Much has been made of the negative way last year's writers strike impacted a number of television shows, both creatively and in terms of audience retention.
The Kevin Smith directed "Reaper" pilot was one of the best starts for any new fall 2007 show, but early episodes failed to entirely capitalize on its potential.
Too often, "Reaper" fell into a soul-of-the-week/ vessel-of-the-week/ Sockism-of-the-week rut, similar in many ways to how "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" stumbled to balance serialized and episodic elements in the early going.
"Reaper" began finding itself in the last episodes before the strike (particular the Jessica Stroup arc), but the five new episodes that closed the season were probably the show's finest, building mythology, developing core relationships and maintaining the show's ready wit and the charm of its cast.
On Tuesday (March 3) night, "Reaper" kicks off its second season, with its first new episode since last May. The big question, as I started watching my screeners, was whether or not "Reaper" would be able to maintain its momentum.
[The answer, after the break...]
If you haven't been watching "Reaper" -- and ratings suggest you aren't the only ones -- the show focuses on Sam (Bret Harrison), a poorly motivated slacker who discovered last season that his parents had sold his soul to the Devil (Ray Wise), requiring him to work as Satan's bounty hunter, capturing escaped souls and packaging them to be returned to hell. Sam immediately enlisted his best buds Sock (Tyler Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonazalez) to help with his weekly missions and, by the end of the season, he'd also told told Andi (Missy Peregrym), his friend and eventual girlfriend.
Season Two begins with Sam, Sock and Ben completing a month-long roadtrip meant to distract Sam from the newly gleaned knowledge that he's also apparently the Devil's son. This latest secret is one that he hasn't bothered to share with Andi.
Uh-oh, fans of the show might be thinking. We're back to secret-keeping with Andi? That can't be good. And indeed, that's just part of the creative backsliding that makes the season's early "Reaper" episodes feel like the show is backsliding.
The Sam-Andi relationship has been an albatross from the beginning. It didn't work in the original pilot, which may be why Peregrym took over the role for Nikki Reed. Since Sam couldn't just come out and tell Andi his secret, though, the show went through a dozen-plus episodes of "Sam is acting weird and Andi doesn't know why, so they can't be together" nonsense. Meanwhile, bringing in new love interests for Sam (including the aforementioned Stroup) only helped the show. Finally letting Sam open up to Andi and letting the two of them become a couple broke a repetitive cycle, but it didn't solve any of the problems. Sam's desire to keep Andi out of trouble has been needlessly distancing, especially since if you take one look at Missy Peregrym (or you've seen "Stick It"), you know that Andi would be far more capable in a soul-fight than either Ben or Sock.
Instead, the early episodes have forced Andi to revert to the same looks of disapproval and confusion that prevented Harrison and Peregrym from ever developing chemistry last season.
Harrison, cut from the Adam Brody/Zachary Levi cloth, is such a likable leading man and is so fine with either comedy or drama, but he can't sell dialogue like, "I wasn't running away from you. I was running away from the Devil," especially not if it's supposed to be in earnest.
Peregrym is given a bit more to do in the season's third episode, when she gets a promotion at the Work Bench, but keeping her separate from the show's Satanic plots didn't work last year and it isn't working this year.
Maybe she'll have more to do when the season's extended arcs become a bit clearer? Last year only kicked into gear with the addition of the gay demons played by Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black, two parts of a conspiracy to overthrow the Devil, a plot that eventually tied in with Sam's growing questions about his paternity. This season hints at demonic attempts on Sam's life and Sam's ongoing attempts to break his deal with the Devil, but nothing in the episodes I've seen give a clear indication of where the season's going. As a result, the episodes feel more like episodes two-through-eight of last season.
When "Reaper" fails to find any dramatic heft, the cast can always be counted on to deliver laughs. Labine, who felt like a Jack Black clone in the pilot, hits his comic marks with an aggressiveness that often forces laughs even when the writing isn't all that funny. As "Reaper" sidekicks go, I prefer Gonzalez, who's subtle and deft where Labine is a broad wrecking ball. When Sam, Ben and Sock are at their best, they deliver a Three Stooges vibe similar to what Morgan, Jeff and Lester bring to "Chuck."
The main reason to watch "Reaper" is still Wise, who deserved a supporting actor Emmy nomination last year, if you ask me. As much as I love "Twin Peaks," this is Wise's career-defining performance, a triumph of twinkling eyes, rogue-ish grins and an undercurrent of danger and, when the show actually lets him loose, evil. Last season let Sam and Satan play out an employer-employee dynamic, but the father-son rapport is slow to build thus far in Season Two.
My tentative disappointment with "Reaper" isn't that the show has issues to work out, but that its issues seem to be the exact same things that appeared to have been fixed last season. What to do about Sam and Andi? How to avoid soul-of-the-week monotony? How to progress the show's bigger mythological questions without alienating sporadic viewers? With only 13 episodes in this truncated season and with its chances for renewal feeling remote, "Reaper" needed to hit the ground running this season. Instead, the show is back to being a work-in-progress, a work-in-progress that The CW has scheduled opposite "American Idol."