This article was originally published in the Den of Geek magazine SDCC special edition. Click here to view the full issue.
Fox’s new series Ghosted might have the greatest elevator pitch of all time.
It’s The X-Files as a half-hour comedy! It’s Ghostbusters in LA! It’s This is the End, the TV series! If the elevator ride were long enough, you could just cycle through all of those pitches and more. Beverly Hills Cop could come up—maybe Stranger Things or even The Leftovers.
For the actor portraying one of the lead characters, however, no off-the-wall, high-concept elevator pitch was needed after he read the initial script.
“I read it, and it was like a badass black dude with an afro in his car peeling around the corner, and I was like ‘that’s me!’” star Craig Robinson says.
Yes, Fox’s upcoming show Ghosted is about as high-concept as half-hour comedies get, which is fitting for the network that pioneered the “apocalyptic TV comedy” genre with Last Man on Earth, not to mention the show that kicked off a renewed golden age for sci-fi/horror on TV in The X-Files. The new series stars Robinson (The Office, This is the End) and his Hot Tub Time Machine 2 co-lead and friend, Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation, Big Little Lies). Robinson plays a cop, and Scott plays a Stanford professor, before they’re turned into a pair of paranormal investigators.
While struggling with private lives filled with mystery and misery, Max Jennifer (Scott) and Leroy Wright (Robinson) are recruited into the Bureau Underground, a secret society that investigates the paranormal. What kind of paranormal activity? The pilot alone features a man with a removable head, a car being drawn into the air by a glowing red light, and Leroy’s perfect rendition of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Granted, one of those isn’t exactly paranormal, but it might as well be.
But while the weirdness is probably intriguing enough for many to tune in, the real appeal for those involved goes beyond mere premise.
Creator Tom Gormican (best known for writing and directing That Awkward Moment) developed the role of Leroy specifically for Robinson and approached the actor with a shortened version of the pilot script.
“It played like I was a higher version of myself,” Robinson says. “I was like, ‘This dude is bad!’ I love it. It’s gone through some changes since that first synopsis, but I still love the character.”
Those changes involved beefing up the paranormal premise and, more importantly, introducing a buddy cop dynamic by giving Robinson’s Leroy a partner to both clash and bond with: disgraced ex-professor Max.
According to Gormican, who will run the show alongside TV vet Kevin Etten (Workaholics), the idea to expand the cast came from Robinson.
“It was a one-hander at the time just for Craig,” he recalls. “It was a character that I thought would be fun to see him play—someone investigating the paranormal. It was a riff on the Beverly Hills Cop character. This badass cop, and it was set at the time in New York. It was something I hadn’t seen him do and something I knew he could do. He was really excited about it and then he said, ‘Hey, let’s get Adam Scott.’ Then the show was built out and changed into a real two-hander.”
Gormican clearly appreciates having a show with such a unique premise and also landing two ludicrously charismatic movie stars for leads.
“The initiation of the idea was basically looking at the things that were on TV and the things that were not,” he says. “There was no real horror-comedy on TV. Nothing that is like an ‘80s or early ‘90s show with a central relationship. And then combine that with our love for The X-Files. Getting Craig and Adam on very early is how the whole thing coalesced.”
The actors’ and producers’ faith and interest in character-driven storytelling and humor is well-earned. The pilot for a show with such a divergent concept should be at least watchable, but Robinson and Scott’s effortless chemistry makes it something even more unusual and borderline paranormal for a pilot: good.
The exposition burden on a pilot for such a high-concept show is massive and Ghosted just gleefully burns through it all in 22 minutes and saves plenty of time for jokes. Of course, it helps when one scientist character declares to our kidnapped heroes a few minutes in, “I’m Barry. I’m your kidnapper. I work for a top secret government agency and that’s all I can tell you about that!” and then immediately follows up with: “Okay, that’s not very fair. I work for The Bureau Underground. We investigate the paranormal.”
The X-Files is a clear inspiration and jumping off point. That’s inescapable when two characters, one a skeptic and the other a true believer, are assigned to investigate the paranormal. Max fills the “Mulder” role as the character who genuinely believes in the supernatural. He’s a former Stanford professor, now a disgraced bookstore employee creeping out customers by casually revealing that his wife was abducted by aliens.
Leroy is more grounded in reality, or in X-Files terms, the “Scully.” He’s been kicked off the LAPD for an incident involving his partner and is hesitant to join in on any of these paranormal shenanigans. Sometimes “Scullys” don’t work so well on television, as their admirable pursuit of the rational can veer toward the delusional in light of all the clearly paranormal events they’re witnessing.
Ghosted is well aware of that dynamic and while it promises to keep Leroy firmly in the world of the rational, the showrunners want to keep a level of ambiguity to “protect” the character.
“Ambiguity is important to us,” executive producer and showrunner Kevin Etten says. “It needs to be something that is seemingly paranormal or could have a real world, rational explanation. Keeping that dynamic alive was important—with Max being a true believer and Leroy having a rational point of view. We want to protect the character [Leroy] in that dynamic. As the series goes on, it will get more and more open to the paranormal but it’s not where it starts.”
For as important as the characters are to Robinson, and as intriguing as the concept is to, well, everyone else, Gormican is focused on making sure the tone works.
“One thing that was important to us tonally is keeping the show actually scary while being funny, having real characters, and keeping a real sense of danger,” he says. “When you’re trying to hit on what amounts to a new tone, the details are important. It’s everything—whether it’s story design, the set, the actors and how they’re playing it, it all creates this kind of tone.”
The focus on character and tone is encouraging. Gormican even references Stranger Things in passing as the kind of mood the show is looking to establish, and the pilot goes a long way in doing so. Everything from set design to music is eerily reminiscent of an ‘80s pastiche, while somehow remaining undeniably modern. But for all the investment in tone and character, there are still two “m” words that viewers are hoping to hear.
“Tom has this whole mythology to go with the program,” Robinson says. “It’s about multiverses and stuff. He’s into it big time.”
Gormican confirms that there is indeed mythology and multiverses, and other weird stuff.
“The multiverse plays into the overarching mythology of the show,” he says, before adding: “You don’t often see ‘mythology’ and ‘multiverse’ in a half-hour.”
You sure don’t, and certainly not on network TV. That’s the real promise of Ghosted. Viewers have been sitting around for years, waiting like good boys and girls, for sci-fi/horror/nerd culture to seep from cable back onto “normal” television. Ghosted debuts on Sunday, Oct. 1, smack-dab between The Simpsons and Family Guy, and the notion of alternate universes being casually discussed between trips to Springfield and Quahog should be exciting to all.
Robinson says that in real life, he’s more of the “believer,” while Scott is the skeptic.
“I just know I’ve seen some things out there. Adam is just the opposite. And our characters are opposite. In the show I’m the cynic, skeptic and he’s the true believer. In real life I’m like ‘I’ve seen ghosts,’ and he just says ‘ehhh, I don’t believe it.’”
In discussing some of his favorite moments on-set, however, Robinson lets slip that Scott might at least believe in predetermination.
“When we were filming, I was like, ‘Yeah, Adam is correct.’ We’re supposed to do this. This was meant to be.”
That’s TV for you. Turning Scullys into Mulders every day.
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