If we are in the golden era of television as many (probably rightfully) declare, then there was a handful of shows that had to sacrifice themselves to get us to where we are today. Shows like Better Off Ted was not long for this world, but it gave its life to allow other smart programs to make their way onto the small screens.
To me, the greatest of these was Reaper, which ran on The CW for two seasons between 2007-2009. Had it been released today, it likely would have found a good home on Hulu (where the old episodes currently reside), but Reaper never had the mass appeal to make it on network television back in the late aughts.
The premise of the show is simple: Sam learns on his twenty-first birthday that his parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was conceived (under the belief that they would never have kids), and he now will have to eternally work as a reaper, bringing escaped souls back to hell.
It’s an amusing concept, and the situations Sam and his two friends, Sock and Ben, get themselves into while hunting souls are imaginative. It’s one of those simple ideas that quickly can be tossed aside if one does not take a step back and see the promise it brings. (Which was clearly what America decided not to do.)
Yet, great as the writing is, the essence of the show is Ray Wise as the Devil. Ray Wise, what a class act! It doesn’t matter what role it is—big, small, cameo—Wise always brings it, and Reaper serves as a showcase for the trifecta of what makes him him. Do you like his genuinely menacing presence as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks? You got it. The earnest, charming humor from Fresh Off The Boat? It’s here in full force, all neatly packaged in the suave swagger we saw in Mad Men. This is the Ray Wise mother lode, and we are all richer because of it.
(Frankly, as far as television goes, if there is a good show out there, odds are Wise guest-starred in it: Anything from Psych to Fargo to Gilmore Girls have been blessed with His presence.)
The casting, in addition to the principal characters, is inspired. The escaped souls are mostly high-concept—e.g., convicted murderer returning to kill those who prosecuted him—and they serve as playgrounds for a host of contemporary greats. Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino appear semi-regularly as a demonic couple, and Patton Oswalt brings comedy gold. Armie Hammer and England’s national treasure, Lucy Davis1, both deliver. Back in the day when we actually had to wait for these things to come on weekly television, one of the small joys was the anticipation of who the next guest-star would be, and rarely did the wait not pay off.
During its run, Reaper was pitted against Chuck in the battle of winning the hearts of those who at the time was referred to as the geek-chic. Fair or unfair as it might have been, that was how the media framed it, and Reaper lost. I still feel the world was big enough for both shows, and Reaper deserved better than what it got. I don’t know how it fares these days, but a part of me hopes streaming at least has elevated it to a cult-hit status.
And Chuck? Well, no prizes for guessing who made a guest appearance in that show.
Sam and Sock appear in an episode of Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. It was created by the same people who made Reaper and it, too, was canceled.
1 I will defend Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to my death.