write Michelle a thank you note, she responds with one. But she also had a shrewd awareness of how one could be taken for granted. Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who wrote for “The Good Wife,” told me that Michelle gave her some great career advice: “Bring a guy with you when you have a meeting. Then see if the person you meet always look at him.
The Kings had another common value: truth. One day in Greenpoint, during a break while filming a confrontation between a secular shrink and a fierce fundamentalist nun, Robert joined me by a video monitor, where we talked about the release Kristen had felt after having picked up that ice axe, feeling that all bets were off.
People dreamed of committing such justifiable murder, I said. “I think so,” Robert replied with a smile. It was part of a lifelong debate between the kings. “Michelle thinks she can be an ethical person – and she is an ethical person – without some kind of Ten Commandments guiding you. And an authority that enforces it. Whereas I think without it, people are always going to crumble. They go to pretend they don’t break down, but inside of them it’s only because on some level they believe in the Ten Commandments, and some—on some level. Obligate that keeps them away from the bad thing. Without God, it was too easy to deceive oneself about one’s own decency.
It bothered me: couldn’t people behave well without the threat of Hell? Yes, Robert said, but they would inevitably back down ‘unless there was any’ – he paused, then shrugged helplessly. “It’s a crazy time to talk like that,” he acknowledged. “Because eighty percent – I mean, almost all Protestant Christians – think Trump should be president! Which I find crazy and, obviously, diabolical. And they believe Biden is burning in hell.
When we first met, Robert described himself as a “David Brooks curator”. (Or maybe a Bill Kristol conservative, at least the recent Bill Kristol, he joked, “Who knew? Bill Kristol!”) He is anti-abortion; he is pro-Israel. Although his electoral politics are overwhelmingly Democratic, like Michelle’s, he admires a wide range of iconoclastic thinkers, including Hecht, whose identity was transformed by a post-Holocaust Zionist conversion, and the libertarian satirist PJ O’Rourke , which he had wanted to write for “BrainDead”. But he knew it was his faith that made him an outlier in Hollywood, even among his friends. At one point, following a conversation about abortion, Robert began to claim that some progressive politicians had “acted like assholes”; Michelle chimed in, “Off the record!” Robert said it was OK to put the exchange on the record, adding: “It’s like everyone should be in the minority on one thing or another – to know what it’s like to have your opinion as an exception.”