In the "Before Times," British-American comedian Aasif Mandvi was a correspondent on The Daily Show then anchored by Jon Stewart. One of his most enduring pieces is an October 2013 segment that covered voter suppression in the American south — one that led to the resignation of a GOP activist over racist comments made on camera.
"You know we can hear you?" Mandvi questioned. It was a moment where the two sides of Mandvi cracked like tectonic plates, that of his onscreen persona of a blowhard reporter and his off-screen bewilderment at what the lavalier microphones just captured.
Looking back in 2020, the 54-year-old has a vague idea how his Daily Show stint colors his scripted career today. "I seem to get cast as skeptical characters," Mandvi tells Inverse, calling from quarantine in Atlanta, Georgia. "I don't think of myself as a skeptic by nature. But in an actor's career, you can see how one role informs another."
Unpack Mandvi's role as the skeptic Ben Shakir on Evil, it's not hard to deduce how that may be true.
In Evil, the acclaimed horror procedural on CBS from normcore auteurs Robert and Michelle King, forensic psychologist Kristin (Katja Herbers) and priest-in-training David (Mike Colter, Luke Cage) team up to investigate supernatural incidents. Along for the ride is Mandvi's Ben, a blue collar contractor who can install a drywall with his exceedingly dry wit. Whenever the supernatural needs a fact-check, audiences count on Ben to hack his way to reason.
"Ben is a true pragmatist," says Mandvi. "He is the grounding force. He's a technician, [he believes only] what he can touch, taste, smell. What he can measure and quantify is his basis."
That doesn't mean Ben is always helpful, however. Mandvi sees "many moments" in the show's first season where Ben is "the agitator" and "the discordant note in the conversation." Mandvi recalls one line Season 1 that revealed to him everything about Ben. "He has this line, 'Psychology is just religion for grad students.' There's an element for Ben where he has a bit of snobbery around people who follow whatever dogma."
A sort of X-Files by way of The Exorcist, Evil is an arresting series that proves there's still life outside the world of streaming. It's also a refreshing change from the typical Scully/Mulder, skeptic/believer dynamic found in similar shows. In Evil, there's often a scientific reason for any given incident, but science is powerless to make the evil that men do any less terrifying.
In a show like Evil, is a character like Ben powerful or powerless? "I think, thus far, he's powerful," Mandvi says. "He doesn't get thrown by a lot of stuff. At some point, he might feel powerless. Right now Ben is the one character who feels like the most in control. That might change."
Further adding to Ben's complexity is his Muslim background. In its 13-episode first season, Evil reveals Ben as a non-practicing Muslim who abandoned his faith into adulthood. (In real life, Mandvi has expressed similarly "complicated" feelings towards Islam.)
"He has clearly rejected faith. His religion is science," Mandvi says. "We haven't seen it much, but it creates tension with his family and the faith he was brought up. I like to think that he is an outlier in that way."
But what does Mandvi believe? The magic (and terrifying genius) of Evil is that it's not a simple condemnation of religion as bunk mysticism. Nor is science immune to the immoralities that plague religion. Evil often explores the commonplace where religion and science break down, allowing people (and sometimes demons) to do terrible things. "Science and religion are just human endeavors to explain what we can’t understand," Mandvi says. "They’re both embedded with humanity’s flaws. Religion is flawed and so is science."
Mandvi argues science's behavior to evolve can be a problem for people in times like, say, a pandemic. "We see it now. People go, 'Well they said don't wear masks and now they say wear masks.' Yeah, that's how science works. We adjust."
Now, people's willingness or resistance to masks is having far-reaching effects, including when Evil can resume production. Though the series was green lit for Season 2 back in October, the cameras aren't close to rolling back in New York.
"It's not up to me, you'd be surprised to know," Mandvi says. "There's a lot of conversations between the networks, unions, and New York state about safety. From what I've heard we'll start in the next few months. I hope sooner than later."
Mandvi also isn't totally privy to what's in store for Season 2. "The little I do know, I'll just say that fans will be pleasantly surprised where the story goes. It doesn't go where you think it will."
Leftover from Season 1 is Ben's unintentional ability to draw jealousy from Kirstin's once-absent husband, Andy. Mandvi makes it clear he doesn't know what the Kings have in mind where the story will go. But he has his own ideas.
"In television, good writing spools out tension as long as you can. I imagine it could be a running thing," he says. "I think there's comic potential. [Ben is] a lot funnier than I originally gave him credit for. He's got wit in his relationship with Kristin. There's rich stuff there. You don't want them getting comfortable."
Evil Season 1 is available now on DVD and streaming on CBS All Access.