Time flies, time waits for no man, only time will tell... Touching Evil is obsessed with time. San Francisco Organized and Serial Crimes Unit detective David Creegan (Jeffrey Donovan) was dead for 10 minutes after a man in a ski mask shot him in the head. Now fully recovered, he's a slightly tormented, often bemused man with a surplus of visions that surface like pinpricks and a shortage of impulse control -- making him a great investigator and an occasionally annoying partner to Susan Branca (Vera Farmiga).
''Evil'' is much more engaging, however, than a mere odd-couple cop show, or even a good serial-killer series. Taking cues from the surreality of ''12 Monkeys'' and the Hughes brothers' hyper-stylized ''From Hell'' (no surprise, since the brothers and Bruce Willis are among the exec producers), ''Evil'' has created one bitter little fairyland. It's a place where day and night twist into each other quite regularly: Creegan suffers insomnia and sometimes dreams while awake. His adopted best friend, Cyril (the pinball-eyed Pruitt Taylor Vince), is a schizophrenic who, when not properly dosed, believes Creegan is the one kindly figure in his endless nightmare. If he can only wake up he'll be back on his proper planet.
Cyril's wish is a running theme: Please let me be dreaming. A farmer investigates a noise in the barn and finds three mutilated horses. A woman is awakened after being knocked unconscious, so she can see her gutted stomach. Some scenes are so unlikely, coincidences so weird, at first you think they're dream sequences. Actually, they're just ''Evil'''s day-night mind games, turned on the audience.
Brilliant, then, that the show -- based on the stark British miniseries -- tweaks our insecurity further. Creegan, our guide through this freaky wonderland, is a guy who turns somersaults for no reason and strips off his clothes on a crowded flight because he feels like it. This isn't as Mel Gibson -- in -- ''Lethal Weapon'' as it sounds, partly because Creegan's tics can be kind of darling, reflecting a boundless affection for the hurt and confused. ''Oh, s---, I was supposed to bring Cyril to a volleyball tournament tonight,'' he blurts in the middle of a manhunt strategy session. ''Cyril loves coed volleyball.''
Much of the credit for ''Evil'''s success goes to Donovan, the most charming detective since David Duchovny's oddball ''X-Files'' obsessive. He plays Creegan as a nimble blend of smart-ass, sweetheart, and wide, gaping wound -- a guy whose antic silliness can swerve into tear bursts when he commiserates with a murderer that there's no getting his old life back. I do, however, hope the recent decision to pack Creegan's ex-wife and kids off into witness protection heralds a slight easing of his hair-trigger volatility. I don't want to see another moment where Creegan ''crosses the line'' with a bad guy who has threatened his family (or just his sense of decency). ''Evil'' should be above that cliche.
And while I'll miss images of Creegan asleep in the bed across from his girls, their cloud-swirling night-light mirroring the fast-moving sky outside, I do hope their loss is Susan Branca's gain. Farmiga, with her serene, feline face and cool amusement, is a great match with Donovan -- speaking of ''X-Files'' -- and the two have an understated chemistry. It's a lovely, quiet thing to watch Branca forge connections with the rootless Creegan, like her willingness to play hangman with him during a briefing on a serial killer called the Hangman. (Winning answer: I had a difficult childhood.)
''Evil'' got springier with its recent cast addition -- ''Alias''' Bradley Cooper, lending his awkward energy as Mark Rivers, a profiler who hails from West Virginia (same state as Clarice Starling, one can't help noticing). Other developments have been darker. We've discovered OSC head Enright (Zach Grenier) had a lover who was murdered by a serial killer, and Branca is still reeling from a fiancé's suicide -- ugly pasts and uglier presents are endemic. There's a reason Creegan still bears a dog-leg-shaped scar on his forehead. In ''Evil'''s vicious, clock-spun world, there are some wounds time absolutely won't heal -- and we're all of us marked.