Perhaps it's because the novelty/excitement had worn off some, or maybe I was just too busy and didn't pay any attention, but it seemed like I didn't hear as much about the second season of Starz' Ash Vs. Evil Dead when it aired last fall, as opposed to the first. As I don't subscribe to the premium channel, I had to wait until Blu-ray to catch up, and I knew exactly what I was in for with the first season thanks to frequent social media updates: "Starts great!" "Kinda sucks in the middle!" "They go back to the cabin!!!". But with season two, other than Lee Majors and Ted Raimi joining the cast, I didn't have any real insight at all. Did it suck? Was it better? And which episodes were the ones where I should keep my phone handy when they started to drag? I had no idea - and I'm glad, because going in as blind as one possibly can is always beneficial, and I felt like I was able to watch it just as fresh as I would have had I watched it last fall.
The key difference, of course, is that if I watched week to week I would have had to wait to see how the many cliffhangers got resolved, which was a big benefit as this season was much tighter in its storytelling, with very little wheel-spinning and few unnecessary diversions. At the end of last season, Ash and his pals (Kelly and Pablo) were off to Jacksonville, but they're back in familiar territory by the end of episode 201, appropriately titled "Home", and they stick around Michigan for the duration of the ten episodes as they battle the new villain, Baal. The whole season takes place over what seems like a week at most, and things track over multiple episodes, rather than just coming (and going) out of nowhere as they often did in the first (remember the militia?). It's worth noting that the writing staff seems to have been largely overhauled (only two writers with credits on season one return for a writing credit on season two, one of whom is Ivan Raimi), and it seems to have been a solid move - it's not a total 180 from it, but there's more consistency to the overall quality.
The cast is also used more efficiently. Bruce Campbell could sleepwalk through this stuff by now, but Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago really come into their own this time around, especially Santiago who gets possessed by the book early on and gets to run the gamut from immobilized sidekick they need to protect, to full on threat at times. As for DeLorenzo, Kelly has gotten more accustomed to the life that she has now, and thankfully spends little of her time sighing at the hero - she "gets" Ash now and is often quick to help or defend him when necessary. They're joined by last season's nemesis Ruby (Lucy Lawless), as well as the aforementioned Majors (as Ash's dad) and Raimi (as Ash's old buddy Chet), plus a few others who come and go, and the show's writers thankfully use them all well instead of letting Bruce Campbell dominate every episode. I wouldn't go so far as to say they could continue the show without him, but they've definitely embraced the idea of an ensemble more than the first season did, allowing Kelly and Pablo to have plenty of hero moments, team up with other characters, and basically do more than just kind of roll their eyes at Ash. This actually gives it more excitement as well - you know Ash will survive whatever he encounters, but not the others; when a major character is killed in episode eight, I believed it (alas, knowing they're in the third season kind of deflated the suspense, but still).
Campbell even seems a bit more energized at times, probably because the writing allows him to do more than one-liners and get thrown around the sets. In the show's best idea yet, we discover that his exploits haven't gone unnoticed by the people in his hometown - but unfortunately they think he's a serial killer, dubbed "Ashy Slashy" via boogeyman nursery rhyme. The townsfolk - including his father - know nothing of Deadites and the Necronomicon; to them Ash is a guy who murdered his sister and three of his friends in a cabin, and then disappeared, so when he comes back they're terrified of him, and his father is just brokenhearted about the whole thing. I mean, it's not a drama or anything, and Majors spends more of his time talking about his sexual exploits than he does lamenting his dead daughter and the son that he thinks murdered her, but it's just enough to give Ash's character the humanity he's largely lacked since, well, the first film (the action in Evil Dead 2 never stopped long enough for such reflections).
But fear not, even though he's pushing 60, Campbell is still up for all of the abuse the character is known for. Stunt doubles aren't hard to spot at times, but it's still clearly him getting smacked around, fighting himself (there's a brief reprise of Army of Darkness' windmill scene), and being doused with any number of strange colored liquids. Some of the gags even border on flat out gross, such as when Henrietta (Ted Raimi again) "nurses" an unwitting Ash with some orange goo squirting out of her breast. He also fights/gets engulfed by a large male corpse sporting a cock ring, so long story short even if Campbell can't be thrown into walls as much as he used to, the series' creative team are still finding plenty of ways to make him miserable. And they extend the courtesy to his co-stars; there seems to have been some sort of contractual obligation that ensured every primary cast member got drenched in red stuff at least every other episode, and DeLorenzo gets to offer her best Campbell impression in an episode where she fights a possessed puppet on her own hand.
Another thing I enjoyed was that they embraced the Deadites' seeming lack of rules. There are always new curveballs being thrown at our heroes, and it never seems like a departure from anything established by the films. The Delta gets possessed for a while, a long-dead character (and the actor who portrayed him/her) returns, people are mind-controlled (but not killed, necessarily) by Baal... just because we haven't seen it before doesn't mean it couldn't happen in this particular series, and it's nice to see that freedom embraced. This seems to have been beneficial to the FX work as well, as having a human villain and simple possession allows for "evil" without any makeup or CG effects for those sequences, keeping the action flowing cheaply, and freeing up the FX budget for improved visuals. There are still CGI effects throughout, but not nearly as many as the first season (as I recall it, anyway) and some very nice practical work, particularly Henrietta and the aforementioned male corpse.
In fact, my only real complaint for this season wasn't really its fault - it's just not as inventive or novel anymore. As I said in my first season recap, I'm not as enamored by this series as many of my peers (to recap: I love the first one dearly, quite like Evil Dead 2, and have almost no particular affinity for Army of Darkness), so I'm not automatically in the bag for this just because it exists. Maybe some folks were delighted when the show returned to the cabin for its final episodes this season as it did in the first, but I just rolled my eyes that they were going to that well again, since the show was working just fine without having to rely on nostalgia. Seeing a place I've seen before (again) isn't enough - I have to be won over by new things. And while this season did a better job than the first (for me, anyway), I still have almost zero real investment in the ongoing battle, and the show has a tendency to keep killing people off just when they get interesting. When the third season is set up at the end of this season's finale, I didn't get goosebumps over the possibilities the way I usually do for genre shows I love (i.e. Supernatural resurrecting Mama Winchester at the end of season eleven), and I'm sure I'll be just fine waiting for it to hit Blu-ray next summer.
Plus, something about the bigger budget and post-production FX work just kind of goes against what I loved so much about the first film, which was the obvious DIY approach. I saw it when I was I think 14 and just about to go to high school, and already knew I wanted to be involved in filmmaking, so the lo-fi quality was a huge inspiration to me and would be in the back of my mind for several backyard "productions" over the next few years. Reading The Evil Dead Companion was just as enlightening, as it recounted the tales of Raimi and others sleeping in the freezing cabin to make sure no one stole their gear, working 24 hours straight, etc. I'm sure I'm not alone in seeing it as a sort of gold standard for that "Whatever it takes" attitude required for successful low-budget filmmaking, so the film stands for something in addition to being genuinely entertaining in its own right. That was always more interesting and exciting than the actual plot, so now that we've had two sequels and two seasons (the length of three movies apiece) I can't exactly say I *need* more time in this world the way I do for Twin Peaks or even X-Files (other properties that have split their time between feature films and TV shows). It's enjoyable in the moment, but I guarantee in a month I won't remember much about it.
However, again, I'm not as nostalgic for this franchise as the people it's made for, so the fact that I enjoy it at all is a win. That it's an improvement on the first season is an even bigger one, and hopefully the quality continues to improve when it returns this fall. The Blu set has a bunch of two minute featurettes of negligible use, but also a bunch of commentaries, making it a reasonably worthwhile purchase for those who loved it and already saw it on cable, and the "Play All" function makes it an attractive option as background fodder for a Halloween party. I wish Sam Raimi was a bit more involved (he didn't direct or write any episodes this time around, and I didn't see him on any of the featurettes I watched), but it seems like Ash is in good hands all the same, and thankfully the other directors don't spend too much time trying to ape his style, since only Sam Raimi can effectively Sam Raimi. But I'm curious what you guys think - do you agree this season was an improvement? Or do you think the things that I found enjoyable (expanded cast, less comedy) are a red spot, and wish it would limit the horror stuff the way Army of Darkness did?