With network upfront presentations only a month away, tis the season for publications to begin prognosticating on which shows will return next season, which shows are on the bubble and which shows are as good as dead.

That's how I know that The CW's "Reaper" is dead. "Reaper" is as dead as "Knight Rider" and "The Ex-List" and "Do Not Disturb." USA Today told me so and The Hollywood Reporter agrees and since they have "sources," I can only assume they're right.

The problem is that I look at the ratings every Wednesday morning and what I see doesn't look nearly so clear-cut. While I'm not going to try telling you that "Reaper" has earned its place on The CW's schedule for next year, it certainly has earned as much of a second look as "Privileged," which both esteemed publications agree is, at the very least On the Bubble.

My argument after the break...

Perhaps The Hollywood Reporter and USA Today have decided that "Reaper" is dead because "Reaper" certainly was supposed to be dead. The CW brought "Reaper" back for a shortened second season as a tip of the hat to a series that seemed to have found its voice in its post-strike episodes. After idling on the shelf for a while, "Reaper" was scheduled for a mid-March premiere in the Tuesday 9 p.m. timeslot.

Then "American Idol" came along and crushed "90210" in their first head-to-head showdown. The CW, wisely hoping to protect its fledgling crown jewel from a ratings buzzsaw targeting the identical audience (and then-some), moved "90210" to 9 p.m. The network also pushed up the premiere of "Reaper" by two weeks (reducing the possible promo time) and placed it in the 8 p.m. hole opposite the most popular show on television. A show that creatively finished its first season like a lion, entered its second season as a lamb, a sacrificial one. 

A strange thing has happened. 

"Reaper," which could have been forgiven for pulling in "13 - Fear Is Real" numbers on Tuesday night, has held its own. OK. That's a bit of an overstatement. "Reaper" premiered on March 3 with an estimated 2.36 million viewers, just over a 10th of what "Idol" did that same night and the sort of numbers that NBC couldn't even tolerate on a Saturday night from "Kings." In subsequent airings, the ratings have fallen only slightly. For the season, "Reaper" is  averaging nearly 2.25 million viewers per week.

The CW put "Reaper" against "American Idol" to cut "90210" a little slack, but since "90210" returned at the end of March, it has regularly lost to "Reaper" in total viewers. While "90210" capitalized on the return of Tori Spelling to outdraw "Reaper" last week, Tuesday's (April 21) numbers were more typical, with "Reaper" averaging 2.2 million viewers and "90210" doing 1.9 million. 

"Privileged," which aired after "90210" at a time "90210" was drawing a far larger audience, averaged under 1.8 million viewers per week. And it's on the bubble?

It's here that I backtrack to clarify the obvious flaw in my logic: While "Reaper" may have beaten "90210" in viewers on Tuesday, it averaged only a 0.8 rating in the The CW's target 18-34 demographic, while "90210" did a 1.2 rating in the demo. I know we're not talking CBS numbers here, but 50 percent is 50 percent. Similarly, "Privileged" averaged a 1.1 rating in the target demo. As the lowest rated of the five networks, The CW is also the most targeted in its viewership, so overall numbers matter a good deal less.

But how would "Reaper" do if it weren't opposite "Idol"? How would it do with a lead-in, particularly a demographically compatible lead-in like a "Smallville" or a "Supernatural"? The CW doesn't really know. All "Reaper" has done is go into a time slot where it was supposed to die and it has survived.

In terms of quality, "Reaper" has a less compelling case to make than it did last spring at the same time. "Reaper" improved as it became more serialized and less soul-of-the-week in the second half of its first season, but new episodes have fallen back into that rut, despite the growing tensions between Bret Harrison's Sam, newly introduced half-brother Morgan (The CW's spring MVP Armie Hammer) and his Dark Lord Daddy (Ray Wise). Sam's attempts to get out of his deal with the Devil are only slowly becoming more centralized, offering hope for another end-of-season charge.

The supporting players have experienced an unevenness as the writers have tried to expand their roles beyond being mere sidekicks on Sam's weekly adventures. I know there are some passionate advocates for the humor brought by Tyler Labine's Sock, but did anybody really need to spend five weeks on Sock's attempts to deflower his stepsister, followed by her speedy departure? I've always preferred Rick Gonzalez's Ben for comic relief, but what to make of Ben's relationship with Ben's human-on-demon relationship with Nina (Jenny Wade), a pairing so totally Xander-Anya that the writers have made bunny references to seemingly acknowledge the theft/homage. And might it have been kinder to set Missy Peregrym free to pursue other projects, rather than leave her Andi stuck in a familiar on-again-off-again pairing with Sam?

There are still many reasons for The CW to want to stay in the "Reaper" business. The first is still Harrison, who I continue to maintain will eventually find the vehicle that will make him a TV star. There's no reason why "Reaper" shouldn't be that vehicle and maybe The CW should just keep him around in case the right project moves into the development pipeline and they want to have him handy. The other main reason would be Wise, whose Devil is one of TV's singular creations, dapper, charismatic and vicious when he needs to be. I argued that Wise deserved an Emmy nomination last year and while I don't know if he's had the perfect showcase episode, he's every bit as deserving. 

That's part of the problem. The two reasons to watch the show are a 27-year-old leading man and its 61-year-old villain. If I were to expand my list, I'd go to Gonzalez and then Labine. The CW, with its love of young female viewers, isn't going to go to the mattresses for this sort of supernatural sausage-fest unless the "Supernatural" men have the last name "Winchester."

When asked, a CW source stuck to what would logically be the party line: The fate of "Reaper" has not yet be determined and nothing will be made official until the upfronts. Of course not. 

The signs of pending demise are myriad. "Reaper" went unmentioned when The CW renewed "Gossip Girl," "One Tree Hill," "90210," "Smallville," "Supernatural" and "America's Next Top Model" in a single pen-stroke. The perception has been that despite low ratings, "Privileged" is where "Reaper" is last year -- a ratings-starved first-year series with a passionate fanbase and an up-and-coming lead (Joanna Garcia) -- with the logic saying that the chances of such a show breaking out in its second season is better than in its third go-round. 

It hasn't helped that series creators Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters signed a new production deal at 20th Century Fox, leaving ABC Studios and "Reaper" behind. It didn't look great when Labine snagged a lead role in a FOX comedy pilot, even if "Reaper" remained contractually in first-position.

Next week, we'll get the season finales of my two biggest Save this Show pet projects of the spring, with "Chuck" (I'm still hopeful) on Monday and "Better Off Ted" (not much hope) on Wednesday. Expect a hard pitch from this blog on behalf of both of those shows.

I just wanted to pause and pay a little attention to "Reaper" and note that just because USA Today and The Hollywood Reporter say it's dead doesn't necessarily mean it deserves to be. "Reaper" has put in combat duty this spring, facing down an unbeatable foe with a certain modestly rated valiance. The least The CW can do is give the show its due consideration.

Any other "Reaper" fans out there?

 

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