[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
- feature a couple surprised by the inheritance of a once-grand rural estate that has since fallen into a certain amount of disrepair
- follow that couple’s initial goals to turn the drafty mansion into a quaint bed and breakfast
- track what happens when an accident leaves one of them — Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) in the original and Samantha (Rose McIver) in the remake — with the ability to see the ghosts of people throughout history who have died on the premises
- include the ghost of a scoutmaster with an arrow through his neck and a ghost — a disgraced MP in the original, a finance bro in the remake — permanently left without pants
- recognize that one of the funniest things you can do with this premise is cut between the calm, peaceful interior that everyone else can see and the absolute chaos that ghosts are unleashing among themselves
Though remaking a show with near identical setups and an actual identical title certainly invites comparisons, it’s almost unfair to pit them against each other. “Ghosts” is the original creation of Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, and Ben Willbond, a troupe that had plenty of prior experience working together on other history and fantasy TV projects. Watching their version, it’s easy to see how all the ghosts have a natural ease and connection with each other, even as they’re playing wildly different characters.
Despite that built-in camaraderie, the first season still had its own kinks to work out. With more than a handful of ghosts to contend with, it took a few episodes for the show to move beyond the punchline-as-characterization hurdle that a comedy like this has to get past. There’s always going to be some laughs from the idea that people from World War II or the 1990s or prehistoric times will react differently to new technology or evolving social trends. Once “Ghosts” made that an accent rather than its entire reason for being, the show opened up.
Take Season 2’s “About Last Night,” which follows Alison and husband Mike (Kiely Smith-Bynoe) trying to piece together what happened during a wild house party the night before. It’s a classic sitcom episode format, elevated by a cast that’s really locked in as a group. There’s a timing and a balance and a firm grasp on what makes these characters tick well beyond the fact that they’re all mystified by the existence and purpose of a smartphone. Now with three seasons under their belt, they’ve made an endearing workplace comedy with the freedom to keep playing around.
With the CBS version still at the outset, there’s still plenty of the Season 1 jokes that come from Samantha not knowing how to ignore her collection of ghosts while talking with strangers or her husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Once the original “Ghosts” got Alison and Mike working as a team, it settled into a sweet groove. In turn, that helped sharpen the contributions of Rickard (who’s managed to turn a caveman into far more than comical grunts), the always-delightful Lolly Adefope (bringing an equal dose of cheeriness and bitter jealousy to a noblewoman bent on friendship at all costs), and Willbond (whose ‘40s-era army captain might just be the most compelling ghost in either version so far).
There are certainly signs that this new spin can get there, too. McIver and Ambudkar are performers who can pull off the mix of disbelief and deadpan that the show needs to build from. Brandon Scott Jones (as the subject of a literal Revolutionary War footnote), Rebecca Wisocky (as the original matriarch of the estate), and Devan Long (as the Viking felled by a lightning strike on the ground where the manor was eventually built) are all starting to zero in on the optimal level of parody-to-pathos ratio that could give the show some longevity.
“Ghosts” 2.0 has the ingredients to thrive in the way its predecessor has. Part of it is knowing when to double down on those strengths and how to use the people who flit in and out of the mansion. (There’s a special kind of mayhem in “Free Pass,” an early episode of the original that finds Alison and Mike renting out their place as a set for a 19th century romantic drama.) There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks along the way, but when “Ghosts” gets to the point everything is working together as a unit, that’s a winning formula in any country.