Devil's Advocate

Fifteen years seems like a long time to spend in hell, but I suppose the afterlife spins on Einstein's relativity theory, too. The premise of Brimstone, the new series on Fox (Channel 2) at 7 p.m. Fridays, is that Ezekiel Stone has been let out of hell after serving 15 years of his eternal sentence. Naturally, he's confused by the modern world, not understanding what it means to surf the Net or, worse, why he can't go down to the corner store and satisfy his craving for a Reggie Bar.

Peter Horton plays Stone, and that should mean something to you if you were a fan of the soapish thirtysomething. I never watched that show myself, but my wife tells me Horton's character was quite the sensitive soul. He also apparently had fairly long hair back in those days. Now, as Stone, Horton looks scruffy enough to have been through hell, or at least to live in a tenement dive of a hotel where the desk is manned by a typically intense Lori Petty character. (See, her I know; I saw Tank Girl, and I can't get enough of that crazy voice she has, like Olive Oyl with a Brooklyn accent.)

The devil, you say? Yep, he's around, popping up like a bad penny to encourage Stone on his mission of un-mercy (more about that soon). John Glover, who's apparently spent his career starring on Broadway and playing bad guys in movies like Batman and Robin and Gremlins 2, plays Ol' Scratch with an air of superiority and humor. It's as if he's slightly distanced from the premise, but he'll have a good time collecting his paycheck, anyway.

All right, so what is Ezekiel Stone doing getting out of hell and working for Satan, anyway? It all started back in 1983, when a severely disturbed young man broke into Stone's house and raped his wife. Because Stone was a great police detective, it was child's play for him to hunt down the rapist and, in a fit of rage, kill him. Shortly thereafter, in a convenient accident, Stone himself died. Apparently, in Brimstone's cosmology, the devil himself is the judge who decides when a soul gets damned, and he sentenced our hero because Stone actually enjoyed killing the man who had so hurt the woman he loved.

The devil slips up after eons of running a tight hell and lets 113 especially nasty souls break free and return to Earth. Now, this is where things get confusing. Assuming God doesn't mess around in the underworld itself, one has to wonder just why the Almighty doesn't capture the escaped felons and put them back. Instead, Beelzebub himself has to deal with it, and, busy as he is tormenting damned souls and attempting to recruit new ones, he looks at his subjects and picks Stone as the best man for the job. I'd have gone for an efficient killing machine, say, a Gestapo leader, or John Dillinger. But I guess that's why I'm not in charge of eternal torment. The notorious trickster offers Stone a second chance at life if he returns all the bad guys.

All of this was covered in the intro to the pilot episode and is reiterated over the opening credits each week. Stone wanders around the big city, trying to find enjoyment in the things he once loved -- he tends to eat huge meals just to experience taste again; being a supernatural entity, he doesn't have to eat anything to survive. The series can't seem to decide whether Stone is living in Los Angeles or drifting around the country. A group of regular supporting characters has built up -- Petty, a blind priest, an attractive female detective -- but it's hard to believe all 113 evil beings would hang out in just one town, no matter what Los Angeles' reputation might be.

Just to provide a neatly gory touch in each episode, Stone can only return a soul to hell by destroying the evil eyes, most often with a special revolver that seemingly can shoot dozens of supernatural bullets from a single clip. The fight scenes are always amazing, because neither combatant can be seriously hurt. In one episode, Stone fell off a 10-story building, and we heard his bones snap back into place. This means the only serious suspense in a battle is how long it will take Stone (who, as the star, will always win) to pop a shot in between the eyes so the evil being will fade away and return to damnation.

Still, Brimstone manages to build tension quite effectively. The plots are generally pretty twisted, and sometimes you can't figure out who the real escaped soul might be. Recently all suspicion was thrown on a nasty member of the district attorney's office, only to have the ultimate villain turn out to be the milquetoast mailboy who had kind of a crush on the attractive assistant D.A. (On Brimstone, all the important female characters are attractive; this particular one was played by Michelle Forbes, whose presence is still missed on Homicide.) This episode also made an interesting point about vigilantism. The mailboy was originally a traveling executioner in the '20s who electrocuted suspected criminals himself rather than allow the legal system to let them off. Several criminals were released on "technicalities" (a buzzword that means the police didn't obey the law), but at least one of them was actually innocent. How about that? A horror show with a liberal slant!

My favorite Brimstone episode brought up deeper questions about the nature of evil itself. Here, the soul to be dispatched with had been damned because of a failure of nerve. During World War II, he had attempted to rescue a group of Jews, going so far as to bring them all together where they could be caught and sent to concentration camps. He wanted to help them but became more concerned for his own safety; hence he belonged with the devil. After escaping from hell, this guy listened to a lot of Marlene Dietrich records and went around trying to help homeless people. Meanwhile, a homeless shelter worker, who seemed at first to be pure and noble, was killing his charges and selling their eyes to an organ bank. (One wonders just where the organ-bank workers thought he was getting them; I have to hope that in the real world there are restrictions on just how many organs one person can donate.) Stone and the "Angel of Mercy" face off with the earthly bad guy, who is merely caught, not killed. Then Stone has to send this sympathetic character back to his punishment.

Brimstone sometimes moves a little too slowly, and sometimes the humorous interplay between Horton and Glover seems forced. But any show that makes the concepts of good and evil somewhat slippery is going to be at least interesting. Stone is becoming increasingly interested in the physical world, and the devil isn't going to let him abandon his job for very long. This could have been a campy romp through the supernatural or a serious, by-the-numbers exercise in tension. Both elements are in play, but the show's also got room for themes not so simply expressed. It's not Dostoyevsky, but it's an intriguing take on crime and punishment.

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