Friday, 11 July 2008

End Of Season Review: Reaper

Best US Alternative Rock Album Produced Between 1990 And 1994. Prettiest Cast Member In Friday Night Lights. Most Powdery Wig In Britain 1752. These are hotly contested titles. Unlike the title of Best New US Show Of The Season 2007-8, which was more like the contest to win England Footballer Of The Year 2007 – all the potential contenders seemed to underperform deliberately, giving the impression it was an accolade no-one wanted to win.

Reaper takes it, although the victory owes more to what the show wasn’t than to what it was. It wasn’t high-gloss, soapy schlock about a bunch of hateful bastards; it wasn’t a rehash of tired sci-fi tropes aimed lazily at a supposedly easily-pleased audience; and it didn’t coast on a thin premise while besotted with its own insufferable quirkiness. It may not have been perfect, but Reaper remained reliably entertaining throughout its run, while demonstrating the importance of a solid concept and a strong cast.

One of the reasons I watched Reaper in the first place was its superficial similarity to one of the greatest TV shows of my lifetime, in which a seemingly ordinary young person reluctantly assumes responsibility for combating the threat of supernatural nasties. But Reaper is certainly not Buffy, and signalled this by having Kevin Smith direct its pilot. It’s as much about a bunch of guys hanging out talking shit as it is about evil hellspawn. Almost every episode sees Sam, Sock and Ben drinking pints at the bar, suggesting that for them beer is nearly as important as serving the Devil by trapping escaped souls and returning them to the underworld. And that is my kinda show.

This attitude underpins Reaper’s whole ethos. Sam may struggle with the burdens of his obligations to the Devil, but he still finds time to goof around at the Work Bench. Ben is thrust into life-endangering situations weekly, but he still loves to daydream about his perfect woman (who of course is independently wealthy, enjoys mixed martial arts and reads Sue Grafton novels). And Sock refuses to take anything seriously – work, the Devil, Sam’s romantic problems – unless it involves his mother. The show’s ambling, amiable spirit feeds into what Admiral Neck diagnosed back in November as Futurama Syndrome – the odd pacing that sees the main plot often wrapped up with ten or more minutes of episode still to unfold. While this was intially weird and unsettling, before long it came to feel familiar and natural, with the realisation that Sam’s adventures in recapturing souls aren’t what Reaper is about. Rather, it’s about Sam’s troubles in balancing his obligations, his responsibilities to friends, family, Andi and work – the problems we all go through when making the transition to adulthood. Their occasionally unearthly nature notwithstanding, Sam’s problems are instantly recognisable for all of us, as is the half-arsed way he goes about trying to solve them. Well, it’s about that and a bunch of guys hanging out talking shit.

Reaper’s main drawback was that for a long time it didn’t appear to be going anywhere: the guys just bumbled from week to week, being equally inept at bounty hunting, retail and affairs of the heart. This was an unusually long establishing period, and only when Sam stumbled (a) into another relationship that ignited Andi’s feelings for him and (b) on a demonkind plot against the Devil was any significant progress made. An ongoing problem – a surprising one, seeing as Reaper is one of the few shows on US TV created by women – is the female characters: Andi is little more than a vessel for Sam’s hopes and desires, only developing a personality in the final third of the season (and even then it’s mainly a ‘one of the guys’ personality); as for Josie, both her femaleness and her blackness feel tokenistic given that she appears only when soul-trapping brushes up against the law or when a Sock-related C-plot is needed; and when Ben finally gets to have a relationship it’s with the shrewish Sara, who manipulates him, steals all his money and leaves him in jail pining for the Grafton-reading fantasy girl Cassidy.

The way Sara was written wasn’t her only problem. I did a little cheer when I saw Lucy Davis’s name in the credits but sadly she was dreadful in the role, all eye-rolling and silly tics and incomprehensible muttering. For someone whose major career role has been on the radio, it’s astonishing how poor her diction is (see also Shaun Of The Dead, if for some reason you haven’t). Fortunately this was just about the only casting misstep Reaper made. The guest spots were a delight, from Melinda Clarke as the lonely mistress of the Devil to Jeff Kober as a hardworking neighbourhood demon, but the best was Ken Marino, essaying his usual easy charm as practical, sweet-natured ex-angel Tony.

But the near-perfect guest casting was no surprise considering the success of Reaper’s main cast. Rick Gonzalez might not be the finest actor on TV but his artless, affable presence is perfect for the sweet-natured Ben. Bret Harrison stands out from any number of blandly handsome puppyish actors not only for his physical comedy skillz – he can take a pummelling like a champ – but also for his hapless ability to inspire sympathy. But these two might have floundered without Tyler Labine, whose energy and gung-ho commitment give Reaper an anarchic edge. Despite his innate – and often hilarious – selfishness, it is Sock who usually provokes the team into action (Sam and Ben would surely remain hopelessly static without him), and Labine has the manic charisma to make this believable.

Labine may prove to be the breakout star of the show, but its ace in the hole is without question Ray Wise. My co-bloggers have already eulogised about his magnificent grin, but the key to the role is Wise’s astonishing ability to switch between avuncular and sinister in a microsecond. He also brings a subtle poignancy at times, inviting you to feel sympathy for the Devil’s inability to enjoy food or his isolation, before doing something gleefully horrible to remind you – hey! He’s the frickin’ Devil! Evidently Anthony Head auditioned for the part, but although he has a certain roguishness, I doubt even Giles could have managed Wise’s devastating combination of authority, playfulness and outright malice. Ah, fuck it – let’s face it, Head couldn’t have emulated this.

Like Friday Night Lights, Reaper has benefited from the lack of new dramas in season 2008-9 and been recommissioned (for 13 episodes at least), despite its mediocre ratings. Although it’s been enjoyable until now, it’ll be fascinating to see where it goes from here. Because while it’s a good show, I’m not convinced it can ever be great. Whether deliberately or not, it has virtually no emotional impact, and no evident ambition to make any; even the apparent death of Sam’s dad in the season finale didn’t quite disrupt the good-humoured atmosphere. I’m sure it can go on being an engaging, lovable show with charm to spare, which is far more than many manage. But if that’s the limit of its aspirations, that’s a shame – and it may not be enough to keep Reaper alive.

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