1:30 PM EDT, March 31, 2014
Similar in tone to the late lamented "Pushing Daisies," "Deadbeat" promotes Tyler Labine from the sidekick role he's seemingly played in a half-dozen shows -- including the cult favorite "Reaper" -- to leading man. However familiar, this Hulu original series is also disarmingly funny, conjuring quirky moments as it channels the comedic side of "Ghost." In this week's digital showdown, it also happens to tower above "Short Poppies," a Netflix acquisition from New Zealand that essentially serves as a showcase for "Flight of the Conchords'â
" Rhys Darby, but feels like another mockumentary rehash from the Chris Lilley school of role-playing shtick.
Labine's Kevin can see and communicate with the dead, specializing in "finishing unfinished business" -- that is, allowing the uneasily departed to conclude some unresolved matter so they can move on into the light.
Unfortunately, he hasn't quite determined how to cash in on this power, instead sitting around smoking a lot of weed and usually struggling to pay his rent. In that regard, he's a stark contrast to TV psychic Camomile ("So You Think You Can Dance's" Cat Deeley, unexpectedly effective), who is of course a charlatan but suspects Kevin might be the real deal.
In the premiere of the eight-episode run, Kevin seeks to help a soldier who died before losing his virginity (the ghosts can inhabit Kevin's body to fulfill their objectives), setting up a fairly predictable but still quite funny (and lewd) scenario. The second finds him assisting a hot-dog-eating champion who wants the person who inherited his prize organ (in this case, his stomach) to enter one more contest.
Kevin's bickering yet lustful relationship with Camomile provides a modest throughline to the series, but creators Brett Konner and Cody Heller (working with director Troy Miller) mostly focus on the corpse of the week, pretty consistently finding amusing situations in Kevin's plight, inasmuch as almost nobody believes him.
Admittedly, it's a slim construct, but still better than any number of sitcoms currently playing in higher-profile venues. By that measure, it still might not be too late to bring "Deadbeat" into the linear-TV light.
As for "Short Poppies," the series was clearly conceived as a vehicle to capitalize on the versatility of Darby, who created the show (he's also credited with writing it, despite the improvised feel) and plays different characters each week.
The conceit is a documentary filmmaker (David Farrier) traveling around to small towns, doing features about the quirky characters he encounters. All of them are played by Darby, including a lifeguard who prides himself on being a "sexy league competition" winner; and in episode two, a local woman (Darby in drag) who is an avant-garde artist and something of a cougar.
Other than Farrier's pained (and frequent) reaction shots, though -- and cameos by the likes of Stephen Merchant and Sam Neill -- the series relies too heavily on Darby's mugging. He's a formidable talent, but unlike his lifeguard alter ego, there's nothing here worthy of a prize.
On the plus side, these services continue adding to the overflowing content pool, either by greenlighting projects like "Deadbeat" that might not have found life elsewhere or by bringing a wider variety of international material to U.S. shores.
As with everyone else, though, it's a hit/mostly-miss proposition. And this time, anyway, Netflix and "Poppies" come up on the short end of the shtick.