Ghosts Review: CBS’s Haunted Comedy Is Promising, but Unrefined
Any comedy that can deliver a pilot with any semblance of confidence will stand out during pilot season; the desperation so many new series feel to establish themselves immediately, typically leads to a pilot that is a hot mess of executive notes and pledges to the audience that yes, there is something special to see here. Even when a premise should be able to speak for itself, no pilot is ever allowed to exude confidence; which is why even mediocre first episodes delivered with even a half-ounce of gusto are able to stand out.
Ghosts has the benefit of already succeeding; adapted from the BBC series from the Horrible Histories troupe, Ghosts arrives on our side of the Atlantic with an impressive track record, backed by a critically-acclaimed three-season run, and boasting the same original creative team (a few of whom feature in front of the camera in both versions). Throw in an abundantly versatile leading performer (iZombie‘s Rose McIver) and a premise built for an ongoing series (young couple goes for broke buying a haunted bed and breakfast), and you’ve got an instant hit, right?
Well, kind of – Ghosts‘ first two episodes are certainly charming, but by the end of “Hello!”, the single notes of its ensemble cast are already wearing a bit thin. Part The Haunting of Bly Manor, part Ted Lasso, and with a few sprinklings of Bless This Mess thrown in for good measure, there’s a lot of obvious foundational things Ghosts gets right, from its comedic rhythms to its energetic score (real The Good Place vibes with Jeff Cardoni’s musical work here). And yet, it feels like airing the first two episodes in tandem was a mistake by CBS, because “Hello!” is a middling rehash of what precedes it, which quickly washes off the intoxicating charm of “Pilot”.
Ghosts definitely fits into the vein of “happy” comedies we’re starting to see more of in the post-Ted Lasso age, where the conflicts feel arbitrary to the core of a group of people just trying to make each other a little bit happier. Inherently baked into its premise is a lot of potential for deep, emotional storytelling, which “Pilot” briefly (and strangely) alludes to at the end of “Pilot”; a house full of ghosts is a house full of regrets, broken dreams and families stuck in a world where they can’t escape the missed opportunity of existence. The Haunting series reached towards this in unsettling ways; Ghosts ultimately wants to assure us all that thing are going to be ok, which is both unarming – and, if it is part of the show’s long-term construction, probably a bit limiting.
As a bumbling comedy of a young couple making a terrible fish-out-of-water financial decision, Ghosts is equally amorphous in what it wants to be. McIver’s Samantha is vibrantly drawn, impulsive and upbeat, even as she’s questioning her sanity when she starts seeing the ghosts in the home left to her by her great-aunt. Unsurprisingly, she’s a natural buoy for a show stacked to the brim with combating personalities, an affable presence whose adaptability to any given scene (as seen in her wonderfully dynamic performance on iZombie) will make a natural fit on a series with such presumed ambitions.
But however well Samantha is drawn, Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Jay is distinctly shapeless, the most glaring flaw of the opening two episodes. Jay is, to be blunt, a boring fucking character, the kind of partner whose is written to be so affable, that some of the core conflicts driving “Pilot” are just erased with the snap of a finger. Ghosts loses its second lead in the first few scenes of “Pilot” – and “Hello!” completes without the show really making any effort to develop him, which holds back this opening hour from really establishing itself as a show to watch.
The problem is really with “Hello!” – had “Pilot” aired on its own, it would easily be established as one of the fall’s better premieres. The idling of “Hello!” makes for mediocre, repetitive comedy (we get it, Wall Street bro is creepy), neither developing its ghost characters, or filling in the many blanks around Jay’s character, or the larger world of Samantha as a human being. It’s a wasted opportunity to start building the world and emotional palette of Ghosts as a series, and presents a strange dichotomy for the young series, which is confident enough to commit to a certain pace and tone (and delivers it consistently) – but perhaps a bit too confident in how well those elements really play in tandem.
Only time will tell whether there is more than the superficial bro jokes and (already grating) Norse rage emissions; through its first hour, there’s certainly enough potential in this eclectic mix of genres to keep me watching. If Ghosts can find some depth in its characters (both living and ethereal), there is some real potential for it to be something special, like if Rectify met Wonderfalls – that enticing possibility is not found on television every day, so I’m certainly rooting for Ghosts to shore up its foundation and rightfully join the hallowed pantheon of great British imports.