LOS ANGELES – When most on-screen operatives survive a perilous assignment, they celebrate by hoisting a few martinis while seducing the stranger at the end of the bar.
Eve Polastri binges on candy. The title character in “Killing Eve” has always played the spy game by her own rules, as have the rest of the participants in TV’s friskiest cat-and-mouse game.
The show returns Sunday with our chocolate-popping heroine discovering that she came up short in an attempt to kill off wily assassin Villanelle. Now Polastri is the prey, a predicament that has her soaking in the bathtub for hours on end, forgetting to defrost a chicken for dinner and erupting in laughter when a stranger misreads her panicked state to assume she’s a drug addict jonesing for a fix.
But is she freaking out because she’s worried about Villanelle’s revenge or because the whole incident is a turn-on? The way she pauses from frantically chopping vegetables to stroke the kitchen knife makes that question all the more delicious.
“I think we show how many of us are monsters, because the darker the humor gets, the more people get it and appreciate it,” said Emerald Fennell, who replaces “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the drama’s head writer in its second season. “The macabre, strange things that happen happen to be funny. But there’s never a sense of mugging. There’s never a sense that this is a workplace comedy. The realness of it is what feels so appealing.”
Departing from the James Bond playbook has paid off. The series, which just earned a field-leading 14 BAFTA nominations, saw ratings growth in key demographics every single episode of its first season, a feat that hasn’t been matched in more than a decade.
Count Mindy Kaling among the show’s die-hard fans.
“Besides the incredible performances and the scripts, it’s a thriller that’s very funny with two women as the stars,” said the creator of “The Mindy Project” and Amazon’s highly anticipated “Late Night” feature film. “I have not seen anything like that.”
The thriller’s mix of humor and horror is on full display in the second-season premiere when Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer, checks herself into the emergency room. Those stab wounds apparently didn’t pierce her iced-vodka veins — she whacks a Good Samaritan as if she were filling out an insurance form. But she recoils from the idea of shuffling through the hallways in hospital slippers.
While in recovery, she maps out a plan to reunite with Polastri — but it’s unclear whether it’s because she wants to stuff poisonous bonbons down her throat or confess her unrequited love.
“People enjoy watching those little moments where you think, ‘Omigod, we know her. She’s showing remorse, she has feelings,’ ” Comer said. “And then she does something where you go, ‘No, I just don’t even know this girl at all.’ ”
More viewers should be drawn into the guessing game in Season 2, with new episodes simulcast on BBC America’s more prominent sister station, AMC, best known for “The Walking Dead” and previous hit “Mad Men.”
“This show has found a balance of wit and violence, compassion and narrative surprise, that is almost without parallel in either television or film,” said David Madden, who oversees programming for AMC and BBC America. He’ll celebrate the unusual arrangement by running the entire first season on AMC starting at 10:45 a.m. Sunday.
The strategy’s not-so-secret weapon is Sandra Oh.
The actress had previous success in the 2004 movie “Sideways” and as ambitious surgical intern Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but her portrayal of Eve has taken her to the next level.
In addition to co-hosting the Golden Globes ceremonies three months ago, she took home the award for best actress, neatly stealing the show with an emotional tribute to her beaming mom and dad in the audience.
“I don’t think I can explain to you how profound it felt, not just for me and my parents and not only the Asian-American community, but the immigrant community as a whole,” said Oh, who just last week became the third Asian-American woman ever to host “Saturday Night Live.” “I’ve had so many young people come up to me and say, ‘That meant so much to me because I’ve never been able to express that.’ ”
Oh should get used to giving acceptance speeches. She’s sure to be the odds-on favorite at next fall’s 2019 Emmy Awards, joining Archie Panjabi of “The Good Wife” as the only actor of Asian descent to be honored with TV’s most significant award. But don’t expect her to repeat the hosting duties.
“It was exceptionally intimidating. I was really, really scared,” Oh said. “But, you know, my nieces were there and I wanted to try and impart in them to go do something that scares you. You don’t have to get it right, just do it.”
That mantra has guided “Killing Eve” every step of the way, making it one of TV’s finest hours.
“When Van Gogh painted olive trees, he did them so well that nobody can look at olive trees again without thinking of Van Gogh,” said Fiona Shaw, who plays Polastri’s enigmatic boss. “I feel that way about this show. The world has shifted a little bit, and no show which women are on will ever be quite as straightforward again.”