Reaper, And The Advantages Of Humanizing The Devil

The Devil and Sam, the Reaper.

Reaper started out episodic, hollow, and overall clichéd in its plots and humor. But as the show progressed, arcs and characters developed, and it acquired a fanbase. But one of the biggest tricks the show used to draw the fans in comes from humanizing and fleshing out one character: the Devil.

Reaper is a show about a boy named Sam, contracted to bring escaped souls back to the bowels of hell. In a cast of flat characters (including Sam, the determined but occasionally panicky hero; Sock, the braver but completely incompetent sidekick; and Ben, the frequently beaten down brains of the group), the only character that develops in the beginning of the series is the Devil.

Making the Devil a likeable character in a show about sending escaped souls back to hell requires more than a little charm; the show has to give the King of Evil reason for his madness. Through this, the Devil’s entire underworld becomes a service to humankind – it becomes a place to store evil people to protect others (most of the protagonist Sam’s incentives to hurry in his reaping arise when the escape soul endangers or kills the living).

The Devil sulking, when asked about love.

We also slowly see a more human side of the Devil’s backstory and origin. In “Love Bullets and Blacktop,” the Devil tells Sam that he doesn’t believe love exists, but later implies the opposite by playing Brenda Lee’s “I Wonder” on the jukebox and sulking as soon as Sam leaves the bar. In “Rebellion,” the Devil finally confides that he loved God and everything He did and stood for – almost to the point that the Devil implies that the entire rebellion and banishment came from a relationship trouble, rather than a desire to overpower God. Sam asks “Didn’t you try to overthrow him?” and the Devil replies “Let’s just say we had a little fight.” Sam responds “But you loved him?” and the Devil confirms, “With everything that I was, I loved Him. … I haven’t talked about the fall in ages. No one would listen –  now it’s just me, all by myself. Until now, at least; now I have you!”

Humanizing a character initially portrayed as a villain is nothing new; for example, works like Wicked have been using this tactic for some time. But this technique, when done subtly and suddenly, can leave the audience confused; not only is there conflict in the show, but the audience begins to feel internal conflict. After building up characters like the Devil to be the bad guy, we suddenly question, even just for a moment, if we really want the Devil to lose. In “Rebellion,” Sam hesitates, feeling remotely guilty that he exploited his friendship with the Devil to gain information in attempts to overthrow him.
The Devil offers Sam “Employee of the Month” benefits.

The Devil’s likeability comes and goes. Some days, he is cruel to Sam, using him as bait to find a lost soul like in “The Cop” (the Devil framed Sam for murder to get closer to the escaped soul, a convict after the prosecutor who caught him and Sam). But other moments, like in that same episode, he shows appreciation for Sam’s hard work as a reaper when no one else does; when all the demons take Halloween off, Sam still works to reap souls, and the Devil rewards Sam by crowning him as Employee of the Month – and giving him a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. The trick, as the writers of Reaper eventually figured out, is not to work with absolutes. Humans are seldom perfectly one thing, be it good or evil. The Devil, accordingly, isn’t in all cases likeable or unlikeable – and it is that inconsistency, that rounded out irregularity, that makes him more human. And with that, we relate and grow attached to him, and in turn the show as a whole.

About The Author

Chalkey is out to prove that video games, as well as television and movies, can be just as literary as literature. As a journalist and editor, his work has also appeared in The Record (Detroit, MI), The Artful Dodge (Wooster, OH), The Westford Eagle (Westford, MA), Real Change (Seattle, WA), Die Jerusalёmmer (Germany), Day Old Stubble (the internet), Nugget Bridge (the internet), Overthinking It (the internet), Fear Of A Ghost Planet (the internet), Retroware TV (the internet), and Spare Change News (Boston, MA). He is a simple man that enjoys simple things, like morning jogs and fresh out of the dryer pajamas.