The CW didn't exactly shock the world in its first year on the air. It introduced a grand total of two scripted series last fall; one ("Runaway") was gone inside of a month, and the other, "The Game," enjoyed an un-buzzed-about run as part of the network's Monday comedy block (it at least did well enough to return this season).
This year, though, the network is mounting three of the better shows of the fall. "Gossip Girl" and "Aliens in America" each have their pluses, but the best of the lot -- and among the best new shows of the season, period -- is "Reaper."
The story of a young slacker who, through no fault of his own, ends up in the employ of Satan himself, "Reaper" -- which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday (Sept. 25) -- showcases a deft mix of goofy comedy (both physical and verbal) and credible (and, perhaps just as important, repeatable) action. The first hour is witty and well-paced, and there seems to be plenty of room to grow in the future.
We meet Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison, last seen on FOX's underrated "The Loop") as he turns 21 with little to celebrate: He's a college dropout (it made him sleepy, he explains) who lives at home and works at a giant home-improvement store called the Work Bench, where he marks time with fellow goof-off Bert "Sock" Wysocki (Tyler Labine, "Invasion") and nurses a crush on a pretty co-worker named Andi (Missy Peregrym, "Heroes").
On his birthday, though, a few strange things happen. His parents seem unusually solicitous. An aggressively yappy dog stalks him. And he saves Andi's life by pushing a falling air conditioner out of the way -- without touching it.
The answer becomes clear soon after, as the devil ("Twin Peaks" and "24" veteran Ray Wise, in a brilliant piece of casting) informs Sam that before he was born, his parents sold his soul so his dad could beat an incurable illness. As a result, Sam must work as a bounty hunter, returning escaped souls to hell, which has become overcrowded ("I blame myself," the devil quips).
Underemployed guy forced into high-stakes job by forces beyond his control: Sound familiar? "Reaper" does share a fair amount of DNA another new show, NBC's "Chuck." How that happens is an eternal mystery of the TV development process, but this is the rare case where both shows are good enough, and different enough, to stand on their own.
With "Reaper," that difference is supplied chiefly by Wise's delicious performance. The veteran actor looks to be having the time of his life playing the nattily attired Prince of Darkness, and he's a great foil to Harrison, who does put-upon about as well as anyone. Labine provides some of the bigger laughs as the up-for-anything sidekick, but he keeps things just on this side of annoying.
Within the outlandish premise, creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters have set up what feels like a pretty logical world, which bodes well for future episodes. They've also added several gracefully funny details, such as having Sam deposit a recaptured soul at a DMV office -- anything that seems like hell on Earth, the devil explains, is. Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy") directed the pilot and has set a solid template for the series (in fact, purely from a filmmaking standpoint, it's among his better efforts). The special-effects and action sequences are good, but not so over-the-top that it feels like the year's entire budget has been blown on the pilot.
About the only question left is whether, in a fiercely competitive timeslot, enough folks will figure out where The CW is and actually watch "Reaper." No one is expecting the show to beat, say, "House," but as much as any new series this fall, it deserves to find an audience.