15 January 2009

Reaper: Season One

STARRING Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Rick Gonzalez, Missy Peregrym, Ray Wise
Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters
42 mins., 18 episodes, 5 discs

*** (out of ****)

Reaper is probably one of the best shows on regular broadcasting that no one watches. Maybe the reason is because it airs on the CW, and thus avoid it like a plague (really, I wouldn’t blame ‘em), but this show is so damn good it’s a pity it doesn’t receive the recognition is rightfully deserves. Premiering during the 2007-2008 season, it wasn't exactly a rating success with a Grey's Anatomy-type viewership, but it did achieve a small fanbase (in fact, check out ReaperSite.com for further information on the show).

For anyone who loved or remotely liked the seven-season long Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, this show will be an instant love for them. This show pretty much has the same things that show had: a fantastic cast that has great chemistry, and a writing team second to none. It has the same energy and funness Buffy had; there are moments of complete enjoyable absurdity and then some really dramatic material follows, etc., etc. Great stuff, really. Reaper approaches quite the serious subject – a adult-in-training becoming the Devil’s bounty hunter – and embraces the wacky and occasionally cartoony side of things, focusing on the unprofessionalism and childishness of Sam and his friends, although the show can also become dead serious in the same episode. You just got to respect shows that are capable of being one thing and something else entirely the next. And on the bright side, Reaper is the perfect show to sit back on ones couch and chow on some yummy popcorn.

Happy birthday to Sam Oliver! Despite the turning 21 thing, the only real perk is legally purchasing drinks. Life is pretty much the same old thing: hang out with friends (Labine, Gonzalez) and do the complete opposite of work at their place of employment, the Work Bench (a Sam’s Club/Home Depot hybrid), and maintain friendship with Andi (Peregrym), the girl Sam secretly harbors tingly feelings for but doesn’t tell her in fear of jeopardizing said friendship. But things turn to the more out-of-whack nature when a man appears in Sam’s backseat telling him he’s the Devil (Wise). Well-dressed in a suit, Lucifer explains to Sam that his parents sold his soul to Him before his birth, and upon Sam’s 21st birthday, he’s pretty much Satan’s toy. But instead of doing that Hell thing right away, the Devil has a different idea: become His Reaper, and send escaped souls back to Hell utilizing a “Vessel”, “forged in the heat of perdition by the inequities of the vile.” This Vessel takes the shape of everyday appliances but when used correctly, grabs a soul and encapsulates it. These escaped souls are demons who, with nothing better to do on their agenda – like go to a strip bar or watch a beautiful HD TV – seek to cause havoc and mass destruction. Not seeing much in the way of choice, Sam agrees to the Reaper job, and employs the help of Sock and Ben to kick some demon ass. And to the ass-kicking they shall! That’s pretty much the general premise: Sam = Reaper, bringing escaped souls to Hell.

Written by the show’s creators and directed by filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks II), the pilot is very strong; it sets up the relationship between all the characters, is full of witty banter, and hints at the show’s mythology. The following ten episodes unfortunately fall under the “Freak of the Week” syndrome that Smallville has suffered from since its inception (as does many supernatural shows). However, with this expected, how do these episodes hold up? Surprisingly well. Each episode – no matter the Freak of the Week – also builds on the characters and shows their how tight their bond is, the friendly relationship between Sam and the Devil, and the continuing will they?/won’t they? question with Sam and Andi. One constant with the show is after each soul is grabbed (I wouldn’t call that a spoiler), the Scooby Gang go to the DMV, “Hell on Earth” – as christened by the Devil, and see Gladys, a demon working as your everyday employee. Not at all amused by the boys banter, she is stunned week after week to see them still alive. The exchanges between Sock and Gladys are always fun to watch.

And, with this being
a CW show, romantic entanglements are a prerequisite to being green lit, thus Reaper features its fair share of romance. Giving up on Andi, Sam goes out with Cady, a feisty, adventurous girl; Andi, meanwhile, goes out with a guy from college. However, everything pales in utter insignificance as Cady displays some strange characteristics, and it’s not long before the Scooby Gang question her parentage (her mom being the sexy Melinda Clarke). And the Devil won’t say a damn thing about it.

Finally, before it seemed like the Sam/Andi relationship was going to turn into a Clark Kent/Lana Lang territory (some of you will understand my meaning), a near-death experience prompts Andi to reconsider her stance on the "don't ask Sam out and change our friendship" montra. While the continuing saga of the Andi and Sam romance unfolds, the Scooby Gang move out of their respective houses and into an apartment, where they meet a gay couple (Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black) who actually turn out to be demons. Taking an instant liking to Sam, they reveal their true plot: they seek to overthrow the Devil and kill him, and they want Sam’s help to do it.

Leading the cast as Sam is Bret Harrison, who is pretty much perfect as the shit-out-of-luck twenty-one year old who found out he has no free will. Well, with his life at least. Harrison plays Sam as pathetic for the first batch of episodes, as Sam is wallowing in his grief of this new life-long duty; but as Sam begins to regain confidence and a renewed faith in himself, Harrison delivers that onscreen as well. As Sam’s employer, the Devil, Ray Wise is the best Lucifer I’ve ever seen. Channeling the suave, coolness factor of a cunning mob boss, Wise can be jokey and playful one moment, and the next, be a stone-cold, ruthless, sadistic bastard the next. Plus, listening to Lucifer’s pep talks to Sam on how to deal with his troubles are priceless. Brilliant, fantastic casting. Even more, Harrison and Wise have astounding chemistry together, and their scenes where they banter are literally captivating. I want to know what they’re saying, because any sentence Sam says could potentially alter the Devil’s mood, and thus their friendship. Seriously, the Devil has some strange mood disorder where you never know how he’ll act next.

Labine, who plenty will recognize as the drunken hockey fan from Kevin Smith’s Zack & Miri Make a Porno (2008), is perhaps the real reason people will remember this show. As a comedic actor, I can’t think of another who rivals Tyler Labine; the dude has perfect comic timing, and obviously will do anything to get a laugh. Next up in the Scooby Gang is Rick Gonzalez as Ben. Ben seems to get the short end of the stick; he isn’t given all that much to do at times (he ends up being the dude forced to perform ‘look-out’ duties or something lame), but then there’s times when he gets a real juicy storyline. But then there’s the storyline where the writer’s apparently tried too hard – by season’s end, Ben engaged in a marriage to grant an English woman a green card; it doesn’t end well for him. His character is very much like the impath demon Lorne from Angel: a character that has its moments to shine, but overall is simply the sidekick who doesn't have anything to do, which is a pity, because Gonzalez is also exceedingly funny as well.

Missy Peregrym, who most will remember as Candice from the first season of Heroes, takes what could have been a rather flat, one-dimensional damsel in distress and turned her into an independent, free-spirited and all-around likable friend to Sam. You know she’s a good actress when you actually side with her and not the hero when he misses dates (or maybe that’s just me); most of the time, we feel for the hero, because he had a duty he had to accomplish without endangering the ones he loves, thus he couldn’t make it to said date and is alone. Here, Peregrym makes us side with her character, and that doesn’t happen very often. By the season’s end, Andi is given plenty to do and more time to interact with the Scooby Gang and be her own person. So, kudos to Peregrym! Rounding out the cast for its last eight episodes are Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black as a gay couple masquerading as human, but actually being demons. These two guys are hilarious, and it helps that they’re given some good material to use. They aren’t just some one-note guest stars, they’re quite integral to the plot and help shape what happens to Sam for the rest of the season and potentially the next. I honestly can’t give Marino and Black enough praise; I would love to have a show dedicated simply to these two guys, and I would tune in every week because they’re so damn fun to watch ‘em play off each other.

Filled with pop-culture references and gut-bursting one-liners, Reaper is brilliantly written (in case I didn't mention that). Ultimately, it does
n’t reach the heights of Godlyness as the work of Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson and so on and so forth, but it’s pretty damn close as anyone will get to emulating their greatness. So, in case you can’t tell, I’m giving this show some major props right here. Aside from being really smart, it also feels very real, and that’s a difficult thing to accomplish with ‘buddy shows’. Their conversations (sans the demon-related ones) feel naturalistic and unscripted, which is in turn delivered splendidly by its talented cast.

The show also has plenty of similarities to NBC's Chuck if anyone noticed: both have our main character(s) working at a store similar in nature to big conglomerate places like Best Buy and Sam's Club; they both live dual lives; they both are uber geeky, and both were forced into the job they must perform. I'm sure there's more, but my brain is currently fried from Anthropology class. Speaking about Chuck, I also highly recommend you all give that a look at; it's terrific.

Despite the stand alone nature of the show (whereas I prefer the more over-arching, connecting storylines), there are some really blasted favorites. 104 – “Magic” is a fun, if somewhat unmemorable episode with plenty of laughs (In fact, I’m chuckling right now thinking about Sam running for his life from the Demon Magician with a swo
rd). 113 – “Acid Queen” is a game changer, where several relationships change and some crazy things out of Sam’s control could potentially affect such a relationship with a lovebird. 116 – “Greg, Schemg” brings back Andi’s ex-boyfriend Greg, intent on winning her back. Meanwhile, there’s a Leatherface-like baddie who seriously wants Sam dead. It’s a fun throwback to 1980’s horror flicks. Really, everything from “Acid Queen” to the finale (118 – “Cancun”) is really, really good. That’s when the show switches from the purely stand-alone format and continuous storylines are brought in and characters explore themselves a bit more.

Creature-wise, the baddies are normally human bodies with abilities – such as one who masters fire, one who controls electricity, one who has a machine gun as an arm, one who spits venom from their fingernails, etc. Oh, and there’s also a green blob monster. That was fun. But the coolest design goes to the two demons that the Scooby Gang befriend; appearing very much like the mythological concept of Satan, their dark, dark blue design is beautiful and simultaneously frightening as hell. I wouldn’t want to be around the bloke in the outfit during shooting breaks is all I’m saying.

Reaper: Season One makes its way on DVD in a 5-disc set, released by Lionsgate, with each episode presented in its original 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. It's nice to watch the episodes in widescreen since my tele broadcasted them in fullframe. The first disc features an audio commentary with show creators Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, and Deborah Spera. As far as commentaries go, it's decent; there's plenty of shout-outs to various people ("Pilot" episode director Kevin Smith gets a few nods), discussion on the weather during filming, but nothing substantially 'Woah'-ish. The only other features are located on Disc 5: there is a short, and not-too-humorous "Gag Reel" which has pretty much everyone frakking up on their lines; and a series of "Deleted Scenes" (lasting under ten minutes) which ultimately adds nothing to their specific episodes. The paper insert gives the episode title and a summary, but fails in acknowledging writers, directors, or transmission dates (is that so much to ask?).

Reaper is a fun show, and is worth a viewer's time. The chemistry shared by Harrison, Wise, Tyler, and Gonzalez easily propelled this show above its already excellent writing into a weekly "Must Watch" program. It's not Lost, and it's not Heroes (for those who still are devoted to it). At the very least, you're going to get a few giggles out of each episode - that much is guaranteed. Reaper's second season transmits on March 17th on The CW for an un-interrupted 13-episode run. I'm not entirely sure what to think of the short episode order - if the CW execs want to see how they perform before ordering more episodes or a third season - but I hope nothing but the best befalls the show. Give it a chance, you won’t be disappointed (I know, big claim; but with this program, I’m confident you’ll find something you like about it).

1 comment:

pj said...

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