Canadian-born actor Tyler Labine has been acting for more than two decades, but the first time I really noticed him was in Shaun Cassidy’s provocative yet prematurely canceled 2005-06 sci-fi series Invasion. I became a big Labine fan while enjoying his hilarious work in the 2007-09 CW series Reaper, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style supernatural comedy that found Labine and a buddy trying to outwit Satan himself (Ray Wise). Later, he held his own opposite the dazzling Judy Greer (Archer) in the shortlived 2011 CBS romantic comedy Mad Love.
Now Labine is back in Reaper mode (sort of) in Deadbeat, a new supernatural comedy that began streaming its first 10-episode season Wednesday exclusively on Hulu Plus. The show casts Labine as sad-sack New Yorker Kevin Pacalioglu (pronounced “pack-a-lee-OH-glu,” but just call him “Pac” like everyone else does). Pac is pretty much a slacker who is down on his luck. He has no family to speak of, it’s been eight years since he got lucky with a woman and his only friend is his drug dealer, Rufus “Roofie” Jones (Brandon T. Jackson from the Percy Jackson teen movie series).
Pac’s sole marketable skill is that he sees dead people. He’s a genuine medium, who is compassionate enough to take time to help restless souls wrap up the unfinished business that ties them to the mortal world. Unfortunately, he’s absolutely terrible when it comes to negotiating for his services, so he lives on the brink of financial disaster.
Pac doesn’t call a lot of attention to himself, but he still catches the eye of Camomile White (Cat Deeley, So You Think You Can Dance), a beautiful clairvoyant whose sunny smile and camera-friendly personality conceal the fact that she’s a shameless fraud preying on the grief and superstition of others. Over the course of Season 1, Pac helplessly finds himself attracted to Camomile, who sees him only as a rival and a threat to her career.
It’s a fairly interesting set-up, but I’m not going to kid you, the first few episodes of Deadbeat are fairly deadly, playing like something that was dashed off by the writers at the end of a long night of drinking. When we first meet him, Pac is hard to root for, even as played by Labine. He’s a depressed mess, not to mention apparently an idiot who mangles even very common words and phrases (he actually pronounces “hymn” as “hymen”). The jokes are nothing special, either.
Weirdly, the second half of the season – starting with episode six, a Halloween-themed story that finds an interesting twist on the scary Bloody Mary urban legend – seems like a different show altogether. Pac stops acting quite so mentally disabled and the ghosts he meets are more interesting and start to connect in a meaningful way with Pac’s own journey. By the time we get to the end of the season, when we see Labine reunited with his old Reaper castmate Wise, the writers have taken Pac, Camomile and her mousy assistant, Sue (played by Lucy DeVito, daughter of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman), to an interesting place and set up the potential for a fairly promising second season, if Hulu orders one.
As noted, though, to get there, you have to slog through some dismal creative flailing by the writers in the early episodes. If you’re a fan of Labine – or, for that matter, Deeley, who actually is very good working in stone-cold-bitch mode – it’s probably worth the effort. Otherwise, you probably can sit this one out.