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‘Reaper’ awaits its renew or adieu call

CHANNEL ISLAND

Given that he punches the clock at the studio every day, maybe Satan could give the producers of “Reaper” some survival advice. The show could sure use it.

A quirky comedy-drama about a young guy forced to work for the devil (played as an unctuous charmer by veteran character actor Ray Wise) after his parents sell his soul, “Reaper” generated near-universal critical acclaim when the beleaguered CW marched it out last fall. But as is so often the case, all that acclaim may prove the kiss of death.

Bedeviled --heh -- by disappointing ratings, the series has joined the short list of other shows that find themselves “on the bubble” -- that is, nervously awaiting word on whether they’ll return in the fall. Most networks officially announce their schedules next month.

“They would be foolish not to pick us up,” executive producer Tom Spezialy told me last week.

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Hey, you can’t knock the guy for hoping. This year’s endangered list includes some established series, such as ABC’s “Boston Legal” and CBS’ “The Unit,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “How I Met Your Mother.” But the algebra of TV renewals typically punishes new shows like “Reaper” the most because studios are anxious to cut their losses early if a program looks like it’s treading water.

That’s why we’ve bid adieu to shows such as ABC’s “Big Shots” and NBC’s “Bionic Woman,” while so-so performers that executives nevertheless believe could grow -- such as Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” or CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” -- won early pickups from the networks.

Another series that’s returning? CW’s “Gossip Girl,” the teen soap that has averaged fewer viewers this season than “Reaper” but does noticeably better among the advertiser-beloved cohort of viewers ages 18 to 34. Clearly, the CW is trying to mine more of the urbane-teen mode. The network is developing a spinoff of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” as well as a series based on the books “How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls,” from the same publisher as the “Gossip Girl” novels. Having evidently decided where its future lies, CW promoted last week’s return of “Gossip Girl” with a splashy, sexually suggestive ad campaign headlining the text language that’s faddy among teens (“OMG” and a more vulgar version of that acronym). As a result, the “Gossip Girl” episode was the second highest rated so far among young adults, according to Nielsen Media Research. (“Gossip Girl” producers declined to comment.)

The “Reaper” folk say they aren’t distracted by such stuff.

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“I think a lot of networks are struggling with just the changing viewership” of TV, said Michele Fazekas, the executive producer who created “Reaper” with Tara Butters.

“ ‘Gossip Girl’ is a show the network is very excited about and has always been very excited about,” she added. “We’re not competing with them, that’s the thing. We’re not competing with even their audience.”

That’s true; the crowd that “Reaper” draws, such as it is, is older and more male than that of “Gossip Girl.” But complicating “Reaper’s” case are lingering doubts about the long-term health of its network home. Few in the TV industry have had an easy time of it in this strike-plagued season, and on Thursday, a passel of prime-time shows sunk to lowest-ever ratings, including the much-anticipated, post-strike return of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But the outlook is especially grim for the CW, a joint effort between CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. that’s perhaps best known as the home of “America’s Next Top Model.” (Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, also owns many of the stations that air CW programming, including KTLA Channel 5.) For all the praise heaped on the network’s schedule last fall by advertisers and critics, ratings in the CW’s core demographic of adults 18 to 34 have plunged 27%, season to date, prompting agents and rival executives to speculate that its corporate partners will soon shutter it.

This may not be the time for the struggling network to take a flier on a first-year series that hasn’t set off any fires among viewers.

John Rash, an analyst for ad firm Campbell Mithun, said the CW has had “a challenging year -- at best.” The young, media-savvy viewers the network wants are “the hardest to catch and the first to flee repeats, which dominated the media form during the writers strike,” he added.

The CW wouldn’t make any of its executives available for an interview. But spokesman Paul McGuire said in a statement: “Building a network, establishing a brand and creating hits, especially in today’s crowded TV landscape, takes time, and patience is required.”

As for “Reaper,” the network isn’t offering much comfort. McGuire called it a “quality show” but added, “Its future will be revealed when we announce our schedule May 13.” Fazekas said the network has remained “very supportive” but noted that in terms of hints about its prospects for a renewal, “We don’t have really any more information” than what the network told this column.

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So the producers are rushing to finish the season’s last few episodes, not knowing whether their labors should also include planning the season or the series finale. But they say they’re hopeful, in part because “Reaper” is finally hitting its stride after some rocky creative patches early on. They point to last week’s episode, in which a gay couple (who are in fact demons) try to persuade protagonist Sam (Bret Harrison) to join a mutiny against Satan, as an example of the darkly comic tone they seek.

“It certainly took about 10 episodes to get us all on the same page,” said Spezialy, who previously hired Butters and Fazekas as writers on the Fox sitcom “Get Real.” The show is such “a blend of black comedy and horror -- and just traditional character comedy and some legitimate drama, we hope -- that’s it’s hard to find the tone in a language that everyone understands.”

Fazekas added: “We understand what the show is now and what it can be. I think now that we’re in this groove, all of a sudden, in a weird way, instead of narrowing what our prospects are, it just opens them up. ‘Oh, I can see what Season 3 is now, and Season 5.’ ”

“We can only hope,” Spezialy murmured.

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Channel Island runs every Monday. Send e-mail to scott.collins@latimes.com


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