And with that, we come to the end of what I’ve already started thinking of as Ghosted 1.0. In case you haven’t been keeping up with all the hottest Fox supernatural sitcom news, the network granted some extra life to the series this week, extending its first-season order by an additional six episodes. But those six extra half-hours came with a pretty major behind-the-scenes caveat, one that feels like a direct attempt to address the aimlessness that’s dogged the series ever since it aired its pilot back in October: Kevin Etten is out as showrunner, replaced by The Office and The Newsroom’s Paul Lieberstein.
Etten’s last big credit before Ghosted was Comedy Central’s Workaholics, and he’s presumably a large part of why so many of that well-loved slacker series’ alumni have shown up here, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s also easy to attribute some of the show’s looseness to him, and for good and ill: Ghosted has gotten a lot of laughs out of just letting Craig Robinson and Adam Scott riff, but it’s also had its fair share of episodes worn down by a shrugging sense of, “Well, what do we do next?”
Lieberstein, meanwhile, is someone I’m more familiar with as an actor, despite his much larger catalog of work behind the scenes. The rumor—possibly fueled by a general impression of Toby-ness—is that he’ll be retooling Ghosted to focus more on the office comedy elements lurking in the show’s DNA. That makes me a little nervous, given that the office banter has been where I feel like Ghosted has struggled the most this year—especially when it comes to giving the talented Amber Stevens West and Ally Walker anything meaningful or funny to do—but if it gives the show an identity beyond the half-hearted X-Files parody it’s never actually managed to be, I’ll consider it a win.
It’s kind of a shame, though; tonight’s episode, “Haunted Hayride”—written by Etten and Tom Gormican—is one of Ghosted’s strongest outings yet, as close to a platonic episode of what this show could have been in its first incarnation as we’re ever likely to get. It’s normal for a series to double down on its base identity during a finale (as this would have been, had the network failed to expand its order), but Ghosted is in the strange position of never having set those clear expectations up to begin with. Still, “Haunted Hayride” makes a belated case for the things that could still make this show great, instead of merely funny, mostly by strengthening both Max and Leroy’s normally lightweight characterizations considerably.
We start off strong, with a cold open that eschews monster-hunting in favor of watching the two partners go down a rabbit hole of rule-based oneupsmanship, putting together an elaborate scoring system for their carpool take on that old road trip standby, the license plate alphabet game. So much of Ghosted’s best material is technically filler, as Scott and Robinson push each other in weirder and weirder directions, and the mounting absurdity of the game’s rules—punctuated by the visual gag of the scrawled post-it notes slapped on the windshield—is a great way to lure viewers into the episode’s vibe. (Ditto the bit where Leroy tricks Max into wolfing down a pair of hamburgers in the space of a minute, an utterly pointless bit of silliness that nevertheless made me laugh.)
Once the pair arrive at the Bureau proper, meanwhile, Etten and Gormican’s script takes the strongest stab yet at selling the “skeptic vs. true believer” conflict that’s supposedly been powering the show to date. The trick here is Adam Scott’s read on Max; so many times over the course of the show’s first season, he’s been so busy playing the goofy, needy guy to Robinson’s stern older brother that the character’s passion for the weird has frequently been overshadowed. Here, he’s legitimately fierce about his belief in the supernatural—in this case, as applied to the titular haunted hayride—and there’s some actually interesting character conflict to the way he butts heads with his partner about the best way to investigate the case. (Even if Leroy’s continued lack of belief in the supernatural seems more contrarian and dumb every time we see it, given all the giant fish monsters and axe-wielding ghosts these two run into from week to week.)
Of course, the episode undercuts this actual drama by having Captain LaFrey blatantly gin up some of the fake variety, by telling both members of the pair that they’re secretly the leader of the team. But hey, at least this weird little detour gets us the story of condom-hating condom-maker Chet Stetson, a lovely little bit of Scott comedic floundering. And while the episode’s climax—in which Max demands that Leroy help him like a partner, even if he doesn’t believe in any of this supernatural shit—swings a little hard for the heartstrings, I have enough goodwill for these guys at this point that it still kind of works.
Part of me wonders if, had “Haunted Hayride” been Ghosted’s second episode, instead of its eighth, we’d be having a very different conversation about the fate of its creative team. This feels like a real refinement of the ideas that got tossed into a blender back in the show’s over-stuffed pilot, giving its two leads distinct identities beyond “Adam and Craig, telling jokes,” tightening up the monster-of-the-week plot (which still ends on an absurd deus ex machina, but at least aimlessly wastes less time in doing so), and still bringing the funny line after line. (Leroy’s constant whining about his missing shoe in the woods is a Craig Robinson series highlight.) Ghosted 1.0 was a strangely meandering show, one that admittedly made me laugh a lot, usually in spite of its wayward creative choices. Here’s hoping that “Haunted Hayride” points in the direction of something stronger when the show comes back under new management to finish out its first-season run.
- Despite the shake-up, the show appears to be doing really well, ratings-wise. By all accounts, its the second-most-watched new comedy series of the fall.
- God bless whichever costume wizard put Max in his own version of Michael J. Fox’s letter jacket from Teen Wolf, complete with a big M (presumably for “Max”.)
- LaFrey gets almost nothing to do this week, but her “No” when Barry asked to be nicknamed “Swampcat” was a well-timed thing of beauty.
- “Swampcat’s dead, I want to be SugarBarry.” Good Barry episode overall, in fact.
- I don’t have a DVR, so I’m not going to get the letters exactly right, but Adam Scott’s halting read on fake amusement park regulatory body NAPSBAC(?) made me laugh out loud.
- “Don’t smile at me, write this stuff down!”
- I was weirdly excited to see the guys walk through the hanger company’s lobby. This show often feels like it exists on isolated sound stages, so anything that gives the Bureau a sense of place is welcome.
- “I’ve been four times myself, I have a discount code I’m not allowed to share.”
- I didn’t catch who was playing the zombie who “once scared Ellen DeGeners so bad she dropped a load in here jeans,” but it was a great little one-off part.
- “Cool! I love learning about fake stuff!” It’s Leroy’s enthusiastic nod that sells it.
- The actual ghost rated a 6 or 7 on the Ghosted “how scary is this monster” scale, which is, like, a 3 almost anywhere else.
- At one point, my notes just say, “This seems like a pretty fun hayride!”
- “Damn, that’s a big-ass pinecone!”
- “Hey sluts, how’s my slut army doing?!” Not every teenager you save from an evil ghost is actually going to be great.