(Premieres tonight on The CW, 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT)
So far on this T.V. Club adventure I've had the pleasure of covering two shows about 20something retail-workin' shlubs who get wrapped up in fantastic situations far beyond their wildest dreams because of a strange (and not at all contrived) twist of fate. The first is Chuck, which kinda sucks (at least so far). The second is Reaper, which so completely gets right what Chuck gets wrong that now I think Chuck really sucks (at least so far). While Chuck works way too hard to be an adorably clever slacker comedy in some scenes, and a hot-shit spy show in others–failing on both counts–the Reaper pilot gracefully established a sturdy supernatural premise good for 10 or 100 more episodes, a light comic tone that was instantly appealing, and several potentially interesting story threads involving soul-hunting protagonist Sam (Bret Harrison) and various supporting characters. Pilots aren't always the best indicator of how good a show is going to be, and a great one can be like fool's gold–cough, Studio 60, cough–but if Reaper can build off its impressive opener and find an audience, it could become that rare fantasy show capable of delivering comedy, horror, and drama in a perfectly satisfying package.
If that doesn't get Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans excited, I don't know what will. Buffy fans will definitely see shades of their beloved Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle in Reaper: Sam has just turned 21, and feels a pre-quarter-life crisis coming on because he's still living at home and working the same job at the Home Depot-like store he's had since he was 16. Part of Sam's problem is that his parents never pushed him to succeed, and finally he finds out why: they sold his soul to the devil before he was born, and he's coming to collect now that Sam is of legal drinking age. Sam gets a few hints that things aren't quite right before then–he saves his work crush Andi (Missy Peregrym) from a falling box using previously undiscovered telekinetic powers, and a pack of wild dogs chase him through the store a la Raising Arizona–but it's not until the devil himself (Twin Peaks' Ray Wise) appears that Sam learns that he has a new job as Satan's bounty hunter, tracking down damned souls that have escaped from Hell and bringing them back. His only tool? A mini-vac. (Dirt Devil, of course.) His only instructions? Bring the souls to any place that seems like Hell on Earth, like the DMV. Sam, understandably, is less than thrilled by the news, but his wise-cracking buddy Bert "Sock" Wysocki (Tyler Labine, channeling Jack Black) is totally game, and recognizes that this is the very purpose in life Sam has been searching for.
Reaper is to Buffy what 28 Days Later was to Night Of The Living Dead–a thoughtful meditation on an older work's themes that still manages to bring something new to the table. Reaper is also a lot funnier than Buffy. As Sam, Harrison spends much of the pilot acting as a straight man for hilarious scene-stealers Labine (who might grate on Jack Black haters, though he's more High Fidelity Jack than "every other comedy he's done" Jack) and the charmingly brilliant Wise (who really should have a starring role on every new TV show this season). But Harrison is an appropriately level-headed center of gravity for Reaper, especially in an emotional scene where he lies to his mom about his new job in order to alleviate her guilt over, you know, handing him over to The Beast. If Reaper is given the chance to progress and blossom, Sam's process of coming to grips with his parents' betrayal while hiding the devil's work will likely become the source of the show's emotional resonance. But Sam's relationships with the other characters–Sock, Andi, The Devil, his over-achieving brother Kyle–already seem pretty solidly sketched out, and could head off into any number of potentially rich directions.
Since Reaper could be canceled next month, I won't speculate further on which direction it might take. For now I'll just savor what I saw, and politely beg you to watch.
Grade: A-Stray observations
--The only bad thing about Reaper is the name. It sounds like one of those generic one-hour dramas that air Saturday nights on CBS.
--A lot of the actors on Reaper look like other actors. Along with Rabine's obvious Jack Black routine–which isn't annoying yet--Bret Harrison is very Jason Biggs-esque and Missy Peregrym looks exactly like Hilary Swank.
--Big ups for the inclusion of !!!'s "Myth Takes," which was just waiting to end up in a movie or TV show. Two great songs about devils–Beck's "Devil's Haircut" and 22/20's "Devil In Me"–also are on the soundtrack.
--The Devil's favorite drink? Root beer. Is it just me or does that sound about right?