By EW Staff
Updated August 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Chris Large

9-10 PM · THE CW · Debuts Sept. 25

Vancouver, B.C. — the Bad Side of Town. Bleak and licentious, populated by shifty loiterers and lost souls, a tiny pocket of hell. Why, there’s even a little slice of unholy Hollywood here, in the form of a studio backlot originally built for the Jessica Alba sci-fi series Dark Angel. A perfect locale, in other words, for an episode of Reaper, The CW’s devilishly funny dark fantasy about a lovable slacker named Sam (Bret Harrison, late of the Fox sitcoms Grounded for Life and The Loop) forced by the Devil himself to capture superbad, super-powerful, and super-freaky souls who’ve escaped from an increasingly overcrowded underworld.

With an outrageously entertaining pilot directed by shabby-chic crassmaster Kevin Smith, Reaper enters the season with great buzz thanks to its engaging cast (including Twin Peaks‘ Ray Wise as a smiley-sinister Lucifer and Invasion‘s Tyler Labine in a breakout turn as Sam’s gleefully bawdy sidekick, Sock) and sharp blend of wit, weird, and wink. Sam’s first secret ghostbusting weapon? A Dirt Devil. The desolate portal to which Sam must haul his damned bounty? The DMV. But Reaper also has heart; the pilot’s premise-establishing moment — a father-son chat, in which Sam learns that his parents sold his soul to Beelzebub before he was born — isn’t only absurdly funny, it’s actually moving. Harrison, who displays a command and charm that could make him a genuine star, puts it like this: ”We’re getting to do some f—ing weird stuff.”

To date, most have likened Reaper to Buffy the Vampire Slayer — minus the neo-feminist overtones and allegory for adolescence, blah blah blah, but plus more outlandish jokes such as Sock’s birthday party idea to Sam: ”I say we all get in the car, go get some smack, kill a hooker in Vegas!” Reaper is also that rare pitch-perfect show about male friendship, which makes it all the more amazing that it was created by two…women. Meet Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, writing partners who spent the past five years employed by Law & Order: SVU. Friends since meeting as assistants on The X-Files, Butters and Fazekas began their partnership by writing a spec for one of their favorite shows — you guessed it, Buffy. While working on that script some nine years ago, Butters offhandedly said to Fazekas: Wouldn’t it be funny to do a show about a kid whose parents sold his soul to the Devil? Last year, when they decided to strike out on their own, they did so with Reaper.

”I was way into the notion of a version of Shaun of the Dead written by chicks. That really captured my imagination,” says Smith, who had never before directed for episodic television. ”There’s a slew of chicks who’ve created shows, but I can’t think of any chick who’s ever created a genre show. I wanted to see Reaper get on air, just for that piece of history alone.”

Reaper bears Smith’s imprint in many ways — the endearingly unpretentious sheen, the actor/character-driven focus, and the appealing cast. In the end, the alchemy of writing, casting, and Smith produced one of the season’s most (black) magical pilots. What remains to be seen is whether the show can sustain the promise of that first episode. ”I am as puzzled and as curious as the next guy about what it’s going to look like,” says Smith, who may return to direct another episode later this season. ”But you know, that pilot they wrote, it’s a strong bedrock. So I’ve got to trust the girls.” —Jeff Jensen

This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall TV Preview issue.