Features and Columns · TV

‘Reaper’ Gave the Devil His Due

The short-lived series was like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ for millennial slackers.
Reaper Tv Show
By  · Published on May 7th, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.

Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas met while working as part of the sales and merchandising team for The X-Files. They both wanted to become writers, and it didn’t take long for them to start coming up with ideas for their own supernatural-themed show.

During this period, they researched the antichrist with the intention of pitching a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. That didn’t come to fruition, but their devilish idea evolved over time, and after cutting their teeth working on other shows, Reaper premiered in 2007.

Similar to The X-Files and Buffy, Reaper is a supernatural comedy with a “monster-of-the-week” set-up coupled with overarching storylines. That said, instead of focusing on special agents or empowered teenagers, Reaper revolves around lovable millennial slackers.

The story follows Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison), a department store employee who still lives at home. On his 21st birthday, he finds out that his parents sold his soul to The Devil (Ray Wise), who subsequently forces Sam to moonlight as a bounty hunter of the damned. Think Brimstone, but with more laughs.

Joining Sam for the ride are his friends Sock (Tyler Labine), Ben (Rick Gonzalez), and Andi (Missy Peregrym). Together they hunt down Hell’s escaped demons and send them back to the pit. Whenever Sam has some downtime, though, he tries to figure out ways to get out of his Satanic destiny so he can be with Andi and regain some semblance of a normal life.

Working for the Devil isn’t all bad, though. Despite the downsides, it forces Sam to try and take charge of his life. Sure, the Devil’s ownership of his soul means that Sam is trapped. But by defeating demons and trying to gain control of his own destiny, Sam becomes a much stronger and determined person, while still remaining the lovable everyman geek whom viewers meet in the very first episode.

Sam’s burden marks the beginning of his journey into real adulthood. His story is a coming-of-age tale at its core, albeit one that explores the awkward years of being a confused young twentysomething. This is a show that uses supernatural ideas as a metaphor for maturing and personal growth, but the fantastical qualities are still the best part.

The show’s villains are mostly former mortals who committed crimes or sold their souls in life. Upon escaping Hell and returning to Earth with newfound supernatural powers, they set about handling their unfinished business. Some of the baddies are even based on real-life figures, brought back from the dead to wreak havoc once again.

In one episode, Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of William McKinley, returns to the land of the living possessing the ability to turn his hands into guns. Most of the villains have powers that mean something to them, and that’s one of the show’s most entertaining quirks.

Of course, the Devil is the best villain of the bunch, and Wise knocks the part out of the park. His character is lighthearted and likable while still being an evil bastard. Just when you start to think he might not be so bad after all, he reminds you that he’s the personification of all that is wicked.

Reaper also features some hilarious subplots. Sock, for example, enters into a problematic relationship with his half-sister, yet he’s such a lovable oaf that you want their love to succeed. Labine has a knack for playing offensive slobs with hearts of gold, and Sock is arguably the finest character he’s ever portrayed.

That said, when it comes to romance in Reaper, most of the relationships are far from conventional. Ben falls in love with a demon, much to the dismay of his religious grandmother. This is also when Reaper delves deeper into its demonic mythology and presents the creatures in a more nuanced light.

My favorite demons are Steve (Michael Ian Black) and Tony (Ken Marino), a couple who rebelled against the Devil and befriended Sam and the gang. They decide to help Sam on his quest to beat Lucifer, as they are working on building an army of exiled demons to wage war on Hell.

From the major players to the minor supporting characters, Reaper is a show populated by strong characters who each bring something unique and interesting to the table. Even those with the least significant roles in the grand scheme of things make an impression, and that’s one of many reasons why Reaper is such a gem.

In 2009, The CW opted not to renew the show for a third season despite its solid international ratings and positive reviews. With the success of Gossip Girl, the network wanted to move away from genre television to accommodate more accessible shows, and Reaper‘s interspecies romances and monster madness didn’t fit that vision.

The cancellation was devastating, though, as Season 2 ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. Revealing what happened would be doing you a disservice if you haven’t seen the show yet, but the need to find out what happens is what makes Reaper a Petition Worthy show.

Reaper never received the opportunity to say goodbye on its own terms, and that’s heartbreaking. A revival seems unlikely now, but the cast did reunite for a walk down memory lane a few years ago and explained how things would have panned out. I recommend checking that out as well, even though it will make you miss the show.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.