Welcome to TV Graveyard, a weekly column that delves into television history and remembers those forgotten shows that deserve a long-overdue celebration. From one-season wonders to under the radar gems that spanned several seasons, our aim is to dig up those television treats that deserve to be rediscovered.
The origins of Reaper can be traced back to The X-Files. Having met while working as part of that show’s sales and merchandising team, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas decided that their true calling was to write television. Fortunately for them, the pair had access to people who were doing just that, and their position allowed them to pitch story ideas to the writing team behind the seminal show. Unfortunately, their ideas were too similar to planned future X-Files episodes to pen adventures for Mulder and Scully, but they still showed a lot of promise and the duo 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 ever arose. However, their devilish idea would soon 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 exciting.
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 Antichrist 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, instead of focusing on special agents, they decided to ground the story somewhat in reality by focusing on everyday characters who represented young suburbanites in their early twenties, still living with their parents, trying to find their path in life 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) because his parents sold it to the dark lord. This leads to Sam being forced into a moonlighting gig as a bounty hunter who must round-up Hell’s dangerous escapees and send them back to the flaming pit via the Department of Motor Vehicles (a very appropriate location for a portal to Hell). The show’s premise is somewhat reminiscent of the ’90s show Brimstone, which also followed a damned soul tasked with hunting Hell’s escapees on behalf of Satan.
Joining Sam on his crusade were his two best friends, Sock (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 everyman superhero. Ben was the more reasonable one and the brains of the group, but he was also the most prone to getting hurt. The camaraderie between the group is one of the main reasons why the show ticked, and the chemistry between the actors felt natural.
Working for the Devil wasn’t all bad, though. In a way it was like being forced to join the army. While there is a laundry list of reasons to morally disapprove of such a predicament, it’s good for toughening you up and whatnot. Sam’s satanic burden was his clarion call into adulthood and as the episodes progressed he evolved from a slacker into a heroic warrior out to defy the odds and take control of his own destiny. Reaper was a coming-of-age tale at heart; Sam’s assignments for Satan instilled him with a purpose and qualities he’d been lacking until then — like focus, bravery, problem-solving skills, and the ability to stand toe-to-toe with monsters from the abyss and survive. Yet 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 was he remained a grounded protagonist who never ceased to be admirable. Sometimes life throws shit at us we cannot control and must find a way to overcome. Sam spent every episode battling impossible odds without ever stewing in the bitterness he had every right to feel given his situation.
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. He was simultaneously charming and downright evil. The performance itself was master class, as Wise was able to shift between a hilarious buddy/father-figure to a sinister and terrifying bastard within a heartbeat — and with convincing ease, too. 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 a shilling that shone brightly.
During the show’s casting stages, Buffy alumni Anthony Head and James Marsters also auditioned for the role of old Beelzebub. However, rather than try to capitalise on the Buffy fan base by casting one of the iconic show’s most beloved denizens, Butters and Fazekas instead went with the actor they felt was best for the part.
Wise had garnered much cult acclaim prior to Reaper following noteworthy turns in Twin Peaks and Robocop, and Reaper made for a perfect vehicle to showcase his abilities. This was a meaty role he could sink his glowing white teeth into. Through this character he had the opportunity to exercise both comedic and dramatic chops every episode, and he gleefully beamed through the majority of his scenes with a menacing smirk and unparalleled charisma. I wanted Sam to find a way out of his torment, sure, but I was in no rush for him to get there because seeing Wise at his bastardly best was too much of a thrill.
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 caught up 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 in 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 and drama. Yet despite their inappropriate nature, they’re imbued with so much genuine affection and chemistry that you can’t help but root for their success. Demons deserve love too, and if you’re banging your half-sister consensually and you’re both into it then go and live your truth. I’m sure there was a message in there somewhere about being true to yourself and empowering love among outcasts, but mostly it just made for entertaining onscreen shenanigans.
Season two also introduced us to Steve (Michael Ian Black) and Tony (Ken Marino), a pair of demons — and a loving couple — who rebelled against the Devil and befriended our heroes. Obviously sympathetic to Sam’s situation, they made it their mission to help him on his quest to beat ol’ Lucifer as it fit in with their own plans to do the same. Elsewhere, another memorable season two addition was Morgan (Armie Hammer), Satan’s self-involved egotistical prick of a son who was all about nice clothes, flashy cars, and greed. From the major players to the minor supporting characters, Reaper was a show populated by an array of strong characters who each brought something unique and interesting to the table. Even those with the least significant roles in the grand scheme of things made an impression.
As for the show’s episodic villains, they were all former mortals who committed crimes or sold their souls while alive which ultimately led to their damnation. Upon escaping Hell and returning to Earth with newfound supernatural powers, they set about handling unfinished business and it was up to Sam and co. to send them back in a vessel of some kind, ranging from everyday household items to more effective means. Furthermore, the escapees powers were synonymous with their lives; for example, Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, returned to the land of the living with the ability to turn his hands into guns. Most of Reaper’s villains appeared in a human guise, but for those of us who love scary-looking monsters, the show catered to our ghoulish hearts by featuring some truly hideous demons with fangs and wings. All in all, a perfect mix.
In 2009, CW opted not to renew the show for a third season despite its acceptable 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 that catered to the mushy hearts of the mainstream. The cancellation came as devastating news to fans given the nature of the last episode’s climax, which saw Sam come close to escaping his hellish fate only to have the rug pulled out from under him by an unexpected party. 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 and deserves to burn in the same Hell Sam sent creatures back to. If you want to find out what season three would have entailed then there are interviews with the creators online sharing the details.
Since its cancellation, the cult of Reaper has remembered the show fondly. If you mention the show to someone who watched it, they’ll probably smile as they recall how great it was then make a sad face as they are once again struck with the realisation of how it ended prematurely. It’s highly unlikely that the show will receive that dream third season we’ve all been praying for, but maybe someday the story will continue in other mediums (there were rumours of a comic book some moons ago). That said, 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 our memories, reruns and online streaming services (and hopefully a swanky Blu-ray release eventually). In its short time, Reaper captured lightning in a bottle and the hearts of enough viewers to make us want to dance with the Devil a little while longer.