Cast: Bret Harrison (Sam Oliver). Tyler Labine (Bert 'Sock' Wysocki). Ray Wise (The Devil). Missy Peregrym (Andi Prendergast). Rick Gonzalez (Ben Gonzalez). Donavon Stinson (Ted). Eriko Tamura (Kristin).
Directed by Stephen Cragg. Written by Craig DiGregorio. Originally aired March 3, 2009 on The CW.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
For the last year, Sam Oliver's life had been one blast of bad news after another. His stress-free slacker life as a college dropout breezing through a job at the Workbench with his buddies Sock, Ben, and Andi received a sudden jolt when he found out his parents had been tricked into selling his soul to the Devil before he was born. The Devil had now come to collect, enrolling him as a bounty hunter collecting souls escaped from Hell.
Then Sam got drawn into a conspiracy against the Devil by rebellious demons that went disastrously awry. Before the rebels were destroyed, Sam discovered that the demons wanted him because Sam was actually the Devil's son. Blaming Sam for tipping off the Devil, the demons sought revenge, which led to the death of the only father Sam had ever known.
Unable to face what had happened to his life, Sam took off with Sock and Ben on a road trip. Four weeks in, however, Sam realized the Sock never mailed the note telling his now-girlfriend Andi what he was doing. Rushing back home he discovered that the three boys had lost their apartment and their jobs, and Andi wanted nothing more to do with Sam.
On top of that, the Devil's new case involved dozens of brutal souls to collect. Did he want Sam dead? Though they got their jobs back by blackmailing the venal manager, Tim, and found a place to crash at Sock's house (with a sexy woman who turns out to be Sock's step-sister), it seemed that being the Devil's son -- far from giving him an "in" -- only made things worse with the Man Downstairs.
The Real Slacker from Hell
For a show about an unmotivated man-child and his even less motivated friends, Reaper knows where it's going. The season premiere for its half-length sophomore run, called "A New Hope," is an effort to relaunch the show after nine months off the air and give it a clear, new direction. Extraneous characters have been pruned: even Ted (Donavon Stinson), the goofy Workbench manager, gets only a single scene here in which he fulfills his plot function, gets a laugh, and then is quietly ushered off. The focus is on the five leads, and a return to trying to achieve what Sam needs most: escaping from his contract with the Devil.
It had seemed that a variety of distractions diverted Sam from this goal last year, but now we're provided with the new hope of the title -- proof that it was possible to break the contract. In this case, living proof, in the form of a soul that Sam can't collect with the others: Alan (Sean Patrick Thomas), who crows that he's found the way out before conking Sam on the head and vanishing.
As I mentioned when the shows premiered in 2007, the setups of Reaper and Chuck invite comparison. Both involve slackers working in dead-end jobs at a big-box store with best friends who are even bigger losers (every loser wants to look less like a loser than his friends). Both involve suddenly becoming the center of something huge without having to do anything (the man-child's dream). Both find their new situation gives them an unexpected, if problematic, opportunity with a beautiful woman. It's wish-fulfillment in the form of a hourlong comedy-fantasy.
Chuck vs. Sam
Chuck has been pushing the edges of this mini-genre, giving its viewers adrenaline action and busty babes in a Charlie's Angels-level intensity (Angels director McG is one of the folks behind Chuck), plus a killer soundrack. Chuck both allows the viewer to identify with Chuck on slacker-wish-fulfillment terms, while giving him the power-packed entertainment of blowed-up-real-good movies and video games. Most importantly, Chuck does all that while somehow still being smart and funny.
Reaper, while well-made and often fun to watch, is not quite at the same level. Even though a lot happens in "A New Hope," it's never action packed, and it's not as sharp or funny as it could be.
Consider the recent Chuck where Morgan stays on Chuck's couch, only to surprise Ellie and Awesome with the fact that he sleeps naked. In Chuck, this is mined for humor, giving us multiple reactions (Ellie, Awesome, and later Chuck being told about it), but then it goes somewhere -- namely, Morgan's decision to get his own apartment. (Even the lame swimsuit-model "casting couch" gag, aside from the obvious, also serves to give Lester and Jeff a reason why "cops" have hauled Chuck away.)
Now contrast this with this week's sex subplot in Reaper, in which Sock realizes he's attracted to his Japanese step-sister. The creators have dressed Kristen (Eriko Tamura) in micro-shorts and given her dialog so startlingly clueless it's almost offensive coming from a young Asian woman. And then the big gag turns out to be that she really does want to brother and sister. Sock is disappointed. Hilarious!
The Grinning Devil
Sam is the brains of this outfit, but only because he's marginally more aware of his surroundings than his two cohorts. In any other show his slack-jawed credulity would make him a joke, but since he's standing next to Sock he looks like a creature of at least average intelligence. I don't blame Bret Harrison, who plays Sam, for this: Harrison does a great job as Sam. If the show gave him more to do, he'd be up for it.
What really elevates Reaper above testosterone hijinks is Ray Wise's performance as the Devil. Wise somehow manages to signal an endless reserve of sinister intent even while engaging in light-hearted banter with Sam; the way he smiles at Sam is effortlessly creepy and immensely fun. Wise lets us know that when the Devil points out that the pentagram Sam's drawn to summon him is actually a star of David and adds, "mazel tov!" he's not just having fun with one of the few humans he enjoys spending time with, but also joyously reaffirming humanity's inherent incompetence.
"A New Hope" is solid in terms of acting, direction, and production. I enjoyed watching it, and it had some good laughs (Sam descending into the lair of the brutal souls with a dainty wand-like cattle prod is scored to "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies," which was a nice touch). I really like Sam and want him to succeed. I'm definitely looking forward to this season.
But I feel the drag of unachieved potential. To be the best show that it can be, Reaper needs to have more drive, more motivation, and more smarts than its characters. That's the lesson that Chuck figured out long ago.