Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Reaper: Season 1, Episode 16, "Greg Schmeg"

Sometimes it only takes one episode to launch a show to greatness. Seinfeld was a pedestrian comedy until “The Boyfriend”; How I Met Your Mother didn’t catch fire till “Slap Bet”. I’m not willing to lump Reaper in with those worthies—yet—but if its subsequent episodes (of which I'm hoping there will be more) are as funny and engaging as “Greg Schmeg”, Reaper is setting itself up to be a damned fine show.

So here’s the deal, for you poor souls (yuk yuk) not in the know. In September, the CW released a critically acclaimed pilot about a sadsack worker drone (Sam Oliver, played by Bret Harrison) toiling away in a big-box construction supply store. One day he wakes up to find the Devil (the ineffable Ray Wise, who’s as delightfully evil here as he was on Twin Peaks) lying on his comforter. The Devil coolly informs Sam that, thanks to a dubious bargain his parents made before his birth, his soul has become property of Hell. So Sam, distraught, is forced into a second job: a bounty hunter for Hell’s escaped souls—a rather altruistic task, all things considered, but since Sam never voluntarily auctioned off his immortal soul the Devil is forbidden from making him do anything too odious.

Anyway, that pilot was awesome. It was clever and novel and it had three best friends in funny suits attacking a fire monster with a vacuum cleaner. But subsequent episodes? Ugh. Reaper became formulaic in the worst way. Each week Sam and his friends at the box store would face a bland, crudely-drawn villain. A will-they-or-won’t-they “romantic” relationship between Sam and his childhood friend Andi (Missy Peregrym) was so maudlin and predictable it could have come from the notebook of a ten-year-old who had watched nothing but Ross and Rachel her entire life.

But Reaper’s biggest problem was that it forgot to be funny. The comedic charm of Sam’s friends Ben (Rick Gonzalez, always awesome) and Sock (Tyler Labine, whose Jack Black impersonanation has been toned down, thankfully) took a back seat to Sam’s whiny angst about doing the Devil’s work, and to the tedious romance between Sam and Andi. Worse still, DMV clerk/secretary for Hell Gladys (Christine Willes), the most reliably guffaw-inducing character on the show, disappeared for a long string of episodes without any explanation. The producers of Reaper entrusted their show to Harrison and Peregrym, the show’s two prettiest people. As Ken Levine just pointed out, that’s not exactly a recipe for comedic success.

We here at NH hated the WGA strike (and still do), but at least it seems to have refocused Reaper’s showrunners, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. The result is a breezy, much more confident affair. In the first five episodes since Reaper’s return, Sam has moved away from home, thus eliminating an awkward, go-nowhere family storyline. Sam and Andi are now in a relationship, even avoiding the lame she-can-never-know-my-secret dynamic: Andi knows Sam’s a reaper, and she’s cool with it. They’ve even abandoned the slavish devotion to the villain-of-the-week formula, introducing a rather fun subplot involving The State alumni Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino as gay ex-demons leveraging Sam to overthrow Satan, a narrative arc that promises to last at least through the end of this season. And oh yeah, the funny’s back. Gonzalez and Labine have been showcased more and more, and with Black and Marino and Lucy Davis (from the UK’s version of The Office), they’ve introduced legitimately amusing guest stars.

That momentum carried over into this week. “Greg Schmeg” wasn’t just a great episode of Reaper, it was of the best episodes of network television this season. There were some outrageously funny moments in it, particularly the devil’s attempts to get Sam to kill the man brainwashing Andi into cheating on him. Tricking an unwitting Sam into carrying the biggest knife I’ve ever seen before unveiling the smooching couple was a great sight gag (“I show you this because I care. And also I kind of enjoy it.”), but giving Sam a telescope to spy on them, then swapping the telescope with a sniper rifle, still has me giggling. During Reaper’s doldrums the Devil often acted too much like Sam’s buddy, but he’s become increasingly more menacing in this post-strike run and the show is better for it. Plus Ray Wise is absolutely eating it up, and that’s always delightful.

There were some other great moments, like Gladys’s triumphant return (cheerfully admitting that she’s bribable, assuming the bribe is a promise to take care of her Persian cat, Fancy) and the burnout paranormal arms dealer, who was funnier and more interesting in 2 minutes of screentime than most of Reaper’s previous guest stars were in twenty. But the best of them all was probably Sam finally showing some backbone and standing up to the Devil, and outfoxing him in the process. Harrison isn’t as funny as his co-stars, but as Sam he doesn’t need to be (and he probably shouldn’t be, considering Sam’s unhappy fate). As the straight man determined to do the right thing, Harrison is spot on for the role, and good on Butters and Fazekas for finally realizing it.

If there was a blemish in “Greg Schmeg”, it was the reiteration that Reaper still can’t do proper romance. I have a lot of gripes with Hollywood, but chief among them is the persistent fear of presenting a legitimately layered female character. It’s as if writers everywhere are afraid to create a woman who is in any way flawed, and Ben’s new love interest (Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyse McClure) is in the same mold as Andi before her: impossibly patient, impossibly pretty, impossibly good. But that’s something I can overlook if the show promises to be as consistently funny and engaging as these past few episodes have been.

One other thing: “If you ever feel like turning that triangle into a square, let me know.” Ew.

4 comments:

Steven Simunic said...

Now it looks like the show's going to get renewed. Woo!

http://www.reuters.com/article/televisionNews/idUSN0534929620080506

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deron said...

Reaper is really a wonderful show. I am very much impressed by the storyline of this show. I have seen all episodes of this show and all episodes are very interesting. Really its one of the best show on television. Thanks for this great post.

rookie said...

Reaper TV Show has two seasons. And I have seen both. Both seasons are really very nice.