Lionsgate // 2007 // 810 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // November 4th, 2008
Meet Satan's favorite slackers.
The heir apparent to Joss Whedon's Buffy/Angel franchise has arrived. An underwatched and underappreciated rookie series, Reaper roared out of The CW gate, fueled by the creative power of director Kevin Smith and a solid ensemble cast. Faltering at the midway point, due to the Writers' strike and storyline stagnation, they finished strong on the heels of inspired guest star casting and an ambitious story arc that revealed there's more going on with these characters than any of us suspected.
Like most twenty-somethings, Sam Oliver's (Bret Harrison, Grounded for Life) life is adrift. Out of high school but not attending college, Sam's daily routine pretty much consists of dogging a shift at The Work Bench alongside pals Sock (Tyler Labine, Invasion), Benji (Rick Gonzalez, What We Do Is Secret), and Andi (Missy Peregrym, Heroes), followed by an evening of some serious video gaming, drinking, and concocting new ways to torment their dweebish manager Ted (Donavon Stinson, Chaos Theory). But Sam's 21st birthday proves to be somewhat of a game changer, when his parents reveal his soul now belongs to The Devil (Ray Wise, Twin Peaks). That's right, a pre-conception deal with Satan has come due, leaving dear old Sammy in the eternal employ of The Lord of Darkness as a bounty hunter, collecting escaped souls and returning them to Hell, whose portal can be found at the local DMV. On the upside, Sock and Ben are allowed to assist with his Hellish duties. But (and there's always a but) Andi, the unrequited love of Sam's life, cannot know anything about the arrangement, and he's now on call 24/7 as Beelzebub's BFF. Oh joy.
The show is a hoot. Smartly written and deftly executed, Reaper is, as co-star Ray Wise calls it, a "Horramadey" -- horror, drama, comedy. Conceived from the twisted minds of writers/producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, who between them were exposed to far too many episodes of Law & Order: SVU and The X-Files, the premise is rock solid. Three retail tools with zero ambition, living at home and sponging off their parents, are thrust into the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. Their lives now have purpose. With each hunt, their unique skill sets come to bear, revealing more potential than any of them ever imagined they possessed. Sam is the pure soul, always driven to do the right thing, even at the risk of putting himself and the people he cares about in danger. Sock is the inventive crusader, creating ridiculous devices and outfits to not only to protect his friends, but actually combat these denizens of the dark, while luring them into range of Sam's bizarre soul sucking vessels. Ben is the group's conscience, the moral compass finding common ground between Sam's nobility and Sock's reckless abandon. And then there's the Devil himself. Jerry, an alias he's fond of using, is a Hedonistic kid in an endless candy store with a whole new set of toys. Sure, our three stooges serve a valuable purpose, but Jerry's real joy comes in screwing with them every chance he gets. And hey, if one or two of his toys get broken along the way, them's the breaks. But even as Sam's leash loosens and the familiarity of their relationship settles in, we discover the two things the old man doesn't tolerate are boredom and insubordination, and the boys are just now starting to find that out what that means.
Reaper is one of those rare projects where everything comes together at the right time. With a different cast and a different director, the pilot would probably have never been picked up. The View Askew gang's patented slacker-infused, pop-culture sensibilities are all over the first few episodes, so much so you almost expect our heroes to pull into the local Quick Stop and tangle with Jay and Silent Bob. From Kevin's punch drunk timing to Dave Klein's visual stylings, they lit the torch for Tara and Michele to carry through into the season. But that's where Kevin's involvement ends. The real credit for the strength of the series goes to the imagination and endurance of people like producers Mark Gordon (Grey's Anatomy), Deb Spera (Criminal Minds) and Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives), director James Head (Dead Zone), writer Tom Schnauz (Night Stalker), cinematographer Atilla Szalay (Masters of Horror), composer David Schwartz (Arrested Development), and a iron clad Vancouver production team who, despite months of idle downtime, came back to finish the season with a vengeance, overcoming an ineffectual "monster of the week" formula, and laying the foundation for a mythos ripe with characters, shrouded in backstory, and wary of dangers yet to come.
But not everything on Reaper worked right out of the box. The role of Andi, originally played by Nikki Reed (Twilight), was recast, bringing over Missy Peregrym from NBC's latest hit series. Many who saw the rough cut of the pilot argue Nikki was the better choice, but the chemistry between Bret and Missy is undeniable. So whether the choice was creatively driven or simply the network trying to siphon off some of the rabid Heroes fan base, it works. You want to see these two make their relationship work, despite knowing that Jerry will never allow it to happen for more than a brief moment or two.
Another casualty was Sam's brother Kyle (Kyle Switzer). Only appearing in the first two episodes, the character and the actor were unnecessary annoyances who only cluttered the playing field. In fact, it was for that very reason Tara, Michele, and Kevin removed a principal character from the script just before shooting on the pilot began. The role of The Devil was originally much smaller, with much of the action being handled by Sam's demon liaison. But unable to find a character to suit the role (despite Kyle Gass' knockout audition) and the talent of Ray Wise already on hand, they wound up combining the two, creating a much stronger character and in turn a more dangerous show. As several characters are quick to point out, Sam isn't just any ordinary imprisoned soul forced to do the Devil's bidding. He bypasses every level of subterranean bureaucracy and deals only with the big man himself, which provides the series with one of its greatest strengths. Just when you start to get comfortable with the charming comedic setup of Sam and his boss, the writers turn around and slap you in the face with some real life nastiness. Allegiances are broken, collateral damage is suffered, and lives are lost in some rather unpleasant ways. Now, while we've yet to experience a JJ Abrams moment with one of the principal cast, that prospect is a very real possibility.
But good characters alone cannot sustain a series. They need conflict to thrive, and while the "monster of the week" template used by almost every sci-fi/paranormal series in television history is necessary for establishing a show's ground rules, by Episode Five ("What About Blob") it had already worn painfully thin, making you wonder how much longer they could keep the concept going. Thankfully, three episodes later ("The Cop"), Reaper's universe grew deeper. By expanding the role of Gladys (Christine Willes, Dead Like Me), their DMV go-to ghoul, and introducing a new love interest for Sam (Jessica Stroup, 90210), who may or may not be The Dark Lord's daughter, we begin to peel back the onion and see just how far reaching an influence the Dark Lord has on their daily lives.
Fast forward three months and the show returns from The Strike with character development moving fast and furious, thanks to the show's original 13 episode commitment being expanded to 18. Old romances rekindle and new relationships develop...for better or worse. The boys rent a condo and bond with their neighbors who will end up having a profound impact on their future. The veil between dimensions becomes more transparent, glimpsing a growing war between Hell and Hell-on-Earth, the first of many reveals which may set up the series up as the next Buffyverse, if the fans choose to latch onto it. And let's hope they do.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, those of you spoiled by HD may find the image a bit soft for your liking. But, like most shows shot in Vancouver, there's an inevitable wet, grey feel to it all. Scenes inside The Bench as well as several local bars and nightclubs are the most colorful, especially those taking place around the various holidays. Those are balanced out by a fair number of night shoots, where you tend to lose clarity and some of the action amid the darkness. As with many of these genre shows, avoid watching them in bright daylight. The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is serviceable with clear dialogue and well balanced mix of yet another brilliant David Schwartz underscore and the show's many effects driven battle scenes. Trust me, it'll leave you wondering how much a 5.1 surround track would enhance the experience. The packaging leaves a bit to be desired as well. 18 episodes with static menus, spread over five discs, in a bulky amaray flip case, with a clear plastic sleeve whose corners will inevitably crack...not exactly a home run. Slim pack probably would have been a wiser choice, but that's me nitpicking.
The bonus materials are the real disappointment, but not entirely unexpected for a rookie series on the bubble. One hopes the production team will spend a bit more time capturing behind the scenes material for Season Two, because what we're offered here isn't much of anything. Co-creators Tara, Michele, and producer Deb sit down together for an audio commentary on the pilot episode, providing a wealth of development information. Although, if you want a more down an dirty take on the pilot, I strongly suggest listening to Kevin Smith describe his experience to producing partner Scott Mosier during Episode 8 of their show Smodcast (see the link in our sidebar). Seven minutes of Deleted Scenes don't really do anything to enhance the characters or the storylines, and the Gag Reel doesn't provide much in the way of real laughs. That's it. What you're really shelling out the bucks for is the series itself, which is worth the investment if you promise to share the joy with family, friends, and complete strangers. It's all part of Jerry's "Convert a viewer, earn a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card" program.
Sitting down and watching the series in marathon fashion makes one appreciate Reaper all the more. The ensemble chemistry was there from the start, but raising the stakes by introducing recurring characters like Sara (Lucy Davis, Dawn on BBC's The Office) and Tony & Steve (MTV's The State veterans Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black), while bringing Andi deeper into the fold, only serves to provide audiences with a richer experience. Thankfully, despite its low visibility, The CW picked up the show for a second season, with yet another 13 episode commitment. While there's no confirmed premiere date, 75% of the season is already in the can, waiting in the wings as an eager mid-season bench player. The challenge now is to make good on the promises offered up by its enticing freshman year. And if what Ray Wise tells TV Verdict holds true, Year Two should be one hell of a ride.
Reaper is on a highway to Hell with no sympathy for this devil...and we're lovin' every minute of it.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 810 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary on Pilot
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site
* Wikipedia: Reaper
* Smodcast: Episode 8 (Reaper)