Wednesday, 1 August 2007

PREVIEW: REAPER 1.1 - "Pilot"

Wednesday, 1 August 2007
The CW
WRITERS: Tara Butters & Michele Fazekas DIRECTOR: Kevin Smith
CAST: Bret Harrison (Sam Oliver), Missy Peregym (Andi), Ray Wise (Satan), Rick Gonzalez (Ben), Tyler Labine (Bert "Sock" Wysocki), Valarie Rae Miller (Josie), Kyle Switzer (Keith Oliver), Allison Hossack (Mrs Oliver), Andrew Airlie (Mr Oliver), Fraser Aitcheson (Fireman), Donavon Stinson (Ted) & Marci T. House (Motorist)

On his 21st birthday, Sam Oliver discovers that his parents sold his soul to The Devil, so he must now dispose of souls that have escaped from Hell...

In 1997 there was a shortlived TV series called Brimstone, about a cop brought back to life to help The Devil return escaped souls back to Hell. You probably didn't see it... but Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas certainly did.

So, in 2007, there's a TV series called Reaper, about a slacker who must help The Devil return escaped souls to Hell. The primary difference is one of tone. Brimstone was a bleak supernatural drama, whereas Reaper is a light supernatural comedy. So, whereas Brimstone's hero had to pierce eyeballs to kick demons back to the underworld, Reaper's hero has a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner...

The show's set-up is simple enough: Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison) has lived an easygoing life, until he realizes his parents were mollycoddling him through guilt. It seems they sold his soul to The Devil (Ray Wise) 21 years ago... and now Old Nick has arrived to collect his due. Sam later begins to display slight telekinesis and attracts the attention of dogs, so he enlists fellow bohemian Bert "Sock" Wysocki (Tyler Labine) to help him cope with his new responsibility... as Satan's bounty hunter.

I like the premise, despite its stark unoriginality, but Reaper's first episode was an underwhelming experience. It has moments of interest and a few amusing scenes (the Dirt Devil managing to drag a lorry, The Devil watching an ice rink janitor get flattened) but, frankly, Reaper just isn't very fresh or particularly funny.

Bret Harrison is okay as Sam, a sort of low-rent Ben Affleck, while Tyler Labine is his cliched brash, smart-mouthed, slacker friend. It's a partnership that's very familiar to viewers and neither actor bring much originality. I think the intention was for a Simon Pegg/Nick Frost vibe, but the lazy writing and weak characterisations leaves both actors adrift in a skrewy piece of nonsense. Labine displays charisma and a goofy charm at times, but it's a performance that seems second-hand, while Harrison is unmemorable.

Ray Wise (RoboCop) is a physically good choice for The Devil, as he has a satanic face that begs for horns to be glued to his temples. However, Wise's facial suitability is hamstrung by the weak script. I know this is a comedy, but The Devil is just far too nice here -- even when threatening Sam's mother! There's only one moment that delivers the black comedy you're expecting (the ice rink death), but everything else just disappoints. When Satan is the least funny aspect of your TV show, it's time to worry!

There are a number of supporting characters that are pushed into the background, which is frustrating. I could understand it if Reaper were 30-minutes long, but its 45-minute runtime should have been more than enough room for all the characters to breathe...

Therefore, Sam's parents (Andrew Airlie and Allison Hossack) are just stereotypical "mom and dad" characters ,and his brother Keith (Kyle Switzer) is introduced and then forgotten about!

A weak "love story" subplot is also written for Sam, involving his affection for Andi (Heroes' Missy Peregym), who he works with at the local Work Bench superstore. It's set-up in a rather perfunctory fashion, then goes nowhere fast. When Andi resurfaces for the denouement, it actually comes as a surprise to see her! She has no direct tie to the storyline beyond being the token object of affection.

Reaper's Pilot is directed by Kevin Smith, the writer-director behind numerous indie hits like Clerks, Chasing Amy and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. Smith has a big reputation in geek circles, primarily because of his writing talents, so it's strange to see him only behind the camera. Reaper would have benefitted more from Smith's input at script-level, as his filming technique is every bit as workmanlike (and occassionally retarded) as his movies. A few scenes look like they've been directed by an amateur with a camcorder!

But it's not all bad news, and there are a few things to savour. The idea of The Devil giving Sam a "vessel" to capture each soul is interesting, if a bit silly. The later appearance of a super-powerful vacuum cleaner to collect a soul, and the subsequent Batman-style "suiting up" of Sam and Sock, lends the episode a Ghostbusters vibe that's quite enjoyable.

The special effects for the underwritten villain (an arsonist who literally turns into burning embers and shoots firetrails along the ground) are also quite excellent, and help retain interest when the story begins to lose itself at the 20-minute mark.

Overall, on the evidence of the Pilot, this seems to be a good idea poorly executed. Nothing about it quite clicks. There's the odd chuckle to be had here-and-there, but the script lacks big laughs, the characters are walking cliches and The Devil seems neutered by the producer's desire to make something inoffensively childish. If you're expecting a Dogma-style TV series, given Kevin Smith's input, you're going to be severely disappointed.

It's a very lukewarm start, although the problems could be rectified at the writing level for subsequent instalments. The idea lends itself well to silly comedy, but it just needs more bite.