THERE ARE CERTAINLY no shows on TV more spirited than “Ghosts” right now and there may be none funnier. Making its debut with two episodes Thursday night, the show concerns a young couple, Jay and Sam (Utkarsh Ambudkar and Rose McIver), who inherit a rambling, ramshackle, 300-yearold mansion in upstate New York. No strings. No tax burden. Free. “There’s gotta be something wrong with it,” says Jay—at which point we already know enough to chuckle.
The “wrong” at the Woodstone Estate, from which Sam’s greataunt Sophie has recently departed (in what turns out to be a relatively conventional, ascended-into-heaven manner), is the octet of apparitions Sophie has left behind. The souls of the not-at-all-recently departed. They include Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), a Revolutionary War-era soldier who died an inglorious death (“dysentery was no party”); a flamboyant ’20s jazz singer named Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), who may have been murdered; a sardonic Native-American, Sasappis (Román Zaragoza); a hippie named Flower (Sheila Carrasco); and a cod-obsessed Viking named Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long). Sophie’s death leaves the fate of the house, and the comfort of its inhabitants, up in the air. What will the new owners do with the place? What will the ghosts do? Rest in peace? Think again.
“Ghosts” takes two antique truisms of comedy—that it’s supposed to be dangerous, and that it equals tragedy plus time—and strings them out. Encountering the perky Sam, Pete (Richie Moriarty), an upbeat scoutmaster with an arrow through his neck, concludes: “She’s no old lady bedridden while disease eats away at her. But we knew those good times couldn’t last forever.” Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), a Gilded Age heiress and Sophie’s great-greatgrandmother, listens in on the Sam-Jay debate— about making the place a bed & breakfast, or a hotel, or just unloading it. She’s stricken with the vapors. “This house was my pride and joy,” Hetty sputters. “Now it could get sold to who knows who. Murderers. Perverts. Irishmen.” This ethnically Irish reviewer was not offended.
Some might be, and not just by antique biases and Isaac’s appalled reaction to discovering how successful that little twerp Alexander Hamilton turned out to be. But such is the show’s charm and what makes it a standout from so much of what has, for years, stymied network comedy series: an aspiration to blandness, aka the death of laughs. That said, the juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient—in technology as well as attitudes—is just one of the show’s reservoirs of mirth. The ghosts have led a largely sheltered existence, except for the presence of the cholera victims who inhabit the cellar (and who are, predictably for this show, awful and hilarious). The efforts to scare off Sam and Jay are heroic but futile. When the ghostly contingent’s 1990s Wall Street bro,
Trevor (Asher Grodman), refers to a movie, he has to explain to Hetty what a movie is, to others what “projection” means, and the whole thing leaves Thorfinn in the fish-scented dark (“What is ‘play’?!” he roars). Trevor also wants someone to use that internet thing that Sam and Jay bring to the house to check on his hottest investments (Circuit City, Enron, Blockbuster). Why the otherwise Brooks Brothers-clad Trevor is spending eternity with out pants will no doubt be explained in subsequent episodes. (Three were available for review.)
That there is such a talented ensemble playing such a historically disparate cast of characters puts “Ghosts” in a position of taking the show in any number of directions by following a different spirit per episode. (Episode 3, “Viking Funeral,” gives us the backstory on Thorfinn. I, for one, want to know who put the arrow in Pete’s neck.) Why each ghost is stuck in a kind of limbo seems like fertile material for future storylines. Likewise, Sam’s fall down a flight of stairs, which leaves her with a head injury and the ability to see her ghosts, while Jay cannot.
At that point, readers with only the longest of memories might think of “Topper,” a Cary Grant movie and later a very early TV sitcom with Leo G. Carroll about two madcap socialite ghosts who haunt a banker, the only one who can see them. In “Ghosts,” Sam tells Jay about the phantoms, and he is understandably skeptical— but hey, how would she know how to fix the hot-water heater if there weren’t cholera victims in the cellar telling her what to do? It’s one of the things that just make perfect sense, in a show that strives very delightfully not to.