Is the familiar, dutiful, and wholly generic setup of FOX's buddy-paranormal-investigator sitcom Ghosted a bug, or a feature?
That's the question: Is it lazily leaning on the stock narrative framework of a show like The X-Files, or inventively riffing on it?
The pilot, which airs Sunday night at 8:30 ET on FOX, certainly wants viewers to come away with the second, more generous reading. There's a breathlessness bordering on desperation to the script and the performances — a nervous energy that, in one moment, helps put a joke over, and in the next, blurs the line between ingratiating and irritating.
It's a first episode, of course; the show's still finding its tone. But there's reason to suspect the formula — and this show is all formula — may be off.
The setup: Adam Scott plays Max, an earnest, I-Want-To-Believe bookstore clerk who was once a prominent astrophysicist, until his wild theories got him booted from Stanford. Craig Robinson is a cool, cynical mall cop who was once one of L.A.'s best detectives, until ... well, you'll figure it out. Probably a good ten minutes before the script tells you.
They are forcibly recruited into (you're way ahead of me already, aren't you?) a shadowy government agency that investigates the paranormal.
Are there warehouses at night?
Yes. There are warehouses at night.
There are glowy things, and floaty things, and glowy, floaty things.
There are conversations in cars that underscore each partner's worldview. There are moments when one partner witnesses an uncanny event that the other does not.
There are also, mercifully, jokes — both slapstick gags (involving an animate, disembodied head) and humor more grounded in the attitudinal differences between the two men. Scott is playing a squirrelly, just-slammed-an-energy-drink version of his nerdy Parks and Recreation persona; Robinson is playing Robinson.
It could work: There are exchanges between the two — when the tone is allowed to pump the brakes a bit — when you can see the show Ghosted wants to be.
Unfortunately, that show already exists: TBS's People of Earth.
People of Earth takes all the elements on display here — the paranormal; a grounded, wry sensibility; strong comic performers — without the formulaic stuff — the secret government org, the buddy-cop rivalry, the warehouses at night. From its very first episode, PoE embraced its comedic ensemble and took care never to force the jokes, producing a show that felt both warm (by highlighting the connections between the characters) and (comedically, tonally, attitudinally) cool.
I'm not sure Ghosted is going to get there — I'm not sure it can, given its reliance on hoary procedural/X-Files cliches. But Scott and Robinson have banked enough goodwill in their previous endeavors for me to extend them a line of credit; that's something the show's creators are clearly counting on.