Friday, November 21, 2014

Ghosts and the City: Hulu's Deadbeat

Andrew T. Jackson and Tyler Labine star in Hulu's Deadbeat

Hulu may have been one of the first streaming services available online (and still offers some of the widest selections of rebroadcast television content from American network and cable sources), but Hulu Plus, its subscription-based younger brother, is still lagging behind the other streamcasters (Netflix, Amazon Prime) for original scripted programming. Hulu Plus has garnered some well-deserved praise for bringing some exclusive UK exports to its American viewers: not only the delightful Moone Boy (Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy set in small-town Ireland in the late 80s) and Showcase's Endgame, the cancelled-too-soon Canadian cult hit, but also co-producing The Wrong Mans, starring Gavin & Stacey's and soon-to-be CBS's Late Late Show host James Corden, with the BBC. (I'll save the details of my unabashed enthusiasm for Corden and the comically intense Wrong Mans for when its much-anticipated second season airs in 2015.) Last spring however Hulu Plus stepped firmly into new and exclusive original programming with the low-key, under the radar, paranormal comedy Deadbeat, which demonstrated the potential for Hulu to play with the big boys.

Deadbeat, created by the team of Cody Heller & Brett Konner, who cut their teeth on the American versions of Wilfred and The Inbetweeners, stars Tyler Labine (Reaper) and Andrew T. Jackson (Tropic Thunder). On the surface, Deadbeat is an unambitious entry into the stoner comedy genre (a loose, but still growing list which would include Wilfred, the recent Silicon Valley, Bored to Death, Entourage, How to Make It in America, and Labine's own Reaper), and this is largely borne out in the viewing; there is more than enough of Pineapple Express in Deadbeat for it to appeal to a pothead demo. Labine plays Kevin 'Pac' Pacalioglu, a Brooklyn slacker who lives from dime bag to dime bag, dresses like a hipster hobo, eats peanut butter out the jar with a spoon, and whose only friend seems to be his drug dealer Roofie, played by Jackson. Pac does have one thing going for him, however: he sees dead people… everywhere. Filmed and set in New York City, there are no shortage of ghosts for Pac to interact with; in fact – a feature that rings genuinely true – New York seems to have more dead inhabitants than living ones. Most episodes centre firmly on the amiable interactions of Pac and Roofie, along with a small parade of semi-transparent guest ghosts. The show has a loose sense of narrative, as threads are happily dropped and picked up later (the most amusing of which involves a character named Menachem Mendel, played by the Israeli-born NYC comic Modi). But the show also boasts two firmly recurring characters, a fake but media-savvy medium played by So You Think You Can Dance's host Cat Deeley and Lucy DeVito as her put-upon assistant, which offers an ongoing storyline that weaves through the otherwise standalone plots. Deeley's Camomile White – whose one skill, beyond her British accent and blond hair, seems to be the ability to spasm and vomit on command – is the closest thing Deadbeat has to a villain, and also gives the first season somewhat of an arc as Pac and Camomile vie (unevenly) for New York's emerging exorcism market. (DeVito is especially charming, but was underused in the first season, though the season's final episode promises to bring her character into a larger role next year.)

Labine's low-ambition shlub has a lot in common with 'Sock', his character from Reaper, and Deadbeat's narrative pacing is sometimes reminiscent of Reaper as well – except that here, Pac and Roofie are less slackers than down-on-their-luck and trying to make it, but with no idea how to do it or even really what "it" is. In the original press tour in the spring, Heller described her new series as "The Big Lebowski meets the Sixth Sense" – but in TV terms I could call it Reaper meets How to Make It in America. (Yes, I know, I admit the point of the elevator pitch is to reference content audiences have actually seen, but I still stand by it. Though admittedly neither as ambitious or literate as HBO's two now-defunct Brooklyn-based comedies, America and Bored to Death, Deadbeat has enough of that borough energy to make it worthy of the company.). 

Tyler Labine and Cat Deeley in Deadbeat
Deadbeat's stoner creds and often sophomoric tendencies notwithstanding, it is also a genuinely fascinating entry into television's continuing enthrallment with death and dying. Sometimes those series take up the anguish of mortality and mourning head on (Awake, Go On, Six Feet Under), other times an unapologetically metaphysical conceit offers indirect insight into those same themes (the current Forever, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me). Deadbeat falls into the latter category, but does so with such a light, surreal, unsentimental, and almost superficial touch, that death is taken on as a basic and entirely unremarkable daily reality. In Pac's universe, people are amusingly credulous, and the ones the most surprised by Pac's spiritualist talents are most often the ghosts themselves. The rules of haunting remain familiar: unfinished business has kept their spirits from moving on 'into the light' and Pac's ability to communicate with them puts him in a position to help out. And with all deference to the charms of Jennifer Love Hewitt (cards on the table: I will never forgive Ghost Whisperer for displacing Joan of Arcadia on CBS's Friday night schedule), there is something consistently delightful in the mundane mediocrity both of the ghosts and the issues that keep them lingering in Brooklyn long after their deaths – their concerns range from petty spite, broken promises, to arguments between married couples over what colour to paint their kitchen. Pac, who is constitutively unable to judge or condescend to anyone, responds to the ordinariness of the ghosts and their struggles with an unwavering and sincere attention, which consistently elevates the everyday rather than mocks it. Deadbeat is as spiritually simple and unassuming as its lead character. 

And there's no getting around: Labine is charming, like a man-size slacker puppy who cannot but make you smile as he humps your leg. Like his character from Reaper, Pac is the poster child for harmless stalking, a man capable of being inoffensively racist or simply adorably sexist. The harmlessness of this persona comes not merely from his physical demeanour but the unmistakable size of his heart. Pac is clearly self-centred, often unable to see further than the person standing in front of him, but he also invariably makes the right moral choice when faced with it. He also possesses an extraordinary skill and is relatively clueless about how unique and remarkable it is: a loveable loser, but really only in his own mind. (Roofie is constantly trying to get him to understand, to no avail, just how genuinely amazing he actually is.)

Deadbeat premiered on Hulu Plus, all at once, this past April, but it's never too late to discover a new streaming series. The second season was ordered soon after. Like all streaming shows you could binge-watch Deadbeat, but most of its episodes are standalone so it's equally well-suited to a leisurely, intermittent dip in whenever there's a gap in your viewing schedule. It's offbeat, and at its worst may demonstrate the same lack of ambition as its main characters, but sometimes the series – along with Pac himself genuinely surprises, as in a later episode when Pac meets the ghost of Rube Goldberg, a storyline which almost took the series into Pushing Daisies territory. Deadbeat may be a trifle, but it is a consistently satisfying one. 

(One small caveat for our Canadian readers: Hulu and Hulu Plus are currently unavailable in Canada, or any non-US resident – making Hulu's slogan, "Anywhere, Anytime," a perennial source of irony to Canadians. However, a local Canadian network could certainly pick up the series if they wanted to. Note to CTV and Global: Tyler Labine is Ontario-born after all, so it would only be right to bring his series home!)

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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