Friday, September 28, 2007

More Fall TV '07 Watch: Reaper and Life (plus more on Chuck, with spoilers)

I am so happy I found Reaper on the CW, the first indisputably good new show of the season, and also the first show since Flight of the Conchords that made me laugh out loud. It's the underachieving slacker complement to overachieving nerd comedy Chuck, although Reaper is smarter, funnier, and better overall. Don't feel bad, Josh; as an assembly-line show producer pandering to teens with disposable income, at least you're no Kevin Williamson. Plus Reaper will be canceled first.

Reaper's success as a coming-of-age comedy is the same as Chuck's failure: the supporting cast. The basic plots are "puerile dude gets in situations over his head and grows up," but Sam, our hero in Reaper, is doing it without a net. The Devil pretty much conscripts Sam into chasing down on Earth souls that escaped from hell, but as the show's grown-up teacher figure, Satan seems to be a lot less helpful than the Casey plus Sarah combination on Chuck. Casey and Sarah do the tough stuff for Chuck, especially the "What do we do with this guy?" decision-making, as if (also because) he's not an adult capable of running his own life, and they essentially run out of denigrating options by the time he saves the day: first, let's lock him in a secret government facility... that won't work, so Sarah tells him to wait in the hotel lobby... but that doesn't work, so they push him aside when they're (not) defusing the bomb... and even when Chuck is actually doing the job neither of them can, Casey still has to give him shit because Chuck is supposed to be worthless as a human being in this situation.

The supporting cast of Reaper is just as clueless and unreliable — maybe more — as Sam is, and Satan is hilariously unhelpful. Sam's first capture is a guy who can turn himself into fire, and the Devil not only gives Sam a Dirt Devil — not a Hoover or an Oreck — to do the job, but he doesn't even bother to fully charge it. Sam's partner is the anti-Casey — a fat, lazy slob named "Sock" — who's so unhelpful, one of the weapons he brings to the final confrontation is a battery-powered touch lamp. Their struggle is greater, so their success is greater.

That's why I want to see more of Chuck and less of Casey (but Sarah's fine), and that's why I wish ABC would make an all-Marshall Alias spin-off.

Now Life is one of those shows that has no idea what it's doing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes Life totally perplexing. I will never forgive the clunkiest exposition ever — the narration is standard, except the flashbacks are told as a talking heads documentary, complete with subtitles identifying who's on screen and spontaneous, bleeped swearing. The writers were too busy handing the hero, Charlie, television-friendly quirks to be bothered with revealing the backstory through dialogue. I hate literary laziness.

There's a criminal-of-the-week plot, the serialized "who framed Charlie" plot, other stuff involving his ex-wife and her new husband, but the degree to which you tolerate Life is directly proportional to the degree you tolerate Charlie. (I've seen a lot of comparisons to House, and while both shows rise and fall based on their protagonists' "endearing" idiosyncrasies, that's where the similarities end.) My perspective is that a lot of Charlie's weirdness is unmotivated — I like his mantra, "I am not attached to material goods," while speeding his brand new Cadillac down the freeway — but Charlie's fruit obsession seems to come from nowhere and go nowhere. The decision to minimize the impact of Charlie's time in prison also seems wrong to me, since (I assume) that's the primary source of his current personality, and that's the conceit of the show, and that's why I'm supposed to care about him.

One of the final scenes in the Life premiere is Charlie looking at a mind-map of his case, trying to solve who framed him, but I just don't care. If anything, I'm looking forward to the standard Charlie and his partner cop scenes, which are, well, standard. I see that Life is also showing on the USA network, and it feels like, along with (superior) Monk and (inferior) Psych, that's where this show belongs.

Tonight: Moonlight on CBS, which I doubt I'm watching, because I don't have a three-year-old crush on Jason Dohring.