Monday, October 15, 2007

TV REVIEW: Reaper: "Charged"

The 2007-2008 season may be remembered as the most uninventive and "meh" broadcast network slate in years. This is doubly so in terms of genre programming. We have Bionic Woman re-booted and full of glitches, plus variations on popular and time-worn themes and TV scenarios. There's the likable but derivative Moonlight (Angel + Forever Knight + film noir), the intriguing but also familiar Journeyman (Quantum Leap + Time Tunnel + Tru Calling), and in the CW's Reaper, we have a...shock! This is a wholly entertaining slacker variation on the 1998 Fox series, Brimstone, about a detective hunting escaped souls from Hell and experiencing a personal relationship with the Devil, there played by John Glover. Here, the Devil is Twin Peaks' Ray Wise, clearly having the time of his life. In Reaper, the guy hunting escaped souls is a harried kid, Sam (Bret Harrison), one learning to cope with the responsibilities of life and dealing with the fact that his parents sold his soul to the devil.

To my utter surprise and shock, Reaper is likely the best, and most confident of the mangy 2007-2008 genre bunch. It is lively, unpretentious, silly and more than fun enough to pass muster. Watching the second episode, "Charged," I realized the series was as much G vs. E as Brimstone, especially in its whacked-out attitude and unusual world view. A better comparison might be this: Reaper is My Name is Earl with the Devil instead of karma. It is comedy as much as "horror," and yet the episode I saw was really, really funny. The series is a perfect example of taking an old idea, putting a new spin on it, and emerging an unlikely winner. Again, no one is more shocked than me...

Again, on plot specifics, Reaper isn't going to win any awards for originality, but during this season, beggars can't be choosers. "Charged," for instance, is the story of an escaped and damned soul, one Arthur Ferry. In life, he was essentially Kenneth Lay, a corrupt "energy trader" with an Enron-type business under his thumb, and the man responsible for several rolling black-outs in California. Still, he wasn't all bad: Ferry donated a lot of money to hospitals and other foundations, and now he's returned from Hell spitting lightning - literally - because his good deeds are being buried. His reputation is such that no one wants to be associated with him or his money. His modus operandi - as in life - is the use of electricity as a weapon.

Going back into history, I remember "Executioner," a Brimstone story that aired on December 4, 1998, about a Hell escapee also using electricity to zap the living. However, the two takes on this tale are completely different. Brimstone (in general), was a series about redemption and repentance, and I view Reaper as a series about growing up and learning to balance life's responsibilities. It's about a Gen Y'er finding his place in life, when school is done, and not knowing exactly where he fits in. Here, Sam is the Devil's highly unlikely bounty hunter. He works at a Home Depot-type home improvement center called the Work Bench and has an insufferable boss named Ted, and a buddy named Sock (Invasion's Tyler Labine) that he has to constantly keep in line lest they lose their jobs. With Kevin Smith serving as a consultant, one can also look at this set-up as Clerks meets Supernatural. It is also a literalization of the proverb that idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Yet what could have been half-assed and utterly ludicrous is instead ingenious and incredibly funny. For instance, the Portal to Hell is located at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- Pandemonium on Earth, for sure. The Devil's dialogue is also delightful and clever. In one great moment, Lucifer runs across Sam watching daytime television and asks perkily, "when's Ellen on?," a joke pertaining to our culture wars and controversy over homosexuality..but who's side is the Devil on? In another moment, the Devil cherily advises a downcast Sam to "turn that frown upside down," advice that makes the Prince of Darkness sound like a modern self-help guru. This material is really sharp, especially since it overturns the preachy, ridiculous "God is my co-pilot" approach of such canceled shows as Joan of Arcadia and The Book of Daniel (2007).

Reaper also boasts its share of witty and wicked visual gags. The ending, which pits Sam and his buddies against the lightning man finds our heroes dressed up in rubber wet suits (and cowls) for the confrontation...which makes them appear utterly ridiculous on dry land. Another moment of sustained comedy arrives early in the hour, as Sam tries to shirk his responsibilities to the Devil and get rid of a wooden box that contains the "vessel" (or weapon) he needs to destroy Ferry. Last week the chosen vessel was a dust buster; this week it is a remote-controlled monster truck, and part of the fun is figuring out how these devices play into the dispatching of each villain. But the running gag involves Sock and Sam trying to ditch the box, repetitiously, and being vexed at every turn. No matter how hard they try to avoid doing their "job" for the Devil, responsibility in the form of the box keeps landing at their feet.

So Reaper is about a twenty-something kid attempting to balance friends with a rotten, low-paying job, while he tries to figure out who he is. Then one day, he finds out this burden is even greater: he's got two rotten jobs, and his boss is Satan himself. That's a good enough metaphor for a season or three surely. After all, haven't we all worked for someone we are sure - absolutely sure - is a demon put on Earth to make our lives miserable?


  1. I agree about Reaper.

    As the season wears on, and I give up on most of the new shows, it is a great surprise to me that Reaper is not only still on my list, but also so close to the top of my list.

    You are right about the GvsE and Earl comparisons. I only saw Brimstone in it, before this, but I'm rethinking that now.

    It's very funny, as well as being very smart.

  2. Anonymous9:52 AM

    My favorite author, Tee Morris, said that Brimstone is the one cancelled show he wished the network would bring back. Who am I to argue with Tee?

    Chris Johnson