(Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

The characters of Ghosted are thinly sketched, mostly by design; elaborate backstories or character notes would get in the way of what the show does best: allowing Craig Robinson and Adam Scott to go riffing down whatever conversational holes or weird Matrix jokes catch their fancy. The show’s logline made a big deal out of the Mulder-Scully relationship between Max and Leroy, but it’s been backburnered so hard at this point that it’s essentially in another restaurant. “Sam” is the first episode since the pilot to really use those character descriptions—stoic, hard-nosed cop vs. deranged true believer—to any actual effect, and it manages to elevate a standard “evil computer plot” up a couple notches of fun in the process.

The trouble tonight starts when Captain LaFrey leaves Annie in charge of the Bureau Underground offices, allowing her to get tricked into installing an A.I. assistant—the titular Sam, played with a fun mixture of “Hey buddy!” obsequiousness and subtle menace by guest star Dax Shepard—on the Bureau’s computers. The episode’s plot feints in the direction of a couple different “evil computer” tropes—Is Sam manipulating Max to be his new best friend? Is there something evil in his cappuccions, which are “too beautiful to drink?”—before revealing that Sam’s real game is to use Max’s inherently unstable nature and off-kilter energy against him, with an eye on potential global domination.

The end result is a great showcase for Adam Scott, who gets to play every note in Max’s deeply broad character as he battles against Sam’s campaign of character assassination: The obliviously annoying officemate, the whackjob conspiracy theorist, and even the wounded, fundamentally good guy Scott allows to occasionally peek out from under his more cartoonishly irritatingly mannerisms. It helps that he doesn’t soft-sell the “crazy Max” beats of the plot; it would be easy to write off Annie and Leroy as assholes here for believing their new computer buddy over their long-time friend and partner, but Scott plays “unhinged” well enough that it’s not that huge of a leap. (The idea that Max’s breaking point was Leroy’s new friendship with generic BU background guy Tyler is a little less plausible, if only because I don’t share the show’s endless faith in the comic possibilities of contrasting Max’s neediness with Leroy’s cool guy demeanor.)

(Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

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“Sam” has all the usual Ghosted plotting foibles; characters just sort of drift in and out of the script at necessary—LaFrey’s E-plot here is literally two sentences with some anonymous old friend on a lunch date, and then two more in the stinger—and Sam is eventually defeated when Leroy shoots a mall-issue quadcopter while Max mashes blindly at a keyboard.

But the jokes are there, especially Barry’s very specific insistence that all of his techno-paranoia comes from The Matrix Reloaded—he was told he could skip the first movie—and all the little, annoying ways Sam finds to worm his way into people’s confidences. (Shepard’s hastily improvised birdcalls are a nice touch.) We also get a few top-notch Scott and Robinson runners, most notably the fake-but-not-that-fake beating Leroy gives Max, while desperately trying to come up with a better outraged insult than “Scoundrel!” Add in one of Adam Scott’s best performances on the series to date (his screechy insistence that his voice wasn’t getting higher while being asked about his Tyler-jealousy was one of tonight’s most laugh-out-loud moments), a great guest star turn from Shepard, and reliably funny bits from Robinson and Adeel Akhtar, and it mostly managed to cover the cost of admission, script-level annoyances or not.

The Bureau really needs to invest in some blast doors that can stand up to an average metal trash can. (Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

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Stray observations

  • Ghosted never struggles more visibly than when it tries to tie up a plot thread by laying out a big, emotional character moment. Amber Stevens West and Ally Walker try their damndest to sell Annie’s attempted resignation at the end, but it just doesn’t land.
  • West gets a lot more more out of that amusingly awkward “Handler Bing” joke, though.
  • I would love to see Ghosted do more monster-hunting cold opens like the nun-busting battle that kicked off this week’s episode; not only does it make Max and Leroy’s work seem more like a regular job, but it also got us Leroy’s tale of a random meth-head with a grudge against Royals Pains.
  • Leroy, describing his “mood”: “Sexy, yet dangerous. Like playing saxophone in a lightning storm.”
  • “Thank you, Barry. You make me feel like a very brave man.”
  • I laughed when Sam accused a monitor-smashing Max of destroying “$80 worth of Bureau property.”
  • Leroy, regretfully telling Max he thinks he’s dangerous: “Which is weird, because your last name is Jennifer, which I’d forgotten.”
  • “You forgot my last name?!”
  • Evil computers are one of “the top three things” Leroy swore would never get past his walls.
  • Shepard was good all-around, but the mean-spirited read on “Well, the chances of convincing all your friends you’re crazy? That was very easy, Max,” was pleasantly chilling.
  • Of course Max puts mayonnaise on his fries. “It’s the superior condiment!”
  • I continue to get nothing out of the scenes that play during the credits; they feel like listless improv 90 percent of the time.

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