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TV Series Review

A community college dropout working at a home improvement store can't seem to figure out who he is or what he wants from life. Then he turns 21 and learns that his fate is sealed. Mom and Dad lovingly explain that they sold his soul to the devil before his birth, and that the Prince of Darkness could be along any minute. Bummer. Not only have Sam Oliver's parents sabotaged his life, now he has the "boss from hell."

Clever subtext aside, the adolescent angst is palpable in CW's Reaper. Its hero is played by Bret Harrison, a beta-male cross between Topher Grace and Matthew Lillard. On the other hand, Satan (Ray Wise) is a dapper gentleman with a fatherly tone and malicious streak who explains to his fledgling bounty hunter that murderous escaped souls must be tracked down, captured in a "vessel" and returned to Hades. These cryptic missions become Sam's new dead-end job.

Sam is assisted by two slacker buddies, which makes this action-packed dramedy feel like a mashup of Clerks, Ghostbusters and Ghost Rider. And since each renegade soul harnesses a force such as fire, electricity or swarms of bugs, they're like supervillains out of a Marvel comic book. No wonder this series quickly developed a loyal following among teens. But despite an interesting premise and moments of moral clarity from Sam (he risks his life to protect innocent people and declines cheap sex in favor of unrequited love), the rest of Reaper is pretty grim.

In the pilot, Lucifer admits, "I've seen how this all ends. Don't worry, God wins." Nevertheless, God is marginalized while Satan (looking like a pit boss at Caesars Palace) is a hodgepodge of archetypes more mythological than biblical. He scoffs at God's providence as if the Almighty were simply his good twin. His cosmic role of maintaining order in hell and handing out torments to fit earthly crimes reeks of Dante's Inferno. And his advice to Sam is mixed. One minute he's preaching perseverance or that "lying never solves anything" (odd in light of John 8:44), the next he's telling the boy to "drop some Ecstasy" or give in to primal lusts. Young viewers are left to sort it all out.

The other "devil" on Sam's shoulder is his friend Sock, a randy sidekick whose limited ambitions include getting drunk and chasing sex. His motto? "There's a fine line between a felony and doing something super-cool." This fun-loving smart aleck leaves his mark with profanity and crass sexual asides.

Reaper also indulges in rampant alcohol use and rare moments of shocking violence, such as when Satan steamrolls a man with a Zamboni, leaving a crimson path on the ice. Despite sharp writing and a few profound scenes (Satan offers Sam a sinfully good meal, then sticks him with the check), it will be a cold day in you-know-where before discerning families embrace Reaper.

Episodes Reviewed: Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9, 16, 30, Nov. 6, 13, 2007

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Bob Smithouser

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