Lately I’ve been closely following the ongoing competition between the streaming sites Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. There are pros and cons to each one, generally revolving around selection, but what’s most interesting is the quality of original programming that they each put out. Some critics have argued that there is too much good television out there to keep up with all of it; I’m a fan of excess and will always welcome more. To no one’s surprise, Netflix is at the top of the game now that lesser shows like Lilyhammer and Hemlock Grove have been eclipsed by the addictive House of Cards and the exhilarating Orange Is the New Black. Amazon Instant Video hasn’t done too well with last year’s offerings — Betas was canceled and Alpha House hasn’t received much attention — though their upcoming lineup looks very promising. That leaves Hulu trying to play catch-up to the bigger names. Deadbeat, an original comedy that premiered yesterday, is Hulu’s best attempt at establishing itself.
Hulu’s previous efforts haven’t been too awful, though most are joint productions that aren’t wholly original to the site (such as The Wrong Mans, which was solid but was co-produced with BBC). Battleground and The Awesomes felt like a forgettable retread of similar material that we’ve seen on better shows. Both programs, especially Battleground, lean more toward the web series aesthetic than network television. This isn’t a problem, but it put Hulu at a disadvantage because its competitors are putting out ready-for-HBO-quality programming.
That’s one of the main reasons why Deadbeat stands out. It’s a “supernatural comedy” starring Tyler Labine as Kevin, a freelance medium who helps spirits move on with their (after)lives. It’s the first show Hulu has put out that seems primed and ready for network television, a show that I could easily picture airing on FX.
It isn’t a perfect show by any means. Kevin is a character that we’ve seen before — a lazy, often unmotivated pothead who just happens to have this gift — and if not for his ability to communicate with ghosts, he would run the risk of being a slacker-guy cliché. Kevin’s only friend is a drug dealer named, ugh, Roofie (though he is more put-together than Kevin is). Deadbeat has fun with some crude and vaguely offensive humor — though it’s played much more as a reflection of Kevin’s off-putting personality — and enjoys going the gross-out route more often than not. And for a show that’s about death, the stakes are all pretty low. There is a case-of-the-week vibe to Deadbeat, but it’s not overly dramatic and Kevin isn’t ever in any cliffhanger-y danger. Rather, everything is played for laughs. That’s the way it should be in a lax comedy like this, although it doesn’t make for the most engaging series. With most shows released on the web, there is an instant desire to binge-watch. With Deadbeat, I’m content to watch an episode every now and then but feel no need to race to the end.
That said, the low-key simplicity of Deadbeat is perhaps what will make it work in the long run. The comedy here isn’t subtle; the premiere episode is titled “The Sexorcism,” and I’m sure you can guess what the basic plot is. Kevin’s ghostly client is a young soldier who died in the war and wants to inhabit Kevin’s body (ghosts can temporarily possess Kevin, though he likes to eat mushrooms to help out this process) in order to finally lose his virginity. There is a twist, and a possession, and a predictably uncomfortable sex scene. In the second episode, a ghost wants Kevin’s help with a competitive eating contest. The spirits here don’t make Kevin jump through hoops to reconnect with their families or anything huge. They just want to get laid and eat hot dogs. Kevin is happy to help them, if only for the money.
There is also a love interest: Kevin’s crush Camomile (Cat Deely) a famous TV medium and author. Of course, there is also an immediate obstacle: she is a fake and can’t actually communicate with the dead, resulting in her immediate suspicion and distrust of Kevin. Deely and Labine have a great love/hate rapport, especially once Deely gets used to the sitcom world and tones down her performance.
Tyler Labine himself is the best part of Deadbeat and the best argument to watch. Labine is a perpetual sidekick, an actor who has been doomed to one-season wonders despite his obvious talent. He has stood out in every show he’s been on — most notably the great, unfortunately canceled Reaper, which dealt with slightly similar material — and it’s great to see him in a starring role. Labine is affable, much more than his character is, and easily inserts himself into this unique universe as if he’s actually been here his whole life.
Though, truth be told, this universe doesn’t seem all that foreign. Sure, Kevin can talk to ghosts, but at the end of the day, he’s just doing his best to pay his rent with a job that is becoming increasingly obsolete (people live longer, he explains, and paranormal movies have desensitized them to ghosts). Deadbeat is, at times, both not of this world and very familiar, which makes it stand out above Hulu’s previous offerings. It’s a solid effort, and if Hulu continues to release programs like this — funny and actually original — then it could stealthily become the streaming site to beat.