Beelzebubbly: CW's 'Reaper' Is Tempting Fare

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Devil may care, but just barely. "Oh, I'm so glad I don't have arteries," he chirps as he ogles a chicken-fried steak set before him in a diner. A little later, on a more serious note, he discusses in a roundabout way the Apocalypse and reassures a young friend by saying, "I've seen how this all ends. Don't worry; God wins."

As poor damned souls go, this Devil is a card and the CW's "Reaper," in which he figures prominently, proves anything but grim. True, the premise may sound bleak: On his 21st birthday, a young ne'er-do-well named Sam learns that his soul is not precisely his own. To pay Satan back for curing Dad's incurable illness, Sam's parents sold him their son's soul before the kid was even born.

Now, much as he did with Daniel Webster and Shoeless Joe (from "Damn Yankees") and many others throughout the literary ages, Satan shows up to collect his debt; Sam is to supplement his dead-end job at the Work Bench home fixin's store with another task in his spare time, chasing down scamps who've escaped from Hell, capturing them and sending them back whence they fled. "You know," the Devil explains, "like a bounty hunter."

Unlikely or not, "Reaper" (premiering at 9 p.m. on Channel 50) works on its own cleverly devilish level and proves one of the happier, snappier surprises of the season. It helps considerably that Sam is engagingly played by Bret Harrison and the Devil dexterously depicted by Ray Wise, who adroitly avoids the obvious and invests Old Red with more pizazz than he's usually had in movies, plays or other TV shows in which he's figured.

In the last category is the remarkably similar, but far less whimsical, "Brimstone," a 1998 series that starred Peter Horton as a Sam surrogate also commissioned by the Devil to go out and round up hellish escapees. Coincidentally, "Brimstone" reruns have just popped up on the small-circulation Chiller network, a meager creation of NBC Universal that shows old movies and reruns all day. (And by further coincidence, a "Brimstone" that aired just the other night included a scene in which Horton ordered a chicken-fried steak. Oooh-eee-ooh!)

But the two shows have entirely different temperaments, with "Reaper" taking itself much less seriously yet getting off a nifty zinger or two in an hour that alternately romps and rocks. Among the telling hellish details: a firefighter who is on fire, consumed by sizzling flames; Sam's dramatic discovery, on a rooftop, that the Devil has given him otherworldly powers to help with his job; and the fact that once Sam hunts down the escapees, "Ghostbusters" style, he sucks them out of this earthly coil via, guess what, a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner.

Among the similarities to NBC's "Chuck," which premiered last night, are the slackerlike persona of the hero; the fact that one character claims Stanford as his alma mater (he dropped out, actually); and that Sam, like Chuck, has a goofball co-worker and pal whose job is mainly to make wisecracks. Sam's friend is named Sock (Tyler Labine) and his put-downs include insulting another guy's lack of intelligence by addressing him as "K-Fed."

When it's time to find the portal by which the recovered souls will be redeposited in the hereafter, however, the Devil gets the best lines. "Any place that seems like Hell-on-Earth is Hell-on-Earth," he says, a cue for Sam to head for, you guessed it, the DMV, where two hours can indeed seem like an eternity.

There, viewers will discover one of their long-held suspicions finally confirmed: A DMV worker pushes her hair back far enough to reveal -- a pair of horns. Of course! That explains so much.

"Reaper" can be taken half seriously or only a quarter seriously and still be royally enjoyed -- a devilish good time, a helluva show, all that sort of thing, and a remarkably disarming lark besides.


One of those slack, campy throwbacks that really ought to be thrown out, "Cane," premiering on CBS tonight at 10, tries to bring grand-opera soap opera back to prime time and ignominiously fails. On the unintentionally funny scale, it's second only to the same network's preposterous "Viva Laughlin," in which the movers and shakers are also would-be singers and dancers, launching into ditties as a way of eating up screen time.

The characters on "Cane" don't sing, but they're not above chewing on the scenery, with the worst offender being Hector Elizondo as patriarch Pancho Duque, a balding old buzzard who's told in the first episode that he has only six months to live. Only? Is that six months in real time or TV time, and isn't it possible the doctors are wrong and it's really only six weeks? Pretty please with, uh, sugar on it?

Then again, even when Elizondo exits, there'll be plenty of two-legged hams left, prancing around the sugar fields of Florida where this messy multi-generational saga is set. That the dynasty is Cuban American does add a colorful new note to the proceedings, but mostly it's the same old power-and-money struggle, with the Duques fighting among themselves but occasionally uniting to battle the evil Samuels family, who want to take all that lovely sugar and turn it into succor for the world's rum pots.

"No sale of our land to the Samuels!" barks Pops as he divides his empire into three parts. "Not now, not ever!" It sounds like the kind of outburst that's usually followed by a heart attack in stories like this, but no, the old man doesn't so much as hiccup.

Jimmy Smits, looking pretty sheepish about the whole thing, plays Alex, the adopted son whom Pancho favors over, as the colorful saying goes, issues of his own loins. Somewhat surprisingly, though Alex appears to represent The Good Guy in all this, he enjoys listening to the gunfire over a cellphone that tells him a family foe has been shot to death. No sweetie, he!

The elegantly ageless Rita Moreno lends a note of dignity to the affair, but young cast members Eddie Matos, Michael Trevino and Lina Esco seem to have been chosen mainly for their looks. Nestor Carbonell, meanwhile, seethes and snarls as Alex's sworn enemy, "Cane's" Cain to Smits's Abel.

How weary it all seems, taxing the actors to reach for something fresh in a script that's mainly leftovers -- a big dinner scene as in "The Sopranos," then a long, long party sequence as in "The Godfather," with borrowings from many another family epic along the way. One of Alex's pet projects is for ethanol to be made from sugar, not from corn, but "Cane" is a reminder that corn can still be put to plenty of use -- at least as long as TV producers try to foist off schmaltz like this.

Reaper (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 50.

Cane (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

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