"Big Bang" with blood: How "Ash vs Evil Dead" became a horror comedy that flips gender roles

Salon talks to "Ash vs Evil Dead" executive producer Rob Tapert about TV heroines and the show's funnier season 2.

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 8, 2016 10:00PM (EST)

Bruce Campbell in "Ash vs Evil Dead"   (Starz)
Bruce Campbell in "Ash vs Evil Dead" (Starz)

If the polls are correct, today Americans will elect a woman to the highest office in the land for the first time in the nation's 240-year history. And as those same polls show, a number of the people who voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s opponent Donald Trump see her as a nasty villain, while to her most ardent supporters, she’s an undisputed hero.

Such is the fate of the female ass kicker.

There aren’t many scripted versions of those on TV nowadays, but once upon a time the she warrior occupied ample territory on channels across the schedule — thanks, in part, to executive producer Rob Tapert, the man who co-created “Xena: Warrior Princess” and made Lucy Lawless an international household name.

Today Tapert is an executive producer for Starz’s horror comedy “Ash vs Evil Dead,” a splatterfest starring Bruce Campbell as the iconic idiot hero Ashley J. Williams and Lawless, Tapert’s wife, as Ash’s reluctant partner Ruby. Campbell is still the main audience magnet, but the show’s writers have written its female characters as heavies who are as dangerous and many times more intelligent than Ash could hope to be.

As the second season progresses, Ruby teams up with Ash’s fellow hunter of demons, Kelly Maxwell (Dana DeLorenzo). Sort of like the two women of TNT's "Rizzoli & Isles," except with a whole lot more cursing and backstroking through gallons of foul goop.

In doing this, “Ash vs Evil Dead” subtly nods at what Tapert and Lawless did so many years ago, depicting women with the kind of brawn and ferocity reserved for male characters, particularly men in horror films and television series.

Tapert probably didn’t set out to do that at first. What he wanted was to create “Big Bang Theory” with horror and blood.

The audience of “Ash vs Evil Dead” is a crumb in comparison to the viewership of “Big Bang” or, for that matter, most shows airing on TV. That has not deterred Starz from picking up the Sunday night half hour for a third season.

And there are parallels between “Ash” and the top-rated comedy on television, soft as they may be. “It's a group of characters with a schlemiel in the middle, and he is challenged — and his friends challenge him — for his thinking,” Tapert explained in an interview conducted prior to this season's debut. “I admire that show for a bunch of reasons, and it has longevity. We’re not that show, but it is like a family that comes together and deals with outside forces.”

The main difference? “Our outside forces kill people and cause tremendous discharge of bodily fluids,” Tapert said.

Part of the reason Kelly, Ruby and Ash's sidekick Pablo Bolivar (Ray Santiago) have more agency in season 2 of “Ash vs Evil Dead” is because the producers felt more comfortable unshackling the story somewhat from the “Evil Dead” cinematic lineage.

“The first season, the writing room was finding its way through," Tapert said. "They weren't familiar with the intricacies of the franchise long term,” he explained.  “It was a learning curve around some of these issues. This season we realized what works and what doesn't and how can we have more fun. The booster rockets kicked in.”

The “Ash vs Evil Dead” family of choice also happens to be one in which women are not pegged as nurturers and rarely need saving. It’s Pablo who has inherited the stereotypically feminine role of spirit guide, with Kelly acting as his protector.

Pablo has powers derived through his lineage that unfortunately makes him vulnerable to the demons connected to the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the vile summoning book that is the source of Ash’s woes. Six episodes into the current season, events conspire to transform Pablo into a gestation capsule for the Necronomicon, leading Ash to liken him to a vagina — though not as a pejorative.

When a scene in Sunday’s episode depicts Pablo enduring tremendous levels of pain, Kelly cheers him along by saying, “There’s my powerful vagina!”

Though the show aces the Bechdel test, it's probably wise to stop short of calling "Ash vs Evil Dead" a feminist show since — and granted, I'm not keeping a solid count — most of the possessed fiends Ash is forced to decapitate happen to be female. (Then again, Ash's common sense switches off in the presence of a good-looking woman, so this is an example of malevolent forces exploiting an opening. Nevertheless.)

Additionally “Ash vs Evil Dead” is far from the first series to flip the gender script. Joss Whedon built his entire career on upending idea that horror stereotype by conceiving of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” whose heroine is a character who would typically be a victim in a horror movie: a pretty blonde. He made her the unstoppable hero instead, blessed by supernaturally bestowed strength.

Buffy opened the door for a number of female action characters: Sydney Bristow of “Alias,” Max of "Dark Angel," Netflix’s “Jessica Jones.” What all of them have in common is that their physical prowess could be attributed to acts of God, mystical forces or government training. They aren’t merely gifted; they have singular qualities unattainable to the average woman.

Female characters possessing outstanding physical prowess through their own will and development have tended to be de-sexed (hello, Brienne of Tarth). And those who develop that kind of toughness must have it explicitly explained to the audience. Ash, however, can stumble through life as a bear of very little brain, and his hero status remains unquestioned.

Sound familiar?

“Going back to Xena we tried to ultimately say she was never touched by the gods, and her power wasn’t given to her," Tapert said. "She was just kick ass. And she really had to kick ass. We definitely went out of our way to bring that up all the time,” he added.

“But let’s think about that: There's no female Deadpool," he continued.  "And Ash is an Everyman who is good at battling monsters but a failure at every other aspect of his life. I actually cannot think about a female character that does that. Hah!  There's room for a new show out there.”

Funny he should mention that.  A “Xena” reboot has been in development at NBC for quite some time now, though Tapert is mostly keeping mum abouit the level of his involvement.

“I'm waiting to see exactly where it goes,” he said. “I am watching it and trying to tell people what I like about the original and what played."

Added Tapert: "The writers certainly are incredibly aware of what made the first one lightning in a bottle. Whether that gets captured or not, they're aware of aspects of it that they don't want to change. When it gets to casting, if it ever gets there, that'll be the moment that will inform me because now in hindsight ‘Xena’ did capture aspects of every woman.”

Lawless' days of wielding a chakram are long behind her; playing Ruby is enough of a physical challenge as it is.  She has confessed in a number of interviews that she would have thought twice about joining the “Ash vs Evil Dead” team if she had been aware of how physically demanding it would be. But Starz wanted her back for the series following her successful run on “Spartacus.”

That also makes “Ash vs Evil Dead” somewhat of a family affair, since Tapert, fellow executive producer Sam Raimi (and his brother Ted, a guest star during season 2) and Campbell have known each other since they made “Evil Dead,” the 1981 gore fest that started all of this.

But a person has to wonder how easily the actress contends with all those . . . fluids.  “You know, Lucy never comes home and talks about work, ever,” Tapert admitted. “Work is kind of a separate thing. It's me who complains to her. Even then she just tells me to stop whining.”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Ash Vs Evil Dead Bruce Campbell Dana Delorenzo Entertainment News Lucy Lawless Rob Tapert Sam Raimi Starz Tv