Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was perhaps the most important--and imitated--one-hour TV show of the 1990s. Its fusion of comedy and drama appeared several months before America met the excruciatingly quirky "Ally McBeal" and the word "dramedy" became pop lexicon. But "Buffy" took fusion television to yet another level, adding the wholly underappreciated genre of horror to the mix. At its best, horror allows for writers to reveal otherwise undocumented layers of character: When people are placed in inhuman worlds, dark extremes, or fiendish circumstances, their essential natures become clearer. Setting a high school drama over a "Hellmouth" certainly allowed "Buffy" to elicit more primal nuance from its themes than that other seminal high school show of the '90s, "My So-Called Life," despite "So-Called"'s heavy doses of angst and ponderousness.
This fall season, two shows in particular are borrowing heavily from the "Buffy" franchise: The CW's "Reaper" and CBS's "Moonlight." The latter is a film-noir show about a moody, tortured vampire in Los Angeles who is a private eye. If that sounds familiar, then you might be a fan of the "Buffy" spin-off "Angel," which has, well, exactly the same premise; "Moonlight" might as well be called "Shmangel." Unfortunately, the theft does not end there. The tormented main character of "Moonlight," Mick, begins the season by apparently participating in a documentary, providing answers that would exactly duplicate ones given by Brad Pitt's Louis in Interview with the Vampire. And, just as in that film, one comes away wishing that Tom Cruise's arch and jubilant Lestat were interviewed rather than the incredibly tedious Louis or Mick, both of whom mistake brooding for depth. Plus, there's Mick's overblown Raymond Chandler narration. When a local reporter with the acting chops of an ant (imagine Anna Nicole Smith running up to a cop, awkwardly holding a mic, and saying, "Chief, chief, where'd you find the body?") crosses through a fountain to snap pictures of a dead body, our hero says, "I thought I'd seen a lot in my life as a vampire until I saw her ... " Well, if that isn't the living end, a reporter crossing a fountain--barefoot no less!--to take a photo; it's enough to bring a brooding vamp to his knees.
"Moonlight" is derivative of so many other better shows it becomes difficult to pay attention. The program is even shot in a style reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London. Still, it apes no work more than "Angel," crossing the line from homage into grand larceny. Luckily for "Buffy" revivalist fans, "Reaper" fares much better. "Reaper" is about a young man, Sam, whose parents sold his soul to the devil before he was born. Already, there's promise here: The devil will take "custody" of their firstborn's soul when he turns 21, in exchange for saving the father from fatal illness. The clever parents then decided they simply would never have children. Until the devil paid the gambling debts of an unscrupulous doctor and--whoops!--Sam was born. Now 21, he has met his maker (destroyer?), and the devil would like Sam to return the souls of escapees from Hell, who are seriously bad people, back to the Netherworld. In other words, Sam gets to be kind of metaphysical cop. Not so bad, really.
The devil is played by the genius and totally underused Ray Wise, best known for his role in another horror-camp classic, the seriously great "Twin Peaks," as Laura Palmer's deranged father. Wise has exactly the mischievous wink-and-nod regality one wants in a devil, and he plays the part with relish. As in "Buffy," "Reaper" follows the hilarious reactions of otherwise disaffected young people as they face mortality and monsters. Sarcasm and derring-do are in great supply. But, while "Reaper" has an original and comic premise, I worry for its longevity.
Part of the genius of "Buffy" was that it contextualized its major teen themes in the setting of the Hellmouth. When mom tells Buffy that the world won't end if she stays in one night, we all know it just might! The asshole jock? Demon. Mom's dorky new boyfriend? Psycho robot. The strange health teacher? Giant insect. The corrupt principal? Vampire patsy. All the normal high-school struggles become extreme battles between life and death, giving the audience a new look at classic themes. Unfortunately, "Reaper" is not based in any universal experience, like high school. The show's young stars are the aimless employees at a Home Depot-like mega store. Though the supporting cast is wry and fun, it's hard to tell if "Reaper" will really be anything other than a send-a new-monster-back-to-hell-each-week kind of show. "Buffy" transcended this problem beautifully by making slaying so integral to her life that it was an annoying duty Buffy had to slog through so that she could get back to her primary concerns of friends and dating. Buffy's emotions for her boyfriend, for example, superseded the fact that he was undead, and gave the show heart.
Slaying bad guys for the devil is all well and good. Let's just hope "Reaper" can put a little more, er, soul into it.
By Sacha Zimmerman