Created by Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters
Produced by Dark Baby Productions, The Mark Gordon Company, ABC Studios, Fazekas & Butters
Aired on The CW for 2 season (31 episodes) from September 25, 2007 – May 26, 2009
Bret Harrison as Sam Oliver
Tyler Labine as Burt ‘Sock’ Wysocki
Missy Peregrym as Andi Prendergast
Rick Gonzalez as Ben Gonzalez
Ray Wise as the Devil
Sam Oliver is a coddled college dropout who spends his daily routine living a low stakes life with his slacker friends while working at a hardware megastore named “The Work Bench”. He’s got no real skills, no ambition, and no desire for much of anything, except for maybe harboring a longtime crush on his coworker Andi. A fire is put under Sam after he learns that his parents had sold his soul to the Devil, which will be claimed upon his 21st birthday. When the Devil arrives, he tasks Sam with being his bounty hunter, recollecting escaped souls to be returned to Hell. Sam begrudgingly accepts the position after the Devil threatens to take his mother in his place if Sam does not comply with his demands.
Now Sam spends week after week chasing Hell escapees and trying to figure out how to best utilize the weapons that the Devil gives him to send them back to their fiery incarceration. Sam hunts alongside his friends Sock and Ben, who both aid and, at times, complicate his missions. They say that “idle hands are the Devil’s plaything”, and now that the Devil holds claim over Sam’s soul, he’s going to make something out of him, whether Sam likes it or not.
The conception of Reaper came from the minds of writing/Executive Producing team Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters, who had met working as writing assistants on the set of The X-Files. While there, Fazekas had pitched a Scully-centric episode that would feature an anti-Christ threat, but the idea was shot down, as the show had already filled its quota of Scully/religious episodes. It wasn’t until Fazekas shared the idea with Butters that they decided to work together to break it down as a spec episode for Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead. That spec opened doors for them and solidified their pairing, which got them work on shows that were mostly non-genre, such as the short-lived Get Real and NBC’s Ed, before landing themselves on the writing staff of Law & Order: SVU.
Years later, the duo met with Mark Gordon Company to pitch new shows to develop, one of which was the supernatural slacker comedy Reaper, which they decided to take on. From there, they lobbied the show to several networks before signing with fledgling network The CW. The newly formed network had been on the lookout for shows that could distinguish them from other networks. On their schedule at the time were programs like Supernatural, Smallville, Veronica Mars, 7th Heaven, and One Tree Hill.
The CW ordered the pilot into production and acquired noteworthy filmmaker Kevin Smith to serve as director and consultant for the show. Fazekas & Butters had worked with Bret Harrison on an episode of Law & Order: SVU and were familiar with his range as presented on Grounded for Life, which secured their idea that he would be right for the lead role. Harrison got the part despite already being the lead in the certain-to-be cancelled FOX show The Loop (where he oddly also played a character named Sam). Tyler Labine was soon thereafter cast, and at the time he had been most notable for his role in the short lived sci-fi series Invasion.
One of the most important parts to cast was that of The Devil, and it had also been the most difficult to cast, as a variety of actors had auditioned for the position. Among those considered were Louis CK, Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters, and last but not least, Paul Feig (Bridesmaids director and creator of Freaks and Geeks). As it so happens, Feig had been so impressed with the pilot script that he had wanted to direct it, but since he couldn’t, he decided to try his luck at portraying the Devil. Ultimately the role was given to the ageless and insurmountable Ray Wise, whose charming game show host take on the Devil was exactly what the show needed. Now with all the pieces together, the pilot was filmed and presented for the networks, who liked what they saw and ordered it to series.
The pilot sets up the world of Reaper extraordinarily well. This is greatly due to the assured writing and the stellar cast that ideally presents the smart and unique material. Kevin Smith’s strengths has always been in his writing more so than his direction style, which is mostly minimal camera movement and plenty of static talking head scenes, but his sensibility served the Reaper pilot well, as it grounded the reality early on, gradually allowing the eeriness to take hold as more of the supernatural elements became known. Smith doesn’t do anything outside of his range here, as he clearly takes the opening sequence from his first feature film Clerks to set up the slacker tone, and then draws on what he had done in Dogma for the supernatural flourish.
Harrison is a solid likable lead that makes the audience sympathize with him despite his slacker disposition. As the series’ main protagonist, Harrison plays the comedy of his situation as well as he does the drama. The breakout personality of the show is Tyler Labine as Sock. Fazekas & Butters had mentioned on occasion that Sock had been based on a real life person that they knew, and when they saw Labine for the role they just saw him as a replica of that person. Sock is simply a lovable slob that is innocent in his selfishness, as he is mostly id over ego, demanding immediate satisfaction to his wants with the least effort expelled. The dynamic of the core Reaper team is completed with Rick Gonzales as Ben, a sensitive goodhearted person who stands by bravely with his friends as they face imminent dangers. At times throughout the series, Ben would have the least integrated subplots to the overarching mythology, but by the second season his story found cohesiveness due to his relationship with a supernatural being.
The series often takes this trio and pits them against the escapee of the week missions, which is a structure that the show finds comfort in throughout its run. This formula is to some small degree like Charlie’s Angels, with the three being the Angels and their Charlie being the Devil incarnate, in the form of Ray Wise. There are many ways to play the Devil, and Wise truly makes it his own with his steely smile and rat pack era style. There is a wonderful charm in his performance that allows him sound sincere even when he’s clearly being manipulative. It’s a testament to Wise’s talent that he is able to show glimmers of humanity in the Devil without betraying the character’s evil nature.
The pilot had been originally filmed with actress Nikki Reed in the role of Sam’s love interest Andi, but she was later recast when the show got picked up to series. Missy Peregrym had joined Reaper right after finishing a recurring role on Heroes. The fans of the unaired pilot were not very pleased with this change, often disregarding Peregrym as being simply a superficial casting choice. Peregrym isn’t at all bad in this role, as they would have you believe. She has a different sensibility than Reed, playing the character with much more vulnerability. Andi is the cool girl that Sam wants to date, but early on in the series, her character is a bit undefined, as she mainly served as the object of Sam’s affection, rather than having actual dimensions. The show corrects this by the end of the season, giving Peregrym more to do and more complexity to play.
The production value of the series varies from time to time, and is mostly good to quite remarkable. The prop department does an excellent job with the capturing items, and they only become more fun as the series begins to develop its mythology. The escapees are often really creatively designed, as are the other worldly beings that start to feed into the overall serialized plot by the middle of season one.
The early episodes are mostly monster-of-the-week type formulaic, with sporadic movements in the ongoing plot, but the show really comes into its own by the end of the first season, which boosted the show from good to great. Fazekas & Butters had said that it was in those later episodes, where the network were too distracted by Writer’s strike issues, that allowed the writers to really take the series in the direction they wanted.
The CW picked up the series for a 13 episode order, and after gaining viewership during that first year, the network expanded the episode order to stretch out the season, as there had be a delay in the general production due to the Writer’s Strike. Reaper was soon thereafter picked up for a second season with another 13 episode order.
Although the ratings were consistent, The CW opted to cancel the series just before airing its season finale. It appears as if the network was more interested in appealing to their Gossip Girl audience, rather than maintain the audience that Reaper would draw in. While the network was no longer airing the series, there was a brief time where the show’s studio attempted to keep the show going. Reaper had been a popular show among the network’s affiliate stations, to which ABC Studios had planned to sell a first run syndication package deal along with Legend of the Seeker. Cable networks such as Spike TV and the Sci Fi channel were also interested in picking up the show, and some of the actors would encourage fans to campaign these networks for a pick up. Ultimately all plans to continue never manifested, and the creative team and cast began the process of moving on.
The cancellation caused an outcry from fans, and in some cases made them turn against the actors and creators, blaming them for taking on other jobs as the reason why the networks decided not to pick up the show. Fazekas & Butters had signed a development deal with 20th Century TV and Tyler Labine was cast in Sons of Tuscon, which had just been picked up, as Reaper‘s return was still a faint possibility. If the series had been picked up, there were options that could’ve been taken, such as continuing the series without Harrison and Labine, maintaining Wise as the Devil to torment a new Reaper team. Alas, this too was not to be.
The series gained cult status, with more audiences discovering the show via its availability on Netflix instant streaming. In 2013, an on demand channel that branched off into an internet streaming site called FEARnet bought the syndication rights to the show and produced a 30 minute reunion special to promote the acquisition. It was here at this time that the creative team was approached by the new president of The CW network to possibly revive the show for a summer series. Fazekas & Butters considered it, but in the end passed on it due to the network’s insistence that they needed to re-develop the series all over again.
Currently there is no word on the likelihood of a third season to Reaper. In a perfect world, the show would be able to return with the cast intact and be helmed by Fazekas & Butters, whose sensibility and creativity is truly at the heart of this show and what makes it great.
Every once in a while this column likes feature a TV series that is actually available on home video, but pulling from the bottom of the DVD bargain bin in order to re-evaluate a maligned or a possibly obscured show. After viewing Reaper, it is clear that this show is an overlooked gem that merits its cult following. It’s fun and smart genre fare that belongs on the shelf alongside shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and The X-Files. In some ways this show would make a really good companion series to Wonderfalls, as they interestingly parallel one another and both share the theme of an early twenties slacker that is being coerced by spiritual forces directing them into action. While Jaye is compelled to help people, Sam is purposed to condemn them. These two really feel like opposite sides of the same coin.
Reaper has the kind of premise that could’ve gone on for much longer than it was given. Ideally it would’ve been the M*A*S*H of supernatural shows, with Ray Wise as the Hawkeye constant, where after a cycle they could get a new group for the Devil to play with. Unfortunately, the show got the axe before it could even properly close out the Sam era. We can remain hopeful that one day Fazekas & Butters will be able to get enough pull to someday revive the show again in order to bring closure to the story they left open with the second season finale “The Devil and Sam Oliver”. There is a chance that this could happen, as now more than ever before there has been a recent trend of TV show revivals surfacing. As it is, Reaper is still a really entertaining show whose quality warrants a place in anyone’s television series set collection.
Michelle Fazekas & Tara Butters would go on to write episodes for Dollhouse, Resurrection, and most recently Marvel’s Agent Carter.
Bret Harrison would be featured on the second season of V (2009), star in Breaking In, and has most recently appeared on The Astronaut Wives Club.
Tyler Labine would later join the cast of Sons of Tuscon, Mad Love, Animal Practice, and is currently starring in the Hulu Original series Deadbeat.
Missy Peregrym would later star in Cybergeddon and Rookie Blue.
Rick Gonzalez has since appeared on Medium, Castle, Cold Case, Rush, Battle Creek, and most recently on Mr. Robot.
There are DVD box sets of both Season 1 and Season 2. Amazon streaming has Season 1 and Season 2 available to purchase. Only the first season is available to stream on Hulu. The first season and second season are also obtainable through the iTunes Store as video downloads.