A Touch of Evil

Lewis Black's Root of All Evil pulls too many punches

Ever get the feeling that you've been had? Advertised as a tour de force of pop-culture kidney-punching, Lewis Black's Root of All Evil purports to take two of my favorite things—courtroom parodies and blistering verbal assaults—and combine them into a seamless whole that single-handedly vivisects our worst societal offenders and records their screams for our amusement.

What we're given, however, is just more of the same Comedy Central filler—a show dangerously close to a destiny of nothing more than propping up that all-important time slot between South Park reruns and The Daily Show until something more promising comes along.

It's a real shame, too. I used to want to be Lewis Black when I grew up. Black's brand of gesticulation, equal parts Incredible Hulk-like rage and horror-struck paralysis, with a dash of razor wit to taste, strikes a chord with my inner cynic. This sent me into Root of All Evil, a long-overdue vehicle for Black, as giddy as a schoolgirl at the thought of a weekly half-hour of pure Black tirade-laden goodness.

It's a simple concept, though not quite the cut-and-dried courtroom scenario its creators would have us believe. Two separate, somewhat-newsworthy horrors are given the same half-hour time slot, during which the cast debates over which one is worse. Black acts as judge for these proceedings, nudging the debate along a predetermined path and occasionally popping in with a segue or a mini-interrogation like a choleric combination of magistrate and circus emcee.

Evil's premise is tied together in practice by an overabundance of Comedy Central castoffs. From the show's Mind of Mencia-esque opening sequence to its basic-cable rat pack of comedians-turned-prosecutors, too much of the show feels like it was picked up at a garage sale thrown by Comedy Central's 2005 season.

The problems start at Root of all Evil's misnomer of a title. Black is there, sure, but his role is largely ornamental. In Evil, Black turns over the reins to Comedy Central's usual suspects, a stable of comedians whose moderate levels of success have earned them regular work on the network's stand-up specials and original productions.

The relative lack of Black himself is, more than anything else, a by-product of the show's format. Black is a slow burner of a comedian; relegating him to a series of one-liners misses the point of having him around. To employ Black at his maximum effectiveness, a certain amount of uninterrupted time needs to be set aside for his diatribes to grow into their proper forms. It's an ugly problem, but one that could easily be solved by cutting that god-awful animated opener and using the extra time to beef up the anemic opening monologue.

The ease of solving this problem, though, leads me to question whether Black's missing diatribes are intentional. After all, more screen time for Black would both lessen the exposure of the rest of Comedy Central's B-listers and cause their efforts to pale by comparison.

A more Black-centric take on Evil's subject matter, arguably the selling point of the show, would be funny for precisely the reasons his subordinates' versions are not. Black's sweaty, twitchy, three-heartbeats-away-from-a-coronary delivery is what makes his comedy work. The composed, prosecutorial demeanors of Evil's regulars, while they can be funny in their own way, aren't what viewers who tuned in under the pretense of a half-hour of typical Black want to see.

The second-stringers aren't all bad, however. Among the cavalcade of Evil mediocrity are a few diamonds in the rough. Patton Oswalt's semi-regular solicitorial turns, for instance, are genuinely entertaining. No matter how inane the subject matter (and Evil's subject matter can get inane on an epic scale), Oswalt tears into it with the barely concealed glee of a child on Christmas morning. Oswalt gets what some of his counterparts do not—that Root of all Evil shouldn't be a subtle mockery of both the objects in its crashers and the legal system itself, but instead a visceral, no-holds-barred orgy of scorn and ridicule aimed at shaming away the very will to live of its targets.

But does one pudgy little shining star make up for the inconsistency that ultimately deflates Root of All Evil? Probably not, but maybe Oswalt along with the addition of a few other redeeming comedians can turn the show into something more than its inaugural-season dichotomy. As it stands, though, watching Root of All Evil is like watching the Two-Headed Monster from Sesame Street arguing with itself over whether quality or mediocrity will reign supreme. It's better than it could be, but definitely not as good as it needs to be if it's going to survive.