Review by C.J. Bunce
The top genre TV actress Rose McIver is back and as irresistible as ever. The star of the wildly popular series iZombie is right back in her wheelhouse in CBS’s new series Ghosts: rapid-fire dialogue, outlandish situations where she must lead a crew of characters to decipher and inhabit myriad character types in the craziest of concocted schemes. But unlike iZombie, which had its lighthearted moments, Ghosts is 100% pure comedy. Sure, there are ghosts, but this is a full-on ensemble cast comedy where a brilliantly conceived haunted mansion is only the setting, the framework on which to build a comedy that will hopefully stand up to the even more dreaded ratings wonks.
For fans of Resident Alien, the show smacks of the exact same tone and humor, the latest in the trope mastered by The Munsters and The Addams Family. It’s Beetlejuice, The Sixth Sense, and Tru Calling meets The Money Pit with a splash of Clue, with not a speck of heavy drama (or frights) but heaps of fun and pop culture references (like Sneakers, and if you pay attention you’ll find more than one iZombie reference) stuffed into each half-hour episode.
McIver is urban yuppie Samantha, who inherits an incredibly furnished, off-the-beaten path mansion from a long-lost aunt, and eagerly tries to persuade husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect, The Muppets, Free Guy) to leave the big city and turn the mansion into a B&B. On her first visit to the mansion Samantha trips on a recently jostled vase, falls down the stairwell, and is technically dead for three minutes before going into an induced coma, and she is revived two weeks later. Jay has decided to accede to her wishes and both move into and refurb the mansion, only for Samantha to realize she sees dead people. The dead people are the ghosts of eight people who died at the house or nearby, and instead of moving on their souls are trapped there forever in limbo.
The main ghosts are an Edwardian former owner of the mansion named Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), a modern(ish) scoutmaster named Pete (Richie Moriarty), a wolf of Wall Street who died with his pants down named Trevor (Asher Grodman), a flamboyant contemporary of Alexander Hamilton named Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), a Native American (Román Zaragoza), a hippie (Sheila Carrasco), a gangster-era singer (Danielle Pinnock), and what may be the best idea and best delivery of them all, a Viking (Devan Long, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Doom Patrol). Those are the upstairs ghosts. Down in the dank and dark basement are the ghosts of cholera victims. Why are they stuck there, and what’s with their obsession with the mansion’s HVAC system? We hope the series lasts long enough to find out. Other ghosts will likely appear, and we see a glimpse at a headless fellow briefly in the first hour of the series. To mirror the tagline of The Odd Couple, “Can a young married couple and a ragtag bunch of ghosts share a house without driving each other crazy?”
The worldbuilding is exceptional and astonishingly quick for a half-hour format show. Samantha sees dead people everywhere, not just in the mansion, so there’s no reason to just sell the house and walk away. Each apparition has learned his/her own singular haunting skill in their post-life years in the house: one can (barely) move objects, one can spark electrical charges. The ghosts can also feel pain, but only when a living being walks through them, and they are excessively bored and annoyed with hearing each other tell the same stories after decades of living (well, not living) together. The lesser bits include a few minor crude lines of dialogue, which will hopefully get ironed out of the show as the first season moves ahead. With the tight comedic writing it’s no surprise the writers are ex-New Girl writers.
Other than McIver, the ensemble cast is primarily lesser-known character actors, who will have a chance to shine and get noticed here, from stunt and voice types to up-and-coming comedians. It’s this kind of theater company set-up that would work well for the stage, and the challenge for the writers will be blending a mystery of the week with a comedy trope, and perhaps insert some season-long plot threads to give viewers more reasons to keep coming back. With the first two episodes, returning next week will be an easy decision. The production values, the set and costumes, are A-level.
The series is a remake of BBC One’s sitcom of the same name, airing its third season now. The U.S. version modifies some of the Brit ghosts of the original, from a Romantic poet, a noblewoman, a caveman, a witch trial victim, and a World War II officer, and retained the scoutmaster, the Edwardian former owner, and the trouser-less guy who died from a heart attack. This is not Ghostbusters, Surreal Estate, or Truth Seekers, but the vibe is there. It’s easy to imagine unlimited fun for the writers room with this kind of formula.
It’s a good year for new supernatural fare. Ghosts airs Thursday nights on CBS. Check CBS’s streaming of the first two episodes now. Delayed by the pandemic, the first season will have 13 episodes.