Touching Evil

At the beginning of Touching Evil, David Creegan (Jeffrey Donovan) gets shot in the head. And not just a little bit. His forehead is blasted through, point-blank, by a ski-masked assassin, crashing through a window and falling several stories to the ground below, the camera hovering over him as his eyes glaze over. The camera continues to hover as he appears in a hospital room, pale blue and cold, clinically dead for 10 minutes. Soon recovered (with a scar on his head to mark his ordeal and difference), Creegan is ready to start his new job at the FBI’s new Organized and Serial Crime Unit.

Dark, fidgety, and violent even for a cop show, Touching Evil thus grants its protagonist a strangely motivational gimmick. Creegan’s head wound leaves him what you might call “fragmented.” He explains it to his new partner, Susan Branca (the terrific Vera Farmiga), as they are seated on a plane en route to a witness interview: because he’s now missing a chunk of his frontal lobe, he also lacks a sense of “shame.” To illustrate, he starts to strip, as the flight attendant endeavors to quiet him. Branca, herself prone to following rules (illustrated here as she listens to the flight instructions), hardly knows what to say.

This standard cop-show set-up (opposite partners will learn to trust and appreciate one another) undergoes some twisting, and some of it is even intriguing. In part, this has to do with pedigree: based on a Granada TV series, also called Touching Evil and created by the prolific Paul Abbott, the American version comes with ace industry names attached, including executive producers Bruce Willis, Arnold Rifkin, and the Hughes brothers. Allen Hughes directs the premiere episode, with graceful mobile framing and skewed angles (courtesy as well of DP Attila Szalay) insinuating the grim uncertainty of Creegan’s environment and attitude.

His social inelegance makes Creegan a tough point of identification, at least for a little while. Restless and perpetually agitated, he approaches each case like a personal mission, ignoring or challenging outright anyone who suggests he’s overreaching. And while Branca provides something of a stalwart foil for his messy behavior, calming him when he becomes overwrought, she’s no match for his righteous morality. Even as she insists, “What I know is what I can prove,” he teases her to take a leap: “You should trust your instincts more.” Again, he meets with the smart-ass pop cultural reference, this time from his own partner: “Thanks, Sir Alec Guiness.”

In other words, while Creegan gets to play loosey-goosey psycho with e force on his side, Branca is left to observe his outbursts and support his intuitions. As much as this relationship recalls Scully and Mulder, or more recently, on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Eames and Goren, it also takes up its own screwy logic. For one thing, Creegan is not fighting the system so much as he’s arriving at its ends (justice defined and achieved) by bending rules. The gimmicky fact of Creegan’s missing brain-section means that his admiring boss, Hank (Zach Grenier), cuts him slack in the way that admiring bosses tend to do in cop shows.

For another thing, Creegan is obviously sad about his condition, weeping at nights over his lost family. His sympathetic ex-wife would want him home if only he wasn’t certifiably insane, and he’s impressively poetic about his kids, assuring one worried mother-to-be he meets on a case, “They’ll give you a shiver you can’t quite still.” Such familial devotion and sense of tragedy make him less obviously unnerving than someone like Vic Mackey, as Creegan’s sense of right and wrong is in sync with that of a mainstream viewership. He only acts illegally to achieve correct ends.

To ensure his capacity for action, Touching Evil (which title appears to refer to Creegan’s “touching”), sets Creegan against a moral morass that makes his desire for justice look solid. He’s a super-avenger with a medical excuse. In this context, the plots of the first two episodes are the series’ weakest elements. The pilot tosses him immediately into a serial child abduction case where the villain, Professor Ronald Hinks (Zeljko Ivanek), is so unashamedly snidely that Creegan’s instantly personalized anger looks honorable. He’s so in tune with the crime and what’s at stake that he’s easily able to dismiss everyone else’s first suspect, Cyril Kemp (Pruitt Taylor Vince). He isn’t the abductor, insists Creegan, because he’s too “gentle.” At which point the uniform sneers, “Thank you, Dr. Phil.”

Before you start to think the exceedingly discerning Creegan is a little too touchy feely for regular cop-work, the episode introduces a character to serve as balance. The departmental shrink, Aileen Mooney (Debbi Morgan), reads out some obvious “profiler” style-info on the serial offender, including evidence that “indicates confliction.” Or again, “If this is our man, his pathology is opaque.” By comparison, Creegan’s arrogance, unsubstantiated as it might seem, is looking almost reasonable.

Given his colleagues’ trust in stuffy stuff, like evidence, it’s no wonder that Creegan prefers the company of Cyril, who turns out to be a witness rather than a suspect. Or at least, he’s a witness in his own mind, believing that his dream is reality and everyone else’s reality is a dream. He tells Creegan that he’s seen the abduction: “It was me,” he sighs. “I was the kidnapper, I was the little boy too. Everybody is you in your dream.” More provocatively, Cyril believes he’s a figment of Creegan’s dream, and worries in the second episode, “YME,” that when Creegan goes to sleep, he (Cyrus) might disappear.

This relationship presents a nifty philosophical conundrum, of the sort that cop shows don’t usually take up: who’s dreaming whom? Trying to soothe Cyril, Creegan observes that he has a job that keeps him up at night. “I worry about killers, I worry about their victims, and their families. That’s my curse. I worry about everybody.” While it’s clear that Creegan’s reality is more viable than Cyril’s their exchanges show that the agent’s partial-brained instability positions him in between — life and death, sanity and insanity, good and bad. When he gets rough with a suspect, Branca warns him, “There are lines you cannot cross.” Ah, he looks wise as he rejects her thinking out of hand: “There are no lines.” When he mutters something about the reason he was “brought back” (from the dead, if you’re counting), she puts her foot down: “You’re not on a mission from god. If you’re delusional, I need to know. We are government employees, so no bullshit is allowed. As long as we are partners, you will keep your disturbed ass with the program.”

Touching Evil knows better. The government is all about bullshit, and only those who know how to work it get what they want. By the time of the second episode, as Creegan is hauling an especially filthy suspect off in handcuffs, he bangs the creep’s head into a column in a moment that plays like comedy more than abuse: Whomp! “Watch out for that pole!” As Creegan and Branca track a series of murders, each victim dosed with rohypnol, carved with a knife (to leave the message “YME”), then burned to death, she’s pressed to see his vulnerability as more profound and representative than psychotic and unique.

This ability to empathize with the killer turns into a weird sort of show for Branca, as he agrees to take rohypnol himself, to make himself wholly exposed to her rage and frustration. It’s a ludicrous display, reduced to Branca’s slow motion dash across a warehouse to save her unconscious and utterly broken partner. The next scene, revealing Branca’s comprehension of Creegan’s hyperbole, makes more sense than the actual event. If the plots can only catch up to these complicated characters, Touching Evil will be mesmerizing.