Thursday, October 18, 2007

Don't Fear REAPER

Just thought I'd offer a quick shout-out about Reaper, the newest horror-comedy alloy hitting the television airwaves.

Reaper follows the adventures of Sam (Bret Oliver), a directionless high-school grad who's blown off college in favor of a dead-end job at a Home Depot knockoff store, The Work Bench. He gets one helluva surprise for his 21st birthday, though, when his parents reveal that they sold his soul to the Devil before he was born. Rather than pack up Sam and haul him to the Nether Reaches, Mephistopheles (Ray Wise) consigns the kid to spend the rest of his days hunting down--and sending back--souls that've escaped from Hell.

So the show's central schtick consists of each of these renegade souls manifesting themselves in especially potent demonic tangible form on earth, and Sam being given a Vessel of Soul Collection (in the pilot, it was a Dust Buster) that he's gotta use to collect the Demon of the Week. Then the reluctant reaper drops said freshly-acquired Fugitive off at the closest Hell Portal in his neighborhood (the local DMV Office, natch).

The show's received a lot of comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the resemblance is pretty superficial. Reaper's way more of a comedy, heavy on the snark. And it's a good one, for the most part.

Quibbles first: This Seattle-set program sports transparently Vancouver exteriors, and there's an anti-education slant to the whole show that's a little galling: Sam's smart and charming would-be-more-than-just-a-friend Andi (Missi Peregrym, formerly of Heroes) is given an astonishing amount of pressure to forego her dreams of college to stay in a holding pattern with her pals at the Work Bench. Hey, Sam, smart girls are cool: I married one.

And speaking of smart girls, after three episodes Sam has not only revealed his extra-stringent part-time job from (actual) Hell to his two best buds, Sock (Taylor Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez), they help him on his missions; and yet he still can't level with Andi about his activities. It's starting to become an annoying contrivance.

But them's just quibbles. Reaper packs more belly-laughs in one episode than most so-called sitcoms can fart up in five seasons, and the cast could hardly be better. Oliver's vulnerable, likeable, and really funny, and Gonzalez and Labine are utter sidekick gold: Labine's exquisite combination of sharp wit and screw-it-all crudeness, in particular, reminds me of one of the most caustically funny human beings I've ever met in my life--Namely my brother John. The mundane details of the Work Bench (replete with useless stuff that suddenly finds the oddest use, obnoxious customers, and sycophantic bosses) likewise hit the proverbial nail on the head. Partial credit for a lot of the latter should likely belong to Kevin Smith, director of the pilot and ongoing series adviser, who knows a thing or two about the comedic possibilities of dead-end jobs from Hell.

Even with all that's going for it, though, it's only appropriate that Reaper's MVP would be Satan himself. Ray Wise plays Old Scratch with an irresistible blend of used car salesman, Rat Pack smoothie, and surrogate cheerleader, and in an unsurprising but still entertaining moral flip-flop he ends up being a better parent than Sam's flesh and blood. Give or take the soul-eating.

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