Haunted houses are frequently the subjects of horror films, shows, and books. A family moves into a house with a shady, often violent past. Almost immediately, some unseen force begins terrorizing the family. And on and on it goes until the ghost/demon/spirit is expelled from the house. Or until the family finally decides to high tail it out of there. But what happens to the house afterward? Who takes care of selling these haunted, potentially violent places? That’s precisely the question SurrealEstate answers. If you needed to sell a haunted house, you’d call a realtor that specializes in the paranormal. In this case, Luke Roman (Tim Rozon). And, naturally, that realtor would be surrounded by an eclectic team of ghost hunting agents – Susan Ireland (Sarah Levy), Father Phil (Adam Korson), August (Maurice Dean Wint), and Zooey (Savannah Basley). SurrealEstate is basically what would happen if Mulder, Scully, and the Winchester brothers all worked at the same real estate firm. It’s a clever take on the familiar paranormal procedural drama. Featuring a cast of unique – though occasionally underdeveloped – characters and creative “ghost of the week” stories, SurrealEstate is well worth a watch. Though, for a show about ghosts, it’s never quite as scary as you’d like it to be. (4 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: This review is based on the first eight episodes of SurrealEstate. It will be as spoiler free as possible.
Created by George Olson
“SurrealEstate” follows real estate agent Luke Roman (Tim Rozon) and an elite team of specialists that handle the cases no one else can: haunted and possessed houses that literally scare would-be buyers away. Researching, investigating and “fixing” the things that go bump in the night, the team works to create closure – and closings – even as they struggle with demons of their own.
SurrealEstate is as episodic as they come. There’s a bit of an ongoing storyline (which we’ll touch on in a moment), but the first eight episodes mostly consist of stand-alone stories that see the Roman Agency team head to different locations plagued by a variety of paranormal phenomena. Sometimes they’re trying to help the current homeowners sell the house; sometimes they’re trying to get the house ready for its new owners. But regardless, the team has to figure out what’s plaguing these houses and how to fix it before the ghosts cause too much havoc.
Most episodes tackle two different cases at the same time – with one case taking priority over the other. Sometimes this works very well, especially when the two cases are thematically connected. But often, it proves a bit distracting. Sometimes, bouncing back and forth between the two cases killed either the episode’s tension, momentum, or both. And, honestly, I’d have preferred it if the show had just done one case each episode, with the “B” plot being more character-driven. But it’s hard to be mad as this approach does result in a whole lot of deeply creative ghost stories being told. The formula is pretty predictable, but the writers do a nice job of using the various ghost stories to explore other ideas – loss, revenge, regret, etc. As far as ghost stories go, these are great ones.
SurrealEstate isn’t the kind of show you watch in search of a killer ongoing storyline. What it excels at is telling entertaining standalone ghost stories. However, there is a bit of an ongoing plotline. But it leaves something to be desired. It mostly revolves around Luke – his backstory, his relationship with one of his clients, etc. It’s often fairly interesting and offers a compelling enough reason to watch every episode of the series as it airs. But the first eight episodes are inconsistent with how they decide to focus on these arcs. Some episodes only feature a scene or two addressing the arcs, while others don’t address them at all. To be fair, a few of the later episodes do feel more connected with the grander story, but it’s all kind of uneven. And I’d almost have preferred no story arc to an inconsistent one. Almost.
The character work is similarly inconsistent. As the show starts, Luke and Susan are the clear focal points. But their development is a bit all over the place. Luke is the charismatic-yet-angsty lead, effortlessly charming while hiding a dark past. He’s got a natural gift at dealing with the paranormal – a gift that might stem from his checkered past. It all feels a bit standard, and the general reluctance to explore it with any real depth doesn’t help any. There are little teases here and there that prove exciting, but the first eight episodes just don’t do much with it. I suppose the final two episodes could, though. Until then, Luke feels a bit too static for my tastes. Regardless, Rozon is an absolute delight to watch, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast makes it easy to look past Luke’s somewhat standard storyline.
Susan is the audience surrogate, being inducted into Luke’s world alongside the audience. But her development is just as inconsistent. At times, it’s hard to figure out where she falls on the spectrum of believing in the paranormal. Sometimes, she seems reluctant to believe, while other times, she’s got no problem with it. There’s no Scully-esque arc where Susan becomes more open to the paranormal as the season goes on. She just bounces back and forth, seemingly at random. A fact that’s made even more perplexing by a bit of Susan’s backstory that gets revealed in the pilot and then never expanded upon much, outside of a reference or two. To say more would be too spoilery. However, Levy is excellent in the role. She brings a much-needed sense of joy and optimism to the team, and it’s so fun watching her sensibilities clash with the rest of the team’s.
The rest of the ensemble doesn’t quite get the same amount of focus. August is the riddle-speaking tech guru. Zooey is the snarky office manager who initially doesn’t get along with the new hire. Father Phil is an ex-priest who handles most of the research. As the episodes progress, Zooey and Father Phil get a decent amount of sporadic development, with both characters getting their own episode that’s mostly devoted to their backstory. Father Phil’s backstory gets explored in a very poignant way, considering this is a ghost show. And Zooey gets to open up a lot as the season goes on. But August is never given a whole lot to do. He makes an impression solely based on his quirks, but after eight episodes, I still don’t quite feel like I know him.
However, all three actors make their characters come alive. Maurice Dean Wint has one of those voices that you could easily listen to for hours. And, honestly, you totally believe that August might have the answer to any paranormal problem. Savannah Basley gives Zooey a lot of vulnerability, making her snarkiness feel more grounded. And the way she plays off of Maurice Dean Wint and Sarah Levy, in particular, is absolute gold. Adam Korson perfectly walks that balance between sarcastic humor and genuine melancholy. Father Phil routinely makes me laugh, but there were also moments where Korson kind of punched me in the gut – mostly in the episode that revolved around Phil’s backstory. These actors nicely round out the ensemble, though I’d love for their characters to get developed a bit more.
You’d think a show like SurrealEstate might be a bit scarier than it is, but it’s not. There are moments of horror, particularly in some of the later episodes as the writers and directors find their feet and embrace the surreality of the show. However, I felt that the horror was often undercut by lighter moments that weren’t quite campy but were camp-adjacent. There were never any moments that I felt the show really took a swing for a scare and hit it. It would come very close, but would always diffuse the tension with some lighter moment. And, for me, that was a little disappointing. I just felt like there was such an opportunity for this show to lean into the horror and the darker emotions of a premise like this, focusing on how trauma affects locations as much as humans. And it is that – kind of.
But it’s mostly just a fun show about a wacky group of ghost-hunting real estate agents. And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the show’s visuals are presented as though it’s supposed to be a dark, moody, atmospheric horror piece, only to be accompanied by a general lack of scares and a lot of tension-killing moments. And this combination of conflicting feelings creates a bit of tonal whiplash. But even with these tonal inconsistencies, SurrealEstate remains compellingly fun to watch. Plus, some episodes are darker than others, thanks to the episodic nature of the series, so there does end up being something for everyone. I just wish there’d been a bit more horror and a bit less quirky camp-adjacent stuff. But your mileage may vary.
All in all, SurrealEstate is easily worth a watch, despite its problems. Sure, some of its characterization and broad plot strokes are a bit inconsistent. And sure, there are some tonal issues that hamper the horror a bit. But it’s still a compulsively watchable show. There’s not much of an overarching storyline, but there’s enough of one to keep you tuning in each week. And the variety of ghosts/demons/spirits/etc that get explored throughout the season helps keep the show from settling into too predictable a pattern. It’s a strong premise, buoyed by an even stronger cast. And I’m enjoying it quite a bit. If you’re a fan of lighthearted horror, with a focus on haunted houses, then give SurrealEstate a try. You’ll probably have a good time.
4 out of 5 wands.
(NOTE: This review also ran on Geek Vibes Nation.)