Web series tend to fall into one of two categories: shows that try to copy the existing network standards and content that attempts to carve out its own identity online. Hulu’s latest, “Deadbeat,” falls heavily in line with the former, presenting itself as a network-friendly TV show hosted by a web site. With an intriguing premise — a lazy, lovable medium earns just enough money solving clients’ ghost-related issues to skate through life — the half-hour comedy could have been pitched to one of the many cable networks looking for original content, but there are subtle touches a shade too lackadaisical for primetime, namely in its willingness to break conformity while remaining grounded deep within it. Though occasionally charming in its listless demeanor, “Deadbeat” has the pacing and tonal issues of a pilot — which would be acceptable if they weren’t scattered over a full season.
Creators and head writers Cody Heller and Brett Konner have created a structure strangely similar to episodic television of old (making the show’s premiere at SXSW’s new Episodics section all the more fitting, as well as the 1980s-style ad). While a few storylines extend past single episodes, most are self-contained, allowing viewers to tune in and out without missing crucial plot points. Yet the service releasing “Deadbeat” isn’t conducive to anyone tuning in and out at all. Every episode is available at any time anyone wants to watch them. No one has to choose between episode five and going to a party Thursday night. “You can have it all” may as well be the millenials’ pitch about online television. Sadly, “Deadbeat” doesn’t take advantage of the freedom provided by its platform. Instead, it tries too hard to imitate successful templates of the past instead of forging new ones for the future.
It’s not that the show is without its charms. Star Tyler Labine plays Kevin Pacalioglu, a medium who communicates with ghosts more casually than most people speak to strangers. Kevin doesn’t want much out of life. In the eight episodes made available for review (10 will constitute the first season), he’s only motivated by necessity, random desire, and general kindness. While Kevin recognizes his best means to make a living is via his unnatural natural ability, he’s not bright enough to maximize his earnings. He accepts payment in duffel bags, out-of-date clothing, and paltry self-negotiated sums. Kevin’s financial-faux pas aren’t frustrating because we know he’ll get by. “Deadbeat” doesn’t seem to bother with real danger, only creating problems you would find taxing when high (like paying a $25 dry cleaning bill).
Speaking of money, Kevin is constantly indebted to his drug dealer/friend Roofie (so far, no date rape drug jokes have been made, but I feel a dozen or so on the horizon) played by Brandon T. Jackson. Later in season one, the two form a sort of loosely codependent duo, a welcome development given both actors’ natural appeal. Jackson appeared to be a rising star when he started hawking Booty Sweat in “Tropic Thunder,” but after an ill-advised venture into “Big Momma’s House” and the “Beverly Hills Cop” pilot that — shockingly — was not picked up, Jackson needs another hit. This isn’t it, but it’s a step in the right direction. The same can be said for Cat Deeley, the “So You Think You Can Dance?” star who takes on her first recurring TV role on “Deadbeat” as a pretend psychic out to undermine Kevin, her authentic competition. She leaves a mark as a ferocious faker, even if her cuts aren’t that deep.
Labine, who’s appeared on a number of failed TV shows leading up to this including “Mad Love” and “Animal Practice,” is the actor of note, though proving himself a surprisingly capable leading man. While I’m an easy target for a bum with a heart of gold, Labine embodies Kevin with just enough urgency and passion to make him an identifiable pothead instead of a stereotypical one. It’s far from a standout comedic performance, but the “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” star could truly thrive here if he was given better material. Unfortunately, we’re only given glimpses of what could be. The show isn’t afraid to broach some of the darker subject matter attached to death, most notably in “Out-of-Body Issues,” when Kevin and Roofie dig up a corpse and give it a makeover — all at the behest of a ghost. Many of the jokes approach truly black parts of life only to back away in an easily-anticipated twist, but even these slight efforts to break up the episodic pattern make the episode more memorable than most.
Heller and Konner make a few other wise judgements along the way, even if none are enough to raise the show out of mediocrity. A paranormal investigator is required to ask questions about people who are deceased to the rest of the world, and instead of coming up with other, more plausible reasons for asking, Kevin always stupidly — but honestly — tells everyone the truth about how he talks to ghosts. Rather than go through the same routine of disbelief every time, “Deadbeat’s” New York universe is filled with people who readily accept the idea of the dead speaking to select members of the living. As mentioned earlier, Labine is also given needed help from series regulars to get through some of the slower plots later in the series. Jackson’s Roofie is one, but an unexplained, flesh-colored version of Slimer shows up in episode four, wreaking havoc at the newstand and mumbling cute little unintelligible quips. Neither bring “Deadbeat” to life, but they — along with guest stars Darrell Hammond and Jason Biggs — help keep things mildly interesting.
If it sounds like I’m stretching a bit to find positives in “Deadbeat,” I am. Despite its obvious flaws, Hulu’s latest is a pleasant enough distraction, a casually engaging time filler with heaps of potential. If it were a pilot picked up to series, many of its issues could be fixed before final judgement was given. Sadly, as a full season, “Deadbeat” can’t live up to its competition — online or on the air.