Never underestimate the power of goofy energy, which elevates this pilot a cut above most recent “nerd as hero” concepts. Learning that your parents sold your soul to the Devil makes for a bummer of a 21st birthday, but it’s a clever series set-up, albeit one that risks becoming “Buddy the Vampire Slayer” on an episodic basis. Still, “Reaper” enjoys terrific satanic support from Ray Wise as You Know Who and, if it can keep conjuring up a broth of humor and action, could become a new cult hit for CW, which would probably sell its corporate soul for one.
Another classic slacker with a goofball friend, Sam (“The Loop’s” Bret Harrison) notices his parents are acting a tad strangely on his birthday. Perhaps that’s because mom and dad feel guilty, having promised their first-born to the Devil before Sam’s birth to save dad’s life — explaining why they didn’t push him to excel, unlike his overachieving younger brother.
Now, however, Satan has come to collect, though as played by Wise (in what feels like an homage to Ray Walston in “Damn Yankees”), he’s a disarmingly cheery sort who looks like a member of the Rotary Club. Sure, he has a bit of a temper, but he also revels in practical jokes and enjoys fatty foods. “I’m so glad I don’t have arteries,” he gloats while cutting into a chicken-fried steak.
The Devil has tasked Sam with capturing and returning fugitive souls to Hell, and in the premiere, he’s armed with a dust-buster-type device (OK, we bow to the power of product placement: Dirt Devil) to suck them up, “Ghostbusters” style. Of course, it’s not a simple process, and tending to those duties interferes with his day job at the local home-improvement store, where he has a serious crush on a co-worker (“Heroes” casualty Missy Peregrym, ably filling a role recast after development).
Nothing here is especially novel, beginning with Sam’s relationship with his idiot buddy Sock (the frenetic Tyler Labine), who’s immediately game for any kind of mayhem. Their banter brings to mind some of the playful lunacy in pilot director Kevin Smith’s movies, such as “Clerks,” albeit toned down for primetime.
In pulling these tried-and-true elements together, Smith and series creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters also garnish “Reaper” with several deft little touches — like pegging the Dept. of Motor Vehicles as a hiding-in-plain-sight portal to Hell, or the appropriate strains of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Given its demographic slant, the show should have an opportunity to find a respectable audience by CW’s standards, before “American Idol” begins sucking up misguided souls on Tuesday nights with its own brand of demonic power. A more immediate concern will be insuring that the writing matches the pilot’s ingenuity to prevent this from becoming just another “monster of the week” showcase, which would likely augur a quick trip for all involved to, er, the DMV.