Last Night's TV: The Devil has got all the best goons
Reaper, E4; Wonderland, BBC2
Thursday 24 January 2008
Most parents wonder from time to time whether their children have been possessed by the Devil, but Sam's mom and dad in Reaper, E4's new American comedy import, don't have such anxieties. For one thing, Sam is the house-trained type, still at home as he turns 21, but not obviously doing a lot of hellraising. For another thing, Sam's parents already know precisely where he stands in relation to the Prince of Darkness. The reason they were looking a bit awkward and tongue-tied when Sam came downstairs on his birthday was that they had something to confess. They had sold the soul of their first-born to the Devil to save Mom from a terminal illness and this was the day the contract came due. The Devil himself appeared as Sam was driving home from the DIY store where he has a dead-end job, popping up in the back seat of his car in the suavely genial form of Ray Wise: "Is this a car-jacking?" shrieked Sam. "For this?" the Devil replied, looking in disbelief at Sam's battered runabout. "If it was an Escalade, maybe."
The deal is simple. Sam has to work for the Devil as a kind of infernal bounty hunter, tracking down the damned who have escaped from Hell and returning them to serve out their term. His first task was to capture a dead arsonist who had reincarnated himself as a fireman and was busy retorching the sites he burned down in his first life. To assist Sam in his clean-up operation, he was given a Dirt Devil to suck up the errant soul, a tool Sam's friend, Sock, viewed with some scepticism until he idly turned it on and a nearby pantechnicon started to slide towards the nozzle. And although Sam is reluctant to take up his new post, he's in a bind: the Devil will take his mother if he doesn't do his duty and, besides, innocent bystanders are likely to get hurt if the escapees aren't tracked down.
If you're not between the ages of 18 and 34, then you can relax. This wasn't made for you, since it was commissioned for an American network, the CW, aimed exclusively at that demographic. You may still enjoy it if you fall outside that age bracket, though, because Kevin Smith, the writer and director of Clerks, has yoked together his breezily idiotic plot with the slacker comedy that made his name. One of the things that's funny about Reaper is the utterly matter-of-fact way in which Sam's friends react to the news that he now has to do the bidding of Beelzebub, rather than the nerdy general manager at the store where they work. Told by his friend that he now possessed telekinetic powers, Sock didn't dispute the claim but simply grabbed a large bottle of bleach and threw it at his friend's head to see whether he could use mind-control to deflect it. And the drama itself is often comically understated. Captured souls have to be returned to Hell through a portal, which the Devil explained can usually be found anywhere that you might describe as "hell on earth". Arriving at their local DMV centre, Sam and Sock were confronted with despairing queues of motorists and a row of windows. "Which one do we go to?" murmured Sam. At which point, the frumpy middle-aged women in booth five lifted her fringe to reveal a plump pair of horns on her forehead. The theology is puzzling: the Devil only punishes really bad people (which makes him sound suspiciously like God) and also seems to be delivering a certain amount of tough-love virtue into Sam's life, coaching him towards greater ambition and independence: "I feel like a grown-up, I feel responsible now," Sam said, after his first successful mission for the Satanic self-help guru. Then again, if you care about theological nicety at all, this won't be for you whatever age you are.
If the Devil is right, I suspect that there are some portals to Hell on Bodmin Moor, a very beautiful place but also one with pockets of desolation, both physical and psychological. Daniel Vernon's The Man Who Eats Badgers and Other Strange Tales from Bodmin Moor, a film for BBC2's Wonderland slot, about some of the area's more eccentric male residents, was full of ponies disappearing into the mist, a slipper repaired with gaffer tape, a cluster of party balloons tangled on power lines, roadkill on the verges – or "lunch", if you're Arthur Boyt, a retired civil servant who uses the A30 as a kind of linear meat counter. Women in this film were a poignant absence: dusty photographs left behind after divorce or suicide, or, in the case of Arthur's wife, a fugitive movement at the edge of the camera frame, as a door slammed or her car reversed out of sight. "She has exercised her human right not to be televised and to be gawped at by the television public," explained Arthur. How wise you are, Mrs Boyt. Stay away from the dazzle of the lights and you won't be left as roadkill yourself once the film-makers have sped on their way.
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