Why US comedy Reaper deserves more love
American comedy Reaper was the slacker Supernatural. With great writing, great jokes and Ray Wise, what more could you want?
At the time of writing, the American television networks’ ‘fall’ season of 2015 is a month or so around the corner. It’s still a month until Doctor Who comes back, and worryingly close to that time of the year when The X-Factor is gobbling up Saturday nights around the UK. Essentially, we reckon you could be looking for a new show to binge-watch right about now.
To help you out, the Article Ideas Team here at Geek Towers fired up their Underappreciated TV Shows That Need More Love Machine (patent pending) and cooked you up a recommendation – Reaper.
‘What the frick is Reaper?’, you may or may not be thinking. To the former camp – those with a joyous first watch ahead of them – Reaper was a supernatural comedy hosted by The CW for a tragically short two-season run between 2007 and 2009. Here in the UK, it found a late-night home on E4.
It earned itself a decent-sized cult following, but not enough regular viewers to convince the necessary big-wigs to keep stuffing money into the show. Reaper has only gained geek credibility since its demise, too, with its creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters moving on to executive produce and write for Marvel Studios’ Agent Carter. The duo also worked on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the year after Reaper met its end.
Naturally, we know that you already have a sizeable collection of cancelled TV shows solemnly stashed away in your hearts and minds. Do you really need another one? Can your heartstrings take another tragic tale of a televised story cut short, and an ultimate ending that you’ll never get to see? Well, we hope so, because Reaper has an awful lot to offer, as both a fun way to while away 31 hours of your life, and as a compelling story with very likeable characters.
N.B.: we’ve avoided major spoilers in the article below, but it’s impossible to talk about the show in any detail without giving a few plot points away. We promise, though – we’ve only included a spoiler when we’ve absolutely had to, and we don’t think they’ll harm your enjoyment of the show.
Read on to find out why this writer loves Reaper so much, and why you should check it out…
Like all good TV shows, Reaper’s strength starts with the basic concept. The show is centred on Sam Oliver, an everyman so everyman-ish that even his surname is a popular male moniker. He’s essentially a loser. He lives at home, and lacks an education because college ‘made him sleepy.’ By day he’s employed by Work Bench, a home-repair store where the subject of his affections (Andi) works, too. Naturally, though, he does a lot more pining over her than anything else.
Soon enough, Reaper thrusts Sam into a supernatural adventure – he’s recruited by the Devil to help him track down souls that have escaped from Hell. Sam is unable to turn down the proposition (not for lack of trying), seeing as his parents happen to have sold his soul to the devil.
They had good reason, to be fair – Sam’s dad was very sick, and a clean bill of health was being dangled like a carrot on a stick by Satan himself, here reimagined as a bit of a middle-aged Patrick Bateman type who constantly tries to convince Sam that he’s a cool guy, despite the whole Lord Of Hell thing and the fact that he’s threatening to claim Sam’s mum’s soul if her son fails.
So, Sam reluctantly accepts Satan’s offer, and recruits his slacker buddies Sock and Ben to help him out. Over the course of the series’ lifespan, Satan gifts the gang with a series of whacky ‘vessels’ with which to catch a seemingly endless slew of demons, who themselves have an array of weird powers. Over the course of the season, Satan gives Sam some special abilities in order to get the job done, too.
It’s a fairly off-the-wall set up, which essentially makes Reaper a slacker comedy version of Supernatural. The high concept nature of the show is established with ease from the start, though, with Kevin Smith in the director’s chair for a near-faultless pilot episode.
The likeability of Reaper hinged on the likeability of its protagonist, Sam. Cast in the role was Bret Harrison (seen previously in The O.C, The Loop, and That ‘70s Show, seen since in V, Breaking In and The Astronaut Wives Club), who stepped up in a big way to anchor the show.
He brought a humble do-gooder attitude to the role, coupled with his expert portrayal of a lazy man-child who’d rather stay in and play video games than attempt to save the world, get the girl or improve his lot in life in any way. If it weren’t for Satan showing up, Sam would probably have stayed at the Work Bench his entire life.
Actually, thinking about it, Sam probably stayed at the Work Bench his entire life even though Satan showed up. Being introduced to a work of superpowers and demons didn’t exactly inspire him to do anything besides what he had to do in order to save his mum.
Essentially, Sam is ‘one of us’, and Mr Harrison plays up to it very well. Heftier material does arise eventually, though, pushing Sam’s family into more danger and forcing Sam to question everything about it life. When it comes to the crunch, Bret Harrison turns Sam from a relatable everyman to a heartfelt hero in the making, and it’s a shame that he never got to take that arc any further. With Satan trying to make Sam his ‘right hand man’ and the heir to Hell itself towards the end of season two, there was probably a lot more dark material to come, as well.
The series doesn’t allow the role of Sam to stagnate, either, with the Devil gifting Sam with different powers as the show goes on (including some heavy hitters like telekinesis). Sam’s temper comes in handy, too, as it endows him with some super strength from time to time.
All in all, Sam is an unlikely hero, and a funny one too. Debatably, he may not get all the biggest laughs, but he’s a solid foundation for the show.
The supporting cast
The cast of Reaper is packed with comedic performers, and the biggest stand-outs laugh-wise were probably Tyler Labine and Rick Gonzalez, who played Bert ‘Sock’ Sysocki and Ben Gonzalez respectively. These two were Sam’s mates who got roped into helping him track down and trap escaped souls, essentially making them a trio of bumbling bounty hunters. Their friendship is the heart of the show, offering some genuinely heartfelt moments throughout.
Sock is so lazy that he makes Sam look productive, and he holds the lowly honour of worst-performing salesperson at Work Bench. Tyler Labine echoes shades of Jack Black in High Fidelity in this best-friend-who-will-help-if-he-absolutely-has-to role. Excluding Satan himself (who has the unfair advantage of being the show’s undisputable MVP) from the count, Sock arguably brings the lion’s share of laughs. Not least when his stepsister arrives on the scene in season 2.
Ben is another Work Bench layabout, who goes on a fairly sizeable journey from comic relief to fan favourite over the course of the series’ short shelf life. If you compare the pilot to the end of season two, it’s clear that the writers took to Ben and expanded his role significantly. His season two romance with a demon called Nina (played by Jenny Wade) is a side-plot highlight.
The Work Bench crew is beefed out by hugely annoying boss Ted (played by Donavon Stinson), and Sam’s love interest (and sometime manager) Andi (played by Missy Peregrym). In terms of guffaws, Andi isn’t given a huge amount to work with, but she’s a vital part of the show. Her affection for Sam feels genuine, and the character becomes much more interesting once she is brought in on his Satanic secret.
Reaper’s core cast offers a lot, then, through both laughs and their adorable unifying friendship. One of the biggest highlights comes in a tiny role, though – Christine Willes as Gladys, a flirtatious demon who works at the DMV while secretly monitoring a portal to hell.
Everyone has the same favourite character from Reaper, though…
If there’s one reason to watch Reaper, it’s Ray Wise’s portrayal of the Devil (AKA Jerry Belvedere). Ray Wise’s Lucifer is oddly likeable, smarmily debonair and utterly evil all at once. He’s the show’s MVP, and could be described as a we-love-to-hate-him character if we all didn’t simply outright love him. See here if you want a taste of him in action [“I knew the real prodigal son, you know? Guy was an ass!”].
The structure of the Devil’s appearances in Reaper is playful in itself, with him usually summoning an unaware Sam away from his life, having a go at him, and then disappearing just as annoyingly without bringing him back to where he was originally. These little chats normally involve a few gags, an outlandish request and a backhanded pep talk.
Oddly enough, though, there is a sense of heart to Reaper’s portrayal of the Devil. By fleshing out the role with a smarmy persona – rather than just making him an unlikeable evil villain – the writing staff made Ray Wise’s character much more personable than the same concept could have been, if it was handled by a different production team.
Ray Wise’s character is bulked out further with some hilarious tiny details about this version of Satan. To name just two: he runs an Alcoholics Anonymous circle where he blatantly teases his addicted attendees, and he loves the taste of ice cream cones even though he can’t actually hold one, because it would melt in his firey grip.
All this character-building and interspersing of intricate details makes it all the more shocking when the Devil lets loose the evil side of his persona. Wise manages to flit between loveable taskmaster and menacing villain at a second’s notice, undercutting laughs with tension when the narrative demands it.
Even if you’re not convinced that a supernaturally-tinged slacker comedy is your cup of tea, Ray Wise will probably be enough to keep you watching if you stick through the opening episode.
And finally, we’d just like to devote some praise to the quality of writing on display in Reaper. When you look at the structure of the two seasons, there’s a hell of a juggling act going on. As well as the selection of funny characters that we’ve detailed already, there’s an intricate plot that really deserved to last for more than two years.
Sam’s relationship with the Devil is arguably the most impressive strand, as Lucifer continues to push Sam further into evildoing and regularly torments his personal life, too. Sam’s character gets darker as the show goes along, which was clearly Satan’s plan from the start.
Weaved into this is the freak-of-the-week element, which keeps intrigue levels high and makes sure there’s always some action going on to distract Sam from the Devil’s manipulation while serving up some laughs for the audience.
On top of this, there’s the long-form mystery of Sam’s parents, which is ultimately left dangling at the end of season two. Without wanting to give anything away, there’s definitely more going on in their life, and more secrets hidden in their past, than Sam has been allowed to know. This feels like it was Reaper’s endgame arc, and it’s a shame that we never got to see it play out.
And, within all this, there’s a sweet almost-sitcom about four co-workers (Sam, Sock, Ben and Andi) who get thrust into a new silly situation every week, which offers big funnies on a regular basis. The difference between this and some actual sitcoms, though, is that these characters – and the relationships between them – do actually develop over time. It’s an intricate weave between long-form story, weekly adventure and outright comedy, and for the most part it’s handled very well.
So, to wrap things up, although some characters are funnier than others in Reaper, and despite the fact that some of the CGI looks pretty ropey these days, there’s an awful lot to love in this show. If you’re looking for a new addiction to guide you through a few spare hours, you could do a lot worse than checking it out.
And once you’ve done that, you may want to click on this spoiler-y link to find out what would have happened next.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.