Why we love ''The Reaper'' -- The new comedy is dark, funny, and directed by Kevin Smith

By Jeff Jensen
Updated September 07, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

9:00-10:00PM · THE CW · Starts September 25 · EW pick

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 forced by the Devil himself to capture superbad, super-powerful, and super-freaky souls who’ve escaped from an increasingly overcrowded underworld. And so while real-life drug dealers and skanky hookers brazenly market their wares and underwear half a block away, there’s a slime monster waddling onto set ready to shoot his close-up.

And by ”set,” we mean a cramped tunnel rank with grime and dank with puddles and steam. Leaning against a cruddy wall is Bret Harrison, late of the Fox sitcoms Grounded for Life and The Loop and now Reaper‘s titular hero, sipping from a coffee cup as the crew slathers green jelly on the AWOL-from-Hades baddie of the show’s fifth episode. ”S–, yeah!” says the affably handsome 25-year-old actor, flashing a high-watt toothy smile. ”I feel like I’m in a ’50s horror movie!” Suggestions fly as to what this blobby beast should be dubbed: ”Slime Man!” ”Swamp Thing!” ”Guacamole Boy!”

The stuntman inside the uncomfortable getup remains silent as he lies in a half-pipe, dripping split-pea ooze. He looks like a giant wet booger with very sad eyes. But he’s the only one around here with a reasonable right to bitch about anything. 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.”

For The CW, offspring of last year’s UPN/The WB shotgun marriage, Reaper is a heaven-sent blessing: a certifiably cool show that can help shape a more distinctive brand identity than just Hodge-Podge of Dead Weblet Hand-Me-Downs. ”New show development was a big priority for us this year,” says CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff, whose promising sophomore slate also includes the drama Gossip Girl and the sitcom Aliens in America. ”Reaper feels fresh and different — a franchise show with a unique twist. Sam’s a hero, a bounty hunter for the Devil fighting bad guys — but he also happens to be a slacker who doesn’t have all the answers, who likes to hang out with his buddies. It’s total escapism, but also very relatable.”

And also, it must be said, risky. Reaper‘s vibe is truly nifty — Labine likes to call the show a ”thrill-comedy,” borrowing from the tagline for the 1990 film Arachnophobia — but it’s also a source of creative stress. ”When I first read the script, I fell in love with it, but at the same time, I was like, ‘God, that’s a tricky tone,”’ says Harrison. ”Comedy, drama, horror, action — I hadn’t seen anything like this on TV, so I didn’t really have anything to relate it to.”

This is where entertainment journalists with long memories come in handy. (Finally!) 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. The producers credit the influence of a great many men in their lives?Sock, in fact, is based on a writer they know?but they say for the most part, Reaper is really their voice. ”I’m more like a 12-year-old boy in some ways,” says Fazekas. ”One time, on SVU, we got to blow up a car, and we were like, ‘Fire! Fire!”’

But Reaper has some boys cooking in its kitchen, too. When The CW bought the project last fall, it asked the rookie showrunners to hire a third partner with seasoned experience, so they turned to their old Get Real boss Tom Spezialy, most recently of Desperate Housewives. Then they pitched Smith, whose irreverent religious satire Dogma served as a tonal touchstone for the writers. They expected him to say no, so they were stunned when he accepted the job. ”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.”

By all accounts, the rapport between Reaper‘s creators and the notoriously independent filmmaker was friendly and collaborative. ”But occasionally, we butted heads,” says the director. Example: Shortly before shooting the pilot, Smith told his bosses he wanted to polish the script — a customary practice for directors in moviemaking, but not in TV, where the writer is king. Instead, the producers agreed to let him pitch tweaks to the script each day of shooting and let him improvise on the set. ”It was a weird process for me,” says Smith, who also assumed that because he’s been more lauded as a scribe than a director, the producers would want that input. ”Maybe they felt like I was trying to take it over, but I wasn’t. I was just trying to make that pilot as good as we possibly could.” Responds Spezialy: ”If there was any anxiety, it wasn’t Kevin-specific. It was all about: Can we accomplish this work in the limited time we have?”

Nonetheless, Reaper bears Smith’s imprint in many ways — the endearingly unpretentious sheen, the actor/character-driven focus, and the appealing cast. ”I actually passed on the project, but then I went on the Internet and saw Kevin was involved and I was sold,” says Rick Gonzalez, who plays Ben, Sam’s erudite fellow clerk at the Work Bench, the Home Depot-ish retailer that serves as home base for the show. Labine, 29, also cites Smith as a draw, and says the two bonded over ”being overweight guys with beards in Hollywood who constantly have to defend themselves against the perception that we’re trying to impersonate Jack Black.” He adds: ”For the record, I’m not trying to copy Jack Black.” The impersonation winning rave reviews, however, is Wise’s portrayal of Satan as a cunning snake — part grinning game-show host, part ruthless CEO. ”The guy is the epitome of all the bad guys that I’ve ever played for the past 37 years,” says the actor, 60, whose long rémé ncludes his indelible turn as Laura Palmer’s demon-possessed daddy on Twin Peaks. ”So you could say all the work I’ve been doing until now has led up to this point.”

In the end, the alchemy of writing, casting, and Smith produced one of the season’s most (black) magical pilots. (Although the producers did choose to recast the role of Sam’s love interest, Andi, dumping Thirteen‘s Nikki Reed for Heroes‘ illusionist Missy Peregrym, who they felt better radiated the girl-next-door, one-of-the-guys vibe they intended.) ”Shooting the pilot, I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Is this even working?”’ says Harrison. ”But after watching the finished product, I was 100 percent sold that I hit the jackpot. I just want people to see this thing so I can know that I’m not crazy!” But 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.”