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Out of all the awesome shows you’re going to see featured on TV Graveyard, Reaper is by far the most heartbreaking. Not only was the show axed at the apex of its popularity, but it ended on an almighty cliffhanger for the ages (thinking about it still genuinely pains me). That being said, the show’s cancellation only solidified its cult appeal, as in 2016 — seven years after its demise — it still has a fan base, most of whom still hope that a third season will be picked up someday. It’s unlikely, but we’ll hope away nonetheless.
The origins of Reaper were birthed in cult television glory. Having met while working as part of The X-Files sales and merchandising team, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas had bigger plans in mind: to break into television and become their very own formidable writing duo. The pair’s unique position allowed them to pitch story ideas to the writing team behind this seminal show, and though they weren’t successful due to their ideas being too similar to planned future X-Files episodes, they were encouraged to develop their creative concepts elsewhere. During this period, they researched the Antichrist, with the intention of pitching it as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode if the opportunity arose. However, it would take on a life of its own far away from Joss Whedon’s universe and, over time, it morphed into something just as original and exiciting.
After cutting their teeth on shows such as Get Real, Ed, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the budding writing team returned to their devilish idea and developed it further. The idea was to create a supernatural comedy with its own mythology and a ‘monster of the week’ scenario, much like The X-Files and other shows of that ilk. However, they wanted to ground it somewhat in reality by focusing on characters that represented young suburbanites in their early twenties who were still living with their parents, as it was commonplace among America’s millennial generation at the time.
Once they pitched the idea to the executives at the CW Network, the show was green lit for a pilot episode to be filmed in September 2006. When Kevin Smith signed on to direct it, the show’s profile was boosted significantly and the results were impressive enough for CW to order a 13-episode series. Alas, Reaper was born.
The show centred on Sam Oliver (Brett Harrison), a slacker still living at home with his parents and coasting by in a dead end job with no desire to better himself. Then, on his 21st birthday, he finds out that his soul belongs to The Devil (played by a brilliant Ray Wise), and suddenly Sam has an inescapable moonlighting gig as a supernatural bounty hunter who must round up Hell’s escapees and send them back to the flaming pit via the Department of Motor Vehicles (a very appropriate location for a portal to Hell). Oh, and did I mention that it was his parents who sold his soul in the first place?
Joining him on his crusade were his two best friends Bert ‘Sock’ Wysocki (Tyler Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez), along with love interest Andi (Missy Peregrym). Sock was the show’s comedic heart, playing the lazy but wholly lovable sidekick to Sam’s unlikely superhero. Ben was the kind-hearted third wheeler to their unbreakable bromance, although the imprint he’d leave on the show’s fan base would elevate him to a level of cult status that was every bit as as strong as his counterparts.
The brotherly camaraderie between the three is one of the main reasons why the show ticked, but the romance between Sam and Andi is the reason why we wanted to see our protagonist succeed and live happily ever after.
Sam working for The Devil was his clarion call into adulthood, and as the episodes progressed he evolved from an slacker into someone who had to take control of his own destiny. In a way, Reaper was a coming-of-age tale; Sam’s assignments for Satan instilled him with a purpose he’d been lacking until then, not to mention his sheltered existence of man-child living had been shattered completely. But despite these fantastical elements, Sam as a character was hardly out of the ordinary whatsoever. No matter how embroiled in supernatural hocus pocus his life would become synonymous with, he remained a relatable protagonist.
Ray Wise as the Devil was the star of the show, however. The history of cinema and television is rich with memorable portrayals of Lucifer, but Wise’s depiction is arguably the greatest. The performance itself was master class, as Wise was able to shift between buddy-esque and hilarious, to sinister and terrifying, within a heartbeat — and with convincing ease. Just when you started to think that the Devil might not be so bad after all, he would remind us that he was indeed the Father of Lies and the personification of all that is wicked. If good and evil are two different sides of the same coin, then Wise’s Devil was an all-round shilling that shone brightly.
During the show’s casting stages, Buffy alumni Anthony Head and James Marsters also auditioned for the role of the Devil. However, rather than try to capitalise on the Buffy fan base by casting one of the iconic show’s most cult heroes, Butters and Fazekas instead went with the actor they felt was best for the part.
In an interview with Clique Clack in 2010, Fazekas elaborated on the casting process: “When you’re casting, I don’t like to think of who’s going to get us the most viewers. I want to pick the person who’s most suitable for the role. But as soon as Ray Wise auditioned, he was the one. He so embodied the vision of what we were looking for. He was amazing. He just blew people away.”
Indeed Wise was amazing. The actor enjoyed cult acclaim prior to Reaper following noteworthy turns in Twin Peaks and Robocop. But if you’ve seen Reaper then I’m sure you’ll agree that this role showcased him in the best light of his career thus far. Through this character he had the opportunity to exercise both comedic and dramatic chops every episode, and he pulled off both triumphantly.
Some shows struggle to integrate a myriad of characters substantially, but Reaper excelled when it came to juggling individual story arcs. By season two, the majority of the cast were embroiled in their own drama, but Ben’s transformation was by far the strongest. In season one he’s an important bit-part player aiding Sam in his supernatural quests; but by season two he’s developed into a key component of the show, locked in a turbulent, yet surprisingly sweet romance with a demon. Sock, on the other hand, goes from lovable oaf to incestuous lovable oaf as he enters a relationship of his own with his half-sister. When it comes to romance in Reaper, the relationships are far from conventional and they all present their own hilarity. Yet despite their inappropriate nature, they’re imbued with so much genuine affection and chemistry that you can’t help but root for their happily ever after too.
In 2009, CW opted not to renew the show for a third season despite its good international ratings and unanimous critical appraisal. With the success of flagship show Gossip Girl, the network wanted to move away from genre television to accommodate more romantic fluff. The cancellation came as devastating news to fans given the nature of the last episode’s climax. Revealing what happened would be doing you a disservice if you haven’t seen the show yet, but whatever corporate axe grinder decided to pull the plug on the series after that clearly has no soul. However, the creator’s revealed their plans for season three in subsequent interviews, which can be found online if you’re interested in finding out.
Since its cancellation, the cult of Reaper has only continued to grow. It’s highly unlikely that it’ll receive that dream third season we’ve all been praying for, but it’s not a show that’ll become but a whisper in the wind any time soon either. Maybe someday the story will continue in other mediums (there were rumours of a comic book some moons ago), but should the opportunity not arise to give Sam and the gang a proper goodbye, many of us will continue to relive the adventure with them for years to come. In its short time, Reaper captured lightning in a bottle and the hearts of enough viewers to warrant a legacy. It was a perfect show, and it is not hyperbole when I say it’s one of the greatest of all time.