There's a moment in the eighth episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead that inadvertently pinpointed why I'm not a big fan of Army of Darkness and why I had trouble getting into this (otherwise superior) cable show followup. In the scene, Ash drops the hero act for a minute and confesses to another character that he wanted a real life, with a family and all of that, but never got to have one because the Deadite curse has plagued him and everyone he cares about for 30 years. It's the most human and honest the character has been allowed to be since the first two movies - and it's not even really Ash. It's an evil double that's trying to trick the other character, and when we see the real Ash again, he's just doing his macho one-liner spouting thing that got tiresome before the first act was even finished in Army of Darkness. Oh well.
That said, the show was better than I expected. I didn't watch it last fall, as I do not subscribe to Starz* and couldn't imagine a scenario where I'd pay for it just to watch a show based on a series I had increasingly lost interest in (to recap: I love the first two movies, not a big fan of the 3rd, and find its increased presence in the geek market - comics, games, etc - to be an excuse to further get the franchise away from what I actually liked about it). And it didn't seem to be overly loved even by some folks who had retained their youthful appreciation of Ashley J. Williams and his exploits; I noticed a few gushing about the first couple episodes and then turning noticeably quieter about it as the series went on, and even those who DID love it weren't doing a very good job of convincing me it was worth seeing. "Ash's one-liners have never been better!" isn't exactly a selling point in my house. After all, I'm the guy who prefers the movie where his funniest line was "We can't bury Shelly - she's a friend of ours!"
But hearing that the episodes were only a half hour (I thought it was an hour-long thing) made me less hesitant, and knowing that it kind of lagged in the middle was also a good thing - best to know what I'm in for, I think. So I got the Season One disc for review and made time to watch it over the course of a week (yes, these days it takes me a week to watch five hours' worth of footage), hoping that the show would at least surpass my low expectations and be the first time in the filmed part of the series (including the remake) that I enjoyed something more than the thing that preceded it. And it did! Not even close to Evil Dead 1 or 2 levels of quality, but the blend of horror and comedy was better balanced than in Army of Darkness, and it also helped wash away the taste of the remake, which I was not overly impressed with and walked away from baffled by Ash's role in the proceedings (plans to unite the two continuities have seemingly fallen through - fine by me). I didn't regret not ordering Starz for the original airing, and it wasn't good enough to change my decision for Season Two, but I was reasonably entertained by what they offered here.
A pity the best installments are at the top, though. The premiere is pretty good; Sam Raimi himself directed though he's either hampered by the show's budget or had trouble adjusting to television, because it didn't have as much life to it as I hoped, and honestly if you weren't watching the credits you'd probably never know it was him. The low/fast tracking shots to simulate a Deadite's POV found their way into just about every episode, and likewise the action was no more frenetic or inventive than you'd see in (name any episode). But it introduced the series' surprisingly game supporting cast, a group of folks I came to enjoy seeing after a while, which was a big upgrade from Army's completely forgettable new characters. Given the title of the show I figured this would be a one-man kinda deal with the other characters being occasional guest stars, but at times it inched closer to legitimate ensemble territory, with Jill Marie Jones as Amanda, a state trooper on Ash's tail (she thinks he's responsible for her partner's death) and Lucy Lawless (as Ruby, a mysterious woman after Ash on a revenge mission) teaming up after a few episodes and almost making me wish the show was about them. And then there are Pablo and Kelly, two of Ash's coworkers from the discount mart (no more S-Mart, I guess) who end up joining him on his quest to end the Deadite curse once and for all. Since Ash's character development days are mostly behind him, it was fun seeing these other folks find their footing in this world.
Plus, the Evil Dead 1 fan in me appreciated the (perhaps intentional) recreation of the dynamic: Ash, another dude, and three women. But it works the other way - instead of seeing a close group of friends torn apart, we see a group come together (and then get torn apart). The series' best episode is actually the second one, when Kelly takes off to check on her parents after her dad reports that her mom - long missing and presumed dead - has returned, and Pablo (who harbors a not-too-secret crush on her) tricks Ash into following there to help her. In addition to a fun cameo by Mimi Rogers as the mom, it gave Dana Delorenzo (Kelly) and Ray Santiago (Pablo) a chance to really establish their new characters since the pilot was more Ash-centric for obvious reasons. Not that Ash sits on the sidelines, but everyone gets a moment to shine here and there's actually some legit suspense, as we can be pretty sure that the mom is actually a Deadite but not COMPLETELY sure (Ash is 100% convinced, but he's also an idiot, so there's that), so you're waiting for the shit to hit the fan or for Ash to be proven wrong. The makeup work is strong throughout the series, but seeing it on a familiar face like Rogers' can make you appreciate how well done it truly is (as opposed to on a person you probably don't really get a chance to familiarize yourself with before they turn). It also has the season's best joke; Kelly informing Ash that her parents were Jewish *after* he buries them with crude, hand-made crosses (runner-up I think was in the same episode - the reveal that Ash still hasn't finished paying off his 1973 Oldsmobile, aka "The Classic").
The next couple episodes are almost as strong; Ash knows that he needs to return to the cabin but he's got to make a stop at an occult bookstore to help him translate the Necronomicon and hopefully find a spell that will undo everything, and then they have to visit Pablo's shaman uncle for similar guidance - it's like a road adventure with mini stories along the way, akin to early seasons of Supernatural. Alas, the 5th episode, in which Kelly is possessed and Amanda/Ruby are driving around using Ash's disembodied hand to guide them, is a total misfire, as are the next two, where they're all mixed up in a war between some local militia types and the Deadites. It's during one of these episodes that Amanda turns almost on a dime from vengeance-seeking officer of the law to smitten Ash devotee, a change that is seemingly (and hastily) implemented only to allow her to live up to series' tradition of what happens to ladies who love Ash. If I was watching week to week, this is the point where the series would have started collecting virtual dust on my DVR - it's only because I had the disc in the machine (and the "resume play all" feature that reduced time navigating menus) that I continued as promptly as I did.
I know folks loved the last few, presumably because it returned the action to the famous cabin from the first two films, but these were also slightly repetitive and draggy episodes that probably worked better with a week in between as opposed to more or less back to back. They were certainly an improvement on the previous three, but they weren't a slam dunk, either. There's a new character who is introduced too late into the proceedings for me to care much about her, a lengthy "Ash vs Ash" sequence that was seemingly thrown in to make up for the lack of explicit references to Army of Darkness (a legal issue that has been cleared up for season two), and an unfortunate storytelling decision involving Pablo that kept him out of sidekick duties for the most part (meanwhile, Kelly ended up outside in a torrential downpour for a lengthy sequence that just made me think about the remake - no!). I'm actually torn here; on one hand, after the militia nonsense anything would be an improvement, but I can't help but think they could have used another obstacle along the way and kept the cabin stuff to two episodes instead of three. That said, by confining these episodes to the cabin and immediate surrounding area, the wholly unsuccessful attempt to make New Zealand look like Michigan was no longer distracting me, so that was a plus.
Though really, I think they might have been better off keeping the season to eight or even six episodes. Raimi's (unused) original concept for a fourth film, in which Ash would be in two timelines (one for each ending of Army of Darkness) sounds complicated enough to sustain a full season, but what they ended up going with - "The Deadites come back and Ash has to go back to the cabin to stop them" - doesn't cry out for five hours of footage (as they point out in the commentary for the pilot, this is more runtime than the three movies back to back). As fun as the bookstore and Pablo's uncle diversions were, they weren't all that important in the long run - perhaps they could have taken a page from Bioware and given Ash his quest (go back to the cabin and stop evil!) and used the other episodes to build up his crew, one new member at each stop. It's obviously not the best point of comparison, but I think about how Last Man on Earth gradually expanded its ensemble instead of introducing everyone at once, and can't help but wonder if a similar tact would have been beneficial here. Not only would it give each stop a little more meaning in the long run (instead of "They stop here and get that person killed before moving on and barely mentioning them again"), but it would also allow them to develop those relationships with Ash a little more organically.
Otherwise, the big hurdle for me, one I never fully adjusted to, was the CGI gore. I didn't mind the practical/digital blend on the creatures - the demon that Ash summons, with the mouth that stays still as the rest of it jitters everywhere, was legitimately creepy, as was the child demon he fights later in the season (with its eyes blackened out via computer). But not for the blood! It feels almost sacrilegious to use so much cartoon crimson in an Evil Dead property; the first two films' use of practical FX should be taught in makeup schools if it isn't already, and even with more money at his disposal (and a growing reliance on CGI in cinema) Raimi still employed practical work for Army of Darkness (as did Fede Alvarez for his remake). That's not the case here - there's plenty of real fake blood being tossed around, but big money shots are almost always embellished if not seemingly done entirely with CGI, and it's not even done particularly well in several cases. Several people have pointed out that this is the nature of TV - everything works fast and so they don't have time to reset everything if a gag goes wrong, but this should be something they plan for - cut corners on the dialogue scenes, not the splatter! The finale thankfully relies more on practical work than in previous episodes, though it still appears enough to make me sad. I likened it to Burt Reynolds' Boogie Nights character eventually stooping to shooting on video after being so pro-film in the earlier parts of the film - it feels more like a defeat than a mere budgetary necessity.
But hey, I knew I wasn't going to be the show's biggest fan. The attempts to recapture the spirit of the first two films were admirable, and even won me over at times, but it's too late to turn Ash back into the regular guy he was in the old days. It's not a natural progression of a character who has been through this shit - it's more like a completely different person, akin to John McClane in the original Die Hard compared to "John McClane" in whatever that 5th movie was. Somewhere along the line it became rather difficult to tell the difference between Ash and the smarmy Bruce Campbell we see at Q&As and such, and while it certainly hasn't hurt the character or his popularity with the majority of series' fans, it's just something that never sat well with me (even Raimi, on one of AoD's commentaries, admits the character's 180 between Evil Dead 2 and AoD wasn't the best idea). That said, overall the series was enjoyable enough, had enough humor that DID land with me (I loved Pablo breaking down how a head-related one-liner works), and felt more like what I'd want out of a new Evil Dead entry than I fear I would get with "Army of Darkness 2". The setup for the second season is interesting, and while I still won't be subscribing to Starz to watch it, I look forward to it with much less trepidation than I did this first one. So... kind of a win? Groovy-esque?
(Note - the blu-ray has some fluffy featurettes of little use, but also commentaries on every episode. Considering this disc just hit shelves and the show comes back in a matter of weeks, it's puzzling that there is no preview of what's in store - seems like a missed opportunity for a cable show that will be trying to earn subscribers.)
*I found it odd how many seemed to be confused when they'd ask if I watched the show and my response was "I don't have Starz". It wasn't on Hulu or anything like that, so while the optimist in me would like to think folks assumed I would order Starz just to watch this show, the pessimist/realist in me knows many of them probably wondered why I wasn't just downloading it illegally.