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Don't fear 'Reaper': CW's comedy-drama has some devilish twists

One of the virtues of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the warm, loyal bond it established among its group of ghoul-chasing teens - the Scooby Gang. In "Reaper," a new CW supernatural series, the friends are a little older - they're of the slacker variety - but they share a similarly affecting closeness. They may be battling evil spirits who've escaped from hell, and they may have close calls with death, and they may have go-nowhere jobs at minimum wage, but united they stand.

"Reaper," which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 56, is a really promising comedy-drama that feels more like a brother-show of "Buffy" than a clone. The first episode, directed by Kevin Smith, is filled with enough original flourishes to distinguish it, even while the phantom-slaying themes are alike. And by the way: You don't need to care about horror tales and CGI demons to embrace "Reaper." On the CW, monsters are metaphors for adulthood, of course.

Sam (Bret Harrison), sweet and underachieving, is the Buffy figure. When he turns 21, he discovers that his parents sold his soul to the devil before he was born. After taking a few meetings with the Dark One himself, played with avuncular sliminess by Ray Wise, he learns that he must serve as a bounty hunter for souls that have escaped from the increasingly overcrowded hell. Wise, etched in the memories of all "Twin Peaks" viewers as Leland Palmer, makes a heavenly devil, and he works his lines with snarky glee. When a friend gives Sam a friendship bracelet, he observes, "That's really nice. Not too gay at all."

Sam's friends work with him at a giant, hollow housewares store (cough - Home Depot - cough) in a giant, hollow mega-mall. If "Reaper" catches on, it will undoubtedly exploit the fluorescent iconography of those bazillion-aisled stores for comedy, in the same way it goofs on the Department of Motor Vehicles as, literally, "Hell on Earth." After Sam catches a fugitive soul, he is required to haul it down to the DMV for processing.

Sam's best friend is his co-worker Bert "Sock" Wysocki, who is played by Tyler Labine, the conspiracy theorist from "Invasion." Labine has a great Falstaffian presence, with all of his crazy energy, and he is the Hardy to Harrison's blander Laurel. Sock is 25 going on 12, warning Sam to "wear some puke-resistant clothing" for his 21st-birthday celebration. And, in the nonchalant tone that makes "Reaper" so wry, he responds to news of Sam's bondage to the devil by observing, "Nothing cool like that ever happens to me." Along with a third friend, Ben (Rick Gonzalez), he helps Sam perform his Beelzebubian duties. Also in the gang: Andi (Missy Peregrym, looking like Hilary Swank here), on whom Sam has an unexpressed crush.

I see a lot of rich potential in "Reaper" - and that's frequently not the case with network pilots. The humor is already in place, from the Dirt Devil vacuum with which Sam must capture a demon, to the name of that demon, Ned Shmecker. The devil snacks on chicken-fried steak - "I'm so glad I don't have arteries," he says - and Sam's boss thinks he's a bigshot by offering up a 25-pound ham as a prize in a sales competition. All the details have color, and so do the characters, right down to Sam's guilt-ridden parents, with whom he still lives. And there are fleeting hints of drama in the scenario that will surely gain momentum and weight - if the show doesn't wind up in cancellation hell, that is. Now that would be an infernal shame.

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Starring: Bret Harrison, Ray Wise, Tyler Labine, Missy Peregrym, Rick Gonzalez

On: The CW, Channel 56

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10