Dead Like Me: Season 1
One of the most popular themes for the dark comedy has always been death. From films like Arsenic and Old Lace, the collective fear of death has provided laughs, usually to repress the underlying dread. There are few places where death as humor is done as well as on the Showtime series, ‘Dead Like Me’. As the series opens we meet Georgia ‘George’ Lass (Ellen Muth), an eighteen year old girl, not in school, unemployed and living at home with her mother Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), father Clancy (Greg Kean) and kid sister Reggie (Britt McKillip). Reluctantly George takes a menial job at a temp agency and during her first lunch hour is stuck dead by a toilet seat from the MIR space station. Normally the death of a main character is the end of a story but here it is just the beginning. George is recruited to the ranks of the Grim Reapers, the undead that help to shuttle freshly dead people to the after life that waits, once dead George meets her new boss Rube (Mandy Patinkin) and his team of misfit Reapers. There have been more teen angst shows than I can number, but this one is a notch above the rest. I’ve even heard this series referred to as ‘My So Called Death’, an apt description. Like the critically acclaimed So Called Life, this show is intelligently written and very well acted. One thing that works for me is death does not really change George, she was a slacker in life and remains so in her un-dead state. She learns more about life as a Reaper than she did while alive.
The show typically intertwines three arcs per episode. First there is her assignment. Rube gets a list of ETDs, estimated time of death, writes the unfortunate corpse du jour on a yellow stick-it and assigns one of his Reapers to them. Then there is the interaction of George with her fellow Reapers. Some have been doing this for decades and try to impart their quirky experience to the newbie. Last there is what is going on in the grieving Lass family. It is especially emotional how each member reacts to George’s death in their own unique way. Her sister strikes out by stealing toilet seat and festooning a tree with them. The mother withdraws almost completely while the father toys with an affair. Since Reapers appear to the living as a different person George on occasion interacts with her family affording a few moments of growth for our hapless heroine. It is also refreshing that the writers did not feel the need to provide all the back stories at once. We slowly learn over the episodes how each Reaper met their deaths and joined the ranks. The series gives the proper amount of time for the audience to get to know the characters.
It is difficult enough for an actor to tread the thin line required with such a dark comedy. For an ensemble cast to do so and at this level is miraculous. They work so well together that you get the feeling that you know what drives these characters. Ellen Muth is best known for her childhood roles and some Indy flicks, here she shines as George. Muth is believable as a young woman that even though she is dead has to learn about life. George grows each week, becoming more responsible although she tries her best to hold on to the slacker qualities she was so familiar with. I have been a fan of Mandy Patinkin ever since I saw him on Broadway in Evita. While he does not get a chance to use his incredible voice here singing is not his only talent. The way he plays Rube is as an authority figure that possesses his own doubts and trepidations. There is a great deal of humanity presented in this un-dead mid level manager. Jasmine Guy is fantastic as Roxy, the smart mouth Reaper. She is always ready with a quip at established norms. For one so young Britt McKillip does an excellent job taking on such emotional scenes. In all the cast permits the audience something lacking in most television, characters you can become emotionally invested in.
As a television writer Bryan Fuller may be known to fans of ‘Star Trek Voyager’ and ‘Deep Space Nine’, but ‘Dead Like Me is his first real creation. With such a start I greatly look forward to his future efforts. He has an ability to create story lines that span the season and juxtapose them with self contained threads. Fuller creates a world that lives by its own internal rules. He does this with consistency that draws you in. Each of the directors chosen for an episode adds their own touches but there is no sacrificing the integrity of the whole work. He paces the series like a film, not too fast so as to cram everything in at once and not so slow as to bore the audience. Fuller and his directors give the technical aspects such as lighting and framing a more cinematic feel, typical of premium cable productions. Even at the darkest moments he brings out humor mixed with humanity.
This four disc DVD box set is very well done. The anamorphic 1.78:1 video is crystal clear and free of any defects, albeit to be expected considering how new the source material is. The Dolby 5.1 audio is rich and provides a full sound stage. While the sub woofer is sparingly used the rear speakers create a natural ambience. Selected episodes are afforded a commentary track that demonstrates how well these people work together as well as being more informative than the usual back patting faire. The extras also include several deleted scenes that where mildly interesting. There are two featurettes included in the set. The first is the almost required behind the scenes look at the production including numerous shots of a happy cast and crew. The second I found more interesting, a look at the music used in the series, in every episode the choice of background music is well thought out and fit perfectly with the prevailing emotions of the story. Personally I was impressed not only with the content but the presentation of this series and look forward to the start of season two, and beyond.
You like spaghetti, George? I like spaghetti. I like board games. I like grabbing a trifecta with that longshot on top. That ozone smell you get from air purifiers. And I like knowing the space between my ears is immeasurable. Mahler's first, Bernstein conducting. You've got to think about all the things you like and decide whether they're worth sticking around for. And if they are, you'll find a way to do this.