It Has Spirit, But Not Much Spirit
Every once in a while on a series debuts on television that transcends the medium, reshapes the potential of its genre and truly deserves to be called Peak TV.
CBS’ Ghosts is not that kind of show. It’s the kind of series that, frankly, in the bad old days of network television would be marketed as ‘high concept’. “Look Brandon, it’s about this couple that moves into this Gothic mansion and find outs it’s haunted by a bunch of ghosts that only the wife can see!” This is the kind of mindset that would come up with the idea of My Favorite Martian or Gilligan’s Island, not the network that just recently ended The Big Bang Theory and Mom. But in an era where even the best network comedies are surrounding the formulas of family sitcoms, you can’t exactly argue that Ghosts is different material than Home Economics or Bob Hearts Ashiola. Whether this makes it better remains to be seen.
The plot is, basically, not much thicker than the one sentence pitch I just gave. A couple (Jay and Samantha) inherit a mansion from Samantha’s great-grandmother. Their initial idea is those of any New Yorkers — they want to turn into a B&B. The mansion is, of course, haunted by ghosts from just about every era, from a Viking to the yuppie scum. I would say that to this point all of them are one-dimensional, but since they are ghosts that may not be entirely fair. They’ve had eternities to be together, but they just seem to get along, but they do know they don’t want their home to be a hotel. So they try to ‘haunt’ the couple out — which doesn’t work, and as a result Sam falls down the stairs and is in a coma for two weeks. Due to her near-death experience, she can now see all the ghosts in the house — and is implied, everywhere. (One of the funnier scenes is when she goes to a hospital and is diagnosed by a ‘ghost doctor’.) Her husband initially thinks she crazy, but decides to support her, and they try to find a way to coexists with the ghosts.
Now I’ll admit there are some intriguing ideas here, none of which, sadly, deals with most of the ghosts that are regulars. Very few of them can rise above the one joke that pertains to their era and even the more moderns one don’t seem able to have explained everything that’s going on in the time passed. And there’s a real lack of continuity that doesn’t seem to make much sense from episode to episode — the Viking ghost can’t seem to understand technology, but the Native American ghosts seems not only aware of the passage of time, but what his ancestors are responsible for to this day. Its actually the time when the series tries not to be funny that it actually works a little better — in the most recent episode, the Viking ghost’s bones were uncovered and he expressed his wish for a Viking Funeral. It turns out he was abandoned by his shipmates and was left alone to die when searching for food. This sense of abandonment resonates when Sam and Jay try to find a way to sell his bones to make money. It’s a poignant idea that gets buried in a lot of bad jokes.
Right now, there are two potentials things that stop me from dismissing this series outright. The first is the presence of Rose McIver as Samantha. One of the more intriguing actresses of this era with presence in shows like Masters of Sex and Once Upon a Time (that’s American TV; she’s actually a New Zealand born child actress who was working as far back as Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules) her most delightful role was playing Olivia Moore in the wonderful iZombie, a delightful supernatural police procedural where she plays a zombie who solved crimes by eating the victims brains and taking on their personalities. She’s back to seeing dead people, but she has a wonderful spirit and likability that has always enabled her to carry the weakest of material. You understand why her husband truly loves her, and there are quirks in her personality that are interesting besides this (it seems her sexual role play seems to involve HGTV shows) McIver is always watchable even when the series is plastic.
The other thing is a joke that is at this point, subtler. All the ghost ‘regulars’ walk around the house freely. There are also, however, a group of ghosts basically in shrouds that only live in the basement. They seem to have died of cholera but we don’t know much more about them except for one thing — all of the other ghosts are really creeped out by them. In one episode, when Sam and Jay go to the basement, they stop following at the stairs. In the last episode Isaac, who wants their support to be named leader, talks to them in supportive terms, but can’t get out of there fast enough when he’s done. Even Sam seems real reluctant to spend time with them? I don’t know if this some bigger statement about classism or some hierarchy among even the dead, but its by far the most intriguing idea this series has.
Bottom line: Should you watch Ghosts? Well, this is a timeslot where the competition is Law and Order SVU and Grey’s Anatomy, series that have been far too long and whose characters are far less alive than the dead ones here. It’s light and fluffy and it’s at best popcorn television, even among so many of the single cameras on CBS. I’m kind of appalled that its imdb score is higher right now than The Wonder Years. For me, the jury is still out. But even I’ll admit I’ve had a place in my heart for series that you don’t have to think to hard to enjoy. You definitely don’t have to do much thinking here. As for enjoyment? Maybe this series will live long enough for me to do that.
My score: 2.75 stars.