The Devil Made Me Do It
Tuesdays, 9/10 CW network
Written by Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas
Directed by Kevin Smith
So, it’s been what, four years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air? Time to revisit the Hellmouth, apparently. The CW kicks off its new season Tuesday nights with Reaper, a new comedy from the teen network, about a slacker who discovers on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was born, and today the Man comes to collect his due. It turns out that the terrible fate in store for Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison, The Loop,Grounded for Life) is—work. Sorry, buddy, but your years spent playing video games and wasting your youth working at a hardware store for minimum wage are now at an end. The Devil is short-handed, and drafts Sam to become a bounty hunter, rounding up escaped souls and sending them back to Hell via a convenient Hellmouth—like the local DMV. Having apparently never seen Ghostbusters, Sam accepts with a straight face the tool with which he is to accomplish this—a Dirt Devil. Hah. And hah.
For the next 40 minutes or so, Sam has to work out the consequences of his odd fate—breaking the news to his friends Bert “Sock” Wysocki (Tyler Labine, Boston Legal, Invasion) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez, Coach Carter) and concealing it from his crush, Andi (Missy Peregrym,Smallville, Heroes). Along the way, he has to deal with crazed dog packs, the sudden emergence of supernatural powers, the overenthusiastic “help” of Sock and Ben, and the cranky new boss, Satan. That last is going to be a tough job for Sam, a guy who dropped out of college after one month because “it made him sleepy.” The devil hisses, in one particularly chilling scene, that he never accepts failure. Yeah, Sam’s gonna have to bring his A game to this one, and he’s not used to doing that.
Snappily directed by the man who gave us the movie Dogma, Kevin Smith, the story plays fast and witty, with plenty of clever dialogue and dead-on comic timing by Labine and Wise. Labine is much more entertaining than the bland Harrison, who seems to be cautiously feeling his way into the character of Sam. There’s a scene about three quarters of the way through, when the devil impresses on Sam that he cannot opt out of his job—the two sit in the bleachers of a hockey arena while a man is crushed to a bloody pulp under a Zamboni. Satan assures Sam that “he was a terrible person,” but more terrible is the fact that Sam is watching a human being die a gruesome death and does not so much as grimace. One begins to wonder if the Devil has been cheated—maybe Sam doesn’t really have a soul after all.
If Harrison sometimes underplays Sam, Labine yanks out all the stops and then starts stomping on them, pulling off a near-perfect latter-day Bill Murray slacker hero to end all slacker heroes. Told that his best friend now works for the Devil, this avatar of Generation Xbox declares, “Nothing that cool ever happens to me!” He instantly grasps that his friend Sam is now living in a video game far more interesting than his life will ever be, and gleefully undertakes such self-imposed training tasks as tossing canned goods at Sam to test his reflexes. Ray Wise has owned my soul ever since Twin Peaks, so finding him playing the Devil once more on network television seems somehow inevitable. Something about the fake smile, the cunning look in his eyes, the used-car-salesman insincerity screams “Father of Lies.” He plays the Devil as if Michael Scott of The Office were running Hell—as a wannabe coach and mentor who nevertheless revels in his power.
The network has lavished money on the special effects, and the results are well worth it. Fire explodes from an arsonist escaped from hell, dishwashers levitate around a big box chain store, and shopping carts evade our hero. A soundtrack consisting almost entirely of tunes released in the last five minutes, a devil-may-care attitude, and relentlessly ironic self-awareness finish off a finely crafted first episode. Whether the CW is willing to spend this kind of money, time and effort on subsequent episodes remains to be seen, but for now, Reaper is a hell of a lot of fun.