Background: Every once in awhile a television show comes on that sounds so lame, so goofy, and so strange that I watch it out of morbid curiosity before it fades away into obscurity. For all the "TV on DVD" titles out there on the market, how many thousands more languish in production company vaults, never to see the light of day again? With that in mind, I started watching a quirky little show last season, as much because the premiere was written and directed by Kevin Smith as anything else, soon to be available on DVD as Reaper Season One. Let it be known that if you're a religious zealot or lack a sense of humor, you can skip this review entirely since the subject matter deals with Satan and his wicked ways as he uses his evil powers to manipulate a hapless goofball slacker in an almost charming manner.
The sparse menu page
Series: Reaper Season One is primarily the story of Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison), a young man just turned 21 in the Pacific Northwest. To many people, such a day is one of celebration, the rite of passage into adulthood in some areas but to Sam, it serves an even more special purpose. His day goes really badly at home, at work, and in his social life, his parents acting particularly weird towards him. All of this serves as signs to Sam that something is going to happen to him, even if he doesn't yet know it. Then the Devil (Ray Wise) walks into his life, not some wannabe but the real deal and he catches Sam off guard. After a minor display of his abilities, Sam is a believer and finds out his parents made a deal with Satan before he was born, selling their firstborn off in exchange for something of great value. They are sketchy about the details and his father purposely avoids his questions, Sam finding out that should he deny his part in the matter, the Devil will take his mother to Hell. Talk about pressure!
This is Sam Oliver waking up on his 21st Birthday
The Devil is not going to take Sam into Hell right away though since he has a plan. He presents Sam with what he (the Devil) wants, a supernatural bounty hunter on Earth to reclaim evil souls that have escaped his domain. Most of them are really bad guys too; mass murders, arsonists, and others that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting population. This serves as a further incentive for Sam to go along with the arrangement, helping others as a sort of higher calling with the help of his two best friends Ben (Rick Gonzalez) and Sock (Tyler Labine). The Devil refuses to make it easy for Sam though and provides clues as to who the bad guy is, a container called a "vessel" holding a unique means of capturing the soul appearing each week out of nowhere. While this sounds easy enough, the souls do not want to go back to Hell and each of them has supernatural gifts of their own, a fireman able to launch fireballs from his hands, a murderer that changes his tattoos into killing instruments, a phantom menace, a lightning charged maniac, an insect controlling broad, and an assortment of others that Sam must capture.
Here are Sock, Sam, and Ben with the first Vessel.
Sam is not without powers of his own either. Aside from the mystical object contained in the vessel (be it a supercharged dirt devil, a baseball, a remote control car, or other unlikely object), Sam has intermittent telekinetic powers and a special relationship with the Devil that gives him an edge. Ben gets in the way more often than not and Sock can be trusted to go with his baser instincts as often as not, but after a string of successes, it becomes apparent that the Devil actually likes him. Sure, Satan leaves Sam in a variety of small messes (providing him "tips" on the girl he wants to get serious with that backfire, leaving him with the check at expensive restaurants, and other annoyances) but even the demons in the area note that something special between the two exists. See, the show initially starts off with a wonderfully appealing episode by director/writer Kevin Smith but quickly falls into the same "freak of the week" trap that befell Smallville but it slowly evolves into a running storyline closer in theme to the longer arcs of Angel.
The first bad guy wasn't happy with Sam
The demons that initially befriend Sam and his friends soon reveal they are plotting a rebellion against the Devil. Needless to say, Beelzebub knows plenty about what is going on and enlists Sam's aid in that matter too, using his quite persuasive methods. It doesn't help Sam that his sort of girlfriend Andi (Missy Peregrym) becomes a bargaining chip in these negotiations, nor does it help when he goes out with a gal that might also be related to the Devil, but ultimately, it shows that no matter how good Sam's intentions are, the Devil will outmaneuver him. So the series changes in the second half to become something more interesting to watch repeatedly (for me at least) as it does not rely on the creative team coming up with new ways for Sam to capture the baddies as so many shows before it were content to display. The plot thickens until the season finale too, something you will have to see for yourselves since I'm minimizing spoilers in this review.
Gladys at the DMV
Okay, Ray Wise as the Devil was an inspired bit of casting, his attitude much like a controlling mob boss (the smooth kind) serving the role really well. His chemistry with Bret Harrison as Sam Oliver makes the show for me more than any other element, the comic relief of Tyler Labine's "Sock" character notwithstanding. The smaller touches like Christine Willes' demon at the Department of Motor Vehicles (where Sam must drop off the captured souls once caught) add into the fun and the evolving rules, unraveling mysteries of Sam's contract provide plenty to go on for the future so I can't wait until the show starts up again. The setting where Sam and company work (a home improvement store called "The Work Bench" serving as a perfect replica of Home Depot much like the show Chuck uses a place called "Buy More" in lieu of Best Buy) also provides some minimal comic laughs with anal retentive boss Ted (Donavon Stinson) doing his best to make life a living hell for them, though it led to a lame subplot with Ben hooking up with an English gal with dire consequences.
Sam and the Devil
The DVD set itself was not particularly inspired though with minimal extras and only a slight upgrade in audio/video from the standard definition broadcast, forgetting that more people are watching such shows in HD than ever before and might want to keep it in an equally impressive Blu-ray (not available at this writing) for their collections. The cover was actually a set of pretty flames with a plastic overlay of Sam, Sock, and the Devil which gives a different impression than I got watching all the episodes (as they aired and in the set in two sittings) although I will be the first to admit that these three are the primary movers of the show for me. Given the high end pricing point for release day next week and all those other factors, I rated it as Recommended in the SD version but I admit that the first episode was one of the strongest in recent memory and the second half pulled it up to the point where a Blu-ray upgrade would merit a higher rating so check it out.
Ted berating Andi while Sam stands by helplessly at work.
Picture: Reaper Season One was presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio widescreen color as it aired on broadcast television during the 2007-2008 season. The resolution of the standard definition release was 480i and the codec employed for the 5 disc DVD set was MPEG-2, the video bitrate typically hovering around the 5.2 Mbps mark. The colors and fleshtones looked accurate in most, though not all, cases, and the detail shown in the picture ranged from pretty solid to about average (leaning on the better side most of the time). The special effects looked kind of cheaply done but the best instances of the show shining were the times when such effects were not overt anyway. There was some grain and minor video noise during some of the night scenes with the blacks tending to look pretty decent too, limited edge enhancement noticed to bug me compared to other shows of this sort.
Another evil soul captured!
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo English using an audio bitrate of 192 Kbps and a sampling rate of 48 kHz. There were optional subtitles in English and Spanish that appeared to follow the spoken dialogue closely too. The separation between the channels was noticeable if not extremely used, perhaps an area where some improvement could be applied for next season. The directionality of the vocals was particularly limited and the sound effects were on the low side most of the time. The music was quite well done though and served to forward the thematic elements in most cases, there being no indication that any tracks were cut, altered, or otherwise edited for this release on the case or in listening to the episodes; the creators saying as much on the audio commentary a few times (they were excited about the musical elements).
Demons became more common as the show progressed.
Extras: The main extra was an audio commentary with the creators of the show, Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, and Deborah Spera (along with a mostly sleeping baby) as they discussed some of the behind the scene issues that came up with the show, from the location problems to casting to getting Kevin Smith signed on to assist. While it was generally a cheerleading effort, it did provide some insights as to where the show could have gone and where it should pick up next season, I just wished some of the cast could have been included in the effort. As an aside, the back cover lists that there are commentaries, the plural of the term, but only one exists on the entire five disc set. There was also a very short gag reel and set of deleted scenes but neither really did a lot for me, each found on the fifth disc of the set and lasting under ten minutes. The paper insert did give a short description of each scene for those that care, but did not provide any information such as air dates, episode directors or writers as has become increasingly common on such sets.
Andi and Sam watch the Devil take vengeance on Gladys.
Final Thoughts: Reaper Season One was substantially different from what I thought it would be going into the show last year and this five disc set enhanced the viewing experience even more thanks to the lack of commercials. While I would caution the writers to create better subplots in the future, they have done a very good job of keeping the material flowing and not getting stagnant, the chemistry between Wise, Harrison, and Labine propelling the show into my "must watch" category throughout the season when it aired. It was best when it was quirky and the sly nods by Smith in the opener were quite appreciated but the series as a whole provided something off the beaten track that went beyond a single director in terms of fun material. Whatever the future may bring with the series, Reaper Season One was clearly one of the best shows of the year for me, one of the few that was not crippled by the Writer Strike in Hollywood.