'Dead Boy Detectives' cleverly brings Neil Gaiman's comic book sleuths to life

In the funny, terrifying, colorful, oddly lovely, lovably odd “Dead Boy Detectives,” premiering Thursday on Netflix, deceased putative teenagers Edwin (George Rexstrew) and Charles (Jayden Revri) investigate what’s troubling troubled ghosts.

Created by Neil Gaiman and Matt Wagner for DC Comics, the eponymous team was born on the pages of “The Sandman” in 1991 and made an appearance, played by much younger actors, in the third season of “Doom Patrol,” the best of all superhero series. But the present show, developed by Steve Yockey, is located within “The Sandman Universe,” at least to the extent that Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who played Death in the Netflix “Sandman” adaptation, makes a brief appearance here.

Edwin, who died in 1916, is formal, reserved, repressed and orderly. Charles, who passed away in the 1980s, is comparatively a wild boy; he wears a “ska” button in his lapel and a “rude boys” patch on his shoulder, and says “brills” and “innit” and “oi!” and such. They are teenagers not in person but in only in persona; the actors are well into their 20s, which allows, psychologically, for more sophisticated plotlines. (It’s sort of a sexy show, in a chaste way, driven by longing and jealousy.) Although they are friendly ghosts and walk the Earth by choice, they are not without trauma, of which Edwin has an extra measure, having spent seven decades in Hell because of a clerical error.

Over the decades since they became pals, the pair have established themselves as well-regarded sleuths for the troubled dead of London — they rent an office, with office furniture and files like any living private eyes — avoiding Death whenever she comes to town; they have no desire to pass on into the afterlife or to give up their profession. They take payment — ghost economics are sketchy, but some have money. (Though a misanthropic ghost lighthouse keeper, bedeviled by other ghosts — “If I wanted to be around people, I’d haunt a Denny’s” — offers salt water taffy and “a cursed magic 8 ball.”)

As they go along they will collect collaborators, progressing from a Hardy Boys model to a Scooby gang. (We get a “Scooby Doo” clip, to make a point, and pay tribute.) First is psychic Crystal (Kassius Nelson), from whom they exorcise her ex, a demon named David (David Iacono), and who can see dead people. Following a lead, they travel together to Port Townsend, Wash., which is to say Vancouver, B.C., for the tax breaks and production advantages. Here they’ll meet chipper, chirpy Niko (Yuyu Kitamura), whose near-death supernatural encounter allows her also to see the deceased. She has “watched hundreds of hours of detective anime and cartoons” and so feels qualified to join the gang. Crystal and Niko rent rooms above cynical tattooed butcher Jenny (Briana Cuoco), who will eventually join in.

Pressure comes from several directions. There are the particular challenges of the episodic adventures, alongside and feeding into long arcs that pit them against Esther (Jenn Lyon), a glamorous witch and their primary nemesis; the Cat King (Lukas Gage), who has trapped Edwin, who interests him strangely, under magical house arrest in Port Townsend; and the Night Nurse (Ruth Connell), an afterlife middle manager — once again, the realm of Death is portrayed as a bureaucracy, ruled by “permits and approvals” — who is out to corral the boys, whose continued presence on Earth offends her sense of order.

Supernatural physics follow whatever rules the writers make up. The ghosts of “Dead Boy Detectives” are not bound to any location; they travel by mirrors; they can physically interact with the world of things and the living, though they lack smell and taste, which makes eating unpleasant; they can put on visible human disguises when necessary. Various other mythological agents, recipes and gewgaws are crafted as desired. Talking cats, insulting sprites, a sea beast, a mushroom monster, a former walrus named Mick (Michael Beach), who runs the local (real) magic shop. You go with the paranormal flow.

We’ve seen other series in which mortal or immortal agents help unquiet souls to complete unfinished business and move on into the light or whatever — “Ghost Whisperer,” “Deadbeat,” “Dead Like Me,” my beloved “Ghost Girls,” last year’s excellent “School Spirits,” in which a high school student sets out to solve her own murder. And, of course, putting young people into supernatural situations, which lends itself especially well to humor, is as common as candy on Halloween.

But if there’s nothing groundbreaking here, it’s all uncommonly well done — cleverly written, smartly cast, sensitively played, marvelously realized. It’s disturbing at times, yet sweet at others, and comic as often as not. There is animation. You can occasionally anticipate a twisted turn, because it’s a twist long years of genre exercises have taught you to expect. But a series can feel fresh without being original. And there are surprises enough.

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