(Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

There’s an almost-admirable bluntness to the way Fox’s new paranormal parody Ghosted skips over normal TV niceties to give its audience what they’ve clearly tuned in to see: Adam Scott and Craig Robinson, trapped in a van together, and riffing on Alex Trebek. It takes exactly three scenes for the show to get our two stars together in the same dimly-lit room: One to establish Scott as a helpfully neurotic Mulder-type, one to demonstrate Robinson’s status as a taciturn smartass who secretly cares, and one that no one is going to care about, because neither Adam Scott or Craig Robinson is in it.

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That’s Ghosted in a nutshell: Two of the funniest performers working in TV comedy, surrounded by a backdrop that seems to have been intentionally drabbed down to heighten the contrast whenever they’re on-screen. Unfortunately, that attitude hits the show’s supporting cast especially hard: Take Ally Walker’s Captain Ava Lafrey, the officer who inducts Max Jennifer (Scott) and Leroy Wright (Robinson) into the bare-bones X-Files world of the show’s resident secret paranormal research agency, the Bureau Underground. In the original version of the pilot, Walker at least got a joke or two stuck in around Scott and Robinson’s obvious improvs; here, her role could have been easily replaced with a text card laying out the episode’s requisite exposition. Carmichael Show alum Amber Stevens West is hardly allowed to fare much better; her resident tech expert, Annie, at least gets a few weird line readings to work with, but she’s otherwise a total cipher. The only non-Max-and-Leroy character allowed any real latitude to be weird or funny is Barry, a nebulously defined “scientist” played by Adeel Akhtar (who gave a memorable appearance earlier this year as Kumail Nanjiani’s brother in The Big Sick). Nervous and aggressively polite, Barry seems like the only supporting character in this comedy show who’s actually been designed to be funny, rather than as someone for Scott and Robinson to be funny at.

(Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

Meanwhile, the show’s paranormal elements feel just as perfunctory, to the point where their slapdash nature occasionally feels like part of the joke. This is the sort of big, shadowy conspiracy that can be thwarted by a couple of guys dressed up as fake fax machine repairmen, and action scenes and threats that have a lot more in common with Scooby-Doo, all panicked running and desperate cries for help, than any actual attempt at suspense. Ghosted does occasionally flirt with some actual sci-fi weirdness—the visual of Max and Leroy fighting with a screaming severed head while its unattached body tries to hunt them down carries at least a little bit of a punch—but it’s always merely a background to the next round of jokes.

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So why is a show with this many easily spotted flaws walking away with such a high grade? Because, to some extent, Ghosted’s instinct to sideline everything else in favor of Scott and Robinson is actually right on the money. Individually or together, these guys are damn funny, and their dynamic is arguably strong enough to carry an entire 22-minute comedy entirely on its back. Scott is playing in one of his higher registers, pitching his Max at his most oblivious and helpful in a way that seems aptly designed to dance all over Leroy’s nerves. Robinson, meanwhile, is playing a character he’s perfected over the years, the world-weary guy who can’t believe the idiocy he’s being asked to deal with, over and over again. But underneath Max and Leroy’s bickering is the undeniable sense of Adam and Craig, two guys clearly enjoying the hell out of trying to make the other break, and perfectly in tune with each other’s comedic vibes. The pair even manage to land the pilot’s few stabs at drama; when Leroy confesses that he got his old partner on the LAPD killed, there’s real pathos to it, and when Max bluntly states that he needs this last chance to un-ruin his life, Scott makes it feel like an actual plea.

(Photo: Kevin Estrada/Fox)

The most damning thing you can say about Ghosted is that, as it stands, it fails the question frequently asked by the late Roger Ebert (and credited to his old partner, Gene Siskel): “Is your project more entertaining than watching a similar-length film of these same actors simply sitting down to dinner together and shooting the shit?” Ghosted’s answer to that question right now is a clear no; the show desperately needs to flesh out its supporting cast if the antics of the Bureau Underground are ever going to cross the relatively low bar necessary to take the “paranormal investigation” side of the series’ equation seriously. But while there are a lot of shows, especially comedy pilots, that struggle to calibrate their characters properly right out of the gate, few of them are gifted with a comic voice that’s as strong as the one Robinson and Scott have brought to the table here. Ghosted needs some critical tweaks if it’s going to succeed as anything more than a series of funny scenes, but it proves that, when it comes to comedy, you can actually get pretty damn far on charm alone.

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Stray observations

  • “You know, even if I was crazy, it doesn’t mean you can’t buy the book for your husband. They’re unrelated!” Some days, you just can’t sell Kulap Vilaysack a book.
  • Leroy, chastising a guy pissing in the mall’s fountain: “Other crazy people gotta drink out of there!”
  • I appreciate that Max and Leroy go from “kind of calm” to angrily yelling at each other in less than 10 seconds after meeting.
  • Lafrey calls the agent Max and Leroy are tasked with rescuing “Mike Checker,” but his phone lists his name as “Kurt.” Conspiracy theory? Or spooooOOOOoooky continuity error?
  • “You were a brilliant astrophysicist, but Stanford—they called you crazy.” Walker almost makes the bluntness of these early expository scenes feel like a joke, but they’re so ham-fisted it’s hard to appreciate. (Ditto the snappily edited introductions to the team, and the scenes where Leroy and Max show that they actually know their stuff. This episode spends a lot of time laying groundwork in a not-especially elegant way.)
  • I want to hear more about Leroy’s status among his Panera-bread-loving crew. Jerry sounds like a troublemaker.
  • “You have 48 hours.” “Is that from right now? Or when we got kidnapped, or…”
  • Robinson aggressively singing “Higher Love” will never not make me laugh.
  • The stand-out scene of the episode is the fax machine “infiltration,” at least partly on the strength of Sarah Baker’s under-reactions to all of the nonsense happening in front of her.
  • Leroy on alternate universes: “I think we got the best Kevin Spacey.”

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