"Aliens in America" and "Reaper" are creating big buzz in the media's fall television preview coverage. The hour-long series "Reaper" (premiering Sept. 25) is about slacker Sam Oliver ("The Loop's" Bret Harrison), who upon turning 21, learns his parents have sold his soul to Satan ("Twin Peaks'" Ray Wise)--and now he must become "the devil's bounty hunter."
Then there's the sitcom "Aliens in America" (premiering Oct. 1), where a Midwest Christian family gets a culture shock when the Anglo-European exchange student they were expecting (to befriend their outsider son and help him become popular) turns out a be a devout 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim: Raja Musharaff (Adhir Kalyan of the Irish TV series "Fair City").
These fresh shows are a contrast to The CW's line-up last season, which mostly featured returning series from its two predecessor networks, The WB and UPN. (The CW was launched Sept. 20, 2006, as a joint venture from Warner Bros. Entertainment and CBS Corp., which owned the WB and UPN, respectively.)
Now, The CW is focused on making new hits with its 18- to 34-year-old target market, president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff said at the network's recent Television Critics Association presentation in Los Angeles. She added that the toddler network is the only one focusing on that market, being a decade younger than closest competitor FOX.
Ostroff later said in an e-mail interview that The CW researches all aspects of the demographic without releasing any specific information: "We explore everything in their lives in our research, including religion," she said. "We will continue to voraciously analyze our demo in order to grow our network."
The CW ended up picking "Aliens," "Reaper," and its other new shows because it is believed they will strike a chord with this elusive (and often fickle) young audience.
"We consider many, many factors when developing and programming new shows at the network, including the values our characters possess," Ostroff said. "But ultimately, it's all about entertaining the audience."
"Reaper" and "Aliens" are comical offerings with an edge, given the situations characters such as Sam, Satan, and Raja are placed in.
"Aliens" uses 9/11 as a backdrop and pokes fun of Midwesterners and their interactions with the "other," including Raja and his host family's teenage son Justin ("The Hills Have Eyes'" Dan Byrd). Justin may share the same ethnic-religious background as the majority in this Midwestern fictional society, but he can't seem to fit in. And this is despite his and mother Franny's (Amy Pietz from "Caroline in the City") humorous attempts to make him one of the crowd.
Case in point: Thinking they can get an instant friend by hosting an exchange student (who they expect to be a cool Caucasian boy).
Noteworthy scenes include Franny's fear when she catches Justin praying with Raja and Raja's introduction to his high school class by a teacher, which includes asking the students how many are mad at him because he is a Muslim from Pakistan. Priceless stuff.
For executive producer David Guarascio, who worked with fellow producer Moses Port on "Mad About You" and "Just Shoot Me," pushing the limits is key. "We're excited to push the envelope a little bit... the best way to be funny is to not be afraid to be too edgy and take chances, and not be afraid to miss," Guarascio said.
Considerable research was also pivotal for the suspenseful comedy "Reaper" in its depiction of the devil, according to creator/executive producer Michele Fazekas. Fazekas, who worked with creator/executive producer Tara Butters on "The X-Files" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," used the Catholic stories she heard as a child--and she also read up on the subject, including Elaine Pagels' "The Origin of Satan."
"We did a lot of research on all kinds of depictions of the devil or some evil superpower," Fazekas said. "It's such a fertile ground for storytelling."
The story in "Reaper," whose first episode was directed by "Dogma's" Kevin Smith, follows Sam juggling bounty hunter duties, in one instance with the help of a Dirt Devil, with wooing his home improvement store co-worker Andi ("Heroes'" Missy Peregrym).
As for how deeply the shows will end up depicting the religiosity of their characters , the executive producers of "Reaper" and "Aliens" said it depends on how many episodes they get. Tim Doyle ("Roseanne") from "Aliens" said there are plans for an episode where the Tolchuck family takes Raja to a megachurch after he asks them about their spirituality.
"I think the real purpose of that episode is that this family isn't particularly spiritual, and Raja's presence and his spirituality serve as a catalyst especially for the mom, Fran, to sort of re-examine where she is at with that stuff," Doyle said.
With "Reaper," Fazekas said they are open to exploring Sam and his parents' religious nature in the future because being in the realm of spirituality forms these stories. "I think there will be a desire on the parents part to be good," she said, "And there is a back story with the father that is the fallacy that will come out later--if we have a later."
From time to time, Fazekas thinks about the possible addition of a "good guy" character, like the Archangel Michael, to counteract Satan because, "On some level, God is going to be a little too busy to get involved."
Ultimately, Doyle thinks that religion and comedy go hand-in-hand, and in his case he has gotten a lot of mileage out of a Catholic background. "I think [your religious background] is so ingrained as who you are as a person," Doyle said. "It's so one of those wonderful personal things, also it's very sensitive for comic writers (and) those are the juicy spots you want to go for."