TV Rewind: Reaper Is Both a Striking Time Capsule and a Crystal Ball

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TV Rewind: <i>Reaper</i> Is Both a Striking Time Capsule and a Crystal Ball

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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In the late summer of 2006—on September 15 and 17, respectively—UPN and The WB officially ceased broadcast operations. That same week, on September 18, The CW was officially born. Before the month was out, the newly minted youth-centric network commissioned a Reaper pilot script from Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, which followed the misadventures of Sam (Bret Harrison), a twentysomething white boy slacker who has to come to terms with the fact that—thanks to his parents selling his unborn soul to the Devil (Ray Wise)—he’s now saddled with being Hell’s least likely bounty hunter. A little more than a year later, the cult-favorite supernatural comedy made its debut. And a month after that, the Writers Guild of America, following a summer of failed contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, staged a walkout.

Their strike lasted 100 days.

Were I to continue with my stoic march through still-recent Hollywood history, I would go on to note that, workage stop notwithstanding, Reaper—which finished its debut season with a healthy (for the time) 18-episode run—did get renewed for a second season. That said, it ultimately failed to score a third. And while Butters and Fazekas were eventually able to bring two of its stars back to cameo in a single 2018 episode of another doomed high-concept project, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, Reaper’s early demise just came too soon in the “new media” age for even the most fervently run fan campaigns to have had any hope of finding it a new home.

Of course, it’s impossible to put the full blame for Reaper’s spring 2009 cancellation on a labor strike that ran through the winter of 2007-2008. Plenty of shows that debuted alongside Reaper, after all—including Nashville, Gossip Girl, and The Big Bang Theory, just to name a few—managed to come back from their freshman year hiatuses stronger than ever. Similarly, for as irreverently clever as Reaper was from Go, its slacker-bro brand was always going to be a hard fit for a baby network who found its own early brand being shaped by the wild successes of rich-kid melodramas like Gossip Girl, Privileged, and 90210. And that’s fair! Sometimes the pieces, for whatever reason, just don’t fit.

(That said, if the Reaper crew made for too awkward a fit alongside the likes of Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen, how, you might very well ask, does one then explain the staying power of Supernatural? Well, as far as I can tell, like this: Supernatural was basically a TV god, and you can’t ask gods to explain shit. I mean, no wonder Ray Wise was always so frothed up when talking about “the Big Guy”!!)

Still, for as likely as it is that Reaper would have been cancelled sooner than fans would have liked even without the Writers’ Strike, it’s hard (for this fan, at least) to think about one without thinking about the other. Reaper’s legacy, impossible as it might have been for its cast and creators to imagine when they first started working on it, will forever be tied up with that of one of the most impactful labor actions in Hollywood in the past few decades.

If all this seems like so much pablum for what ought to have been a short, poppy piece about a mid-aughts comedy, well, apologies. Believe me, I was excited to write that short, poppy piece, too! I loved Reaper when it originally aired; I loved it when I did a rewatch a few years later; I love it still today (if with a few more reservations vis à vis how uncomfortable a window it is to that decade’s raging gay panic/transphobia). That Butters and Fazekas were able to put such a unique twist on the broadcast procedural formula—something they were both well-versed in, having just come off of several seasons as co-EPs on Law & Order: SVU—remains as impressive now as it was then, as is how immediate and idiosyncratic the core cast’s chemistry was, even in the pilot. And it’s finally October! Official spooky season! What better throwback to wax on about, truly, than the nascent CW’s comedic foray into the world of escaped killer souls, gay demon neighbors, and Ray Wise’s infernal good cheer?

Alas. As much as I would have loved to make Sam’s soul-catching adventures with Sock (Tyler Labine), Ben (Rick Gonzalez), and Andi (Missy Peregrym) the focus of this TV Rewind, the fact of the matter is, with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) having just voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike after seeing their own contract negotiations with AMPTP stall out on the “new media” question over the summer, it’s Reaper’s connection with the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike that is, in this moment, most relevant. And not just because the snowball effect the strike’s work stoppage has every chance of being repeated across an even wider television landscape today (although it does), but because Fazekas herself made it clear, all the way back in 2007, just how important worker solidarity is—even (or especially) in a creative industry like Hollywood.

“I feel in a situation like this, this [strike] is more important than my individual show or my individual career,” she told The Buffalo News, her hometown paper, in November of 2007. “So I’m OK to make the sacrifice. Everybody else is. And there are people who are making much bigger sacrifices than me.” That the strike wouldn’t just stop her show, but potentially derail it? Not even that mattered to her. Coming from a family with a long history of union membership, though, she knew when she joined that strike just how important solidarity amongst creative workers was. And given how a show like Reaper depended on the tireless skill and craftsmanship of IATSE members—nevermind an untitled The Boys spinoff that she and Butters are on board to make—that solidarity is even more important now.

So, you know. Go watch Reaper! It’s fun and good, and if you do it this month, you’ll have a nice, spooky time. But also, keep your eye on IATSE’s fight. I mean, solidarity forever: It’s what Sam, Ben, and Sock would want.

Reaper is currently streaming for free (with ads) on ABC.com and the ABC app



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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