Dead Like Me aired from 2003 – 2004 and, watching the series back, it’s surprising it was given a second season. Of course this is clearly a show that suffered through development hell. With the series’ creator departing after the first few episodes, Modest Mouse comes to mind, “We were dead before the ship even sank.”
The premise is complicated — very complicated — and requires two 45-minute episodes to explain, so I’m not sure how the pitch team pulled it off.
Essentially, you have modern grim reapers. These are people who died and were ghosts, but the powers that be declared them unfit for the afterlife yet; they have to learn something first and no one is entirely sure why. So, select ghosts become reapers, who don’t kill people, but instead their touch releases their soul.
(To expand on that, if your mother was anything like mine, then when you were watching The Last of the Mohicans and that one indian jumps off the cliff side — rather die by his own hand than that of the enemy — you asked, ‘Why would he do that?’ and your mother said, ‘I believe that God removes your soul before you hit the ground, so you don’t feel any pain…’
No? Not your mothers? Just mine? Alright, well essentially that’s the grim reapers job in this show.)
So reapers are given nothing but a last name (first initial), a place, and estimated time of death. They show up, touch the person to release their soul, and their bodies are killed (more or less) by ugly creatures named Gravelings — that’s ‘Grave – lings,’ not gravelling, mind you.
That on its own is fine… but because the leading protagonist is a new reaper (that’s just died), they needed to explain how she can walk among the living but not be seen by her existing family. As a result, the reapers appear differently in mirrors and to the general population. Then, because it’s a visual medium and a comedy, they need to have the characters doing things besides reaping, so the reapers also need to eat, sleep, poop, and even get a job to pay for things. Indeed, being dead is just like being alive… which begs the question, what’s the difference? Based on the tagline and opening intro, there isn’t one.
The story is split between the reapers and George’s (the new reaper’s) family.
For the reapers, the story does 1 of 3 things:
- Explores a common question about death
- Explores a common question about the reapers’ world
- Features George trying to do something she missed out on
When they explore a common question about death, it’s more thematic than anything. They have reapers helping the ghosts/souls find closure in life; they talk about why the ethereal afterlife differs for everybody; and they talk about who is calling the shots for them.
When they explore a common question about the reapers’ world, it explores the ‘what-ifs.’
- What if we don’t withdraw a soul?
- What if we warn the people of their death?
- What if we kill the gravelings?
And the third category features stuff 18yo George never did, but now wants to do — these are usually pretty fun.
The second half of the show revolves around George’s family coping with the loss of their daughter. The problem is the family was already broken before, so the death of their eldest daughter disintegrates the family. No joke, despite the reaper stories getting better in Season 2, George’s family’s story becomes almost unwatchable. It transforms into something too real and the humor evaporates entirely. It’s… possibly worth watching if only to see something you never thought you’d see, but it is in stark contrast to the reapers’ side of things.
For example, you may end up watching the husband and wife rip into each other in a completely joyless affair while the camera is positioned from Reggie’s (their daughter’s) point of view in the back seat of the car… and then segue into the British reaper getting laid by a goth chick who digs death.
It’s not funny or ironic, it’s just inconsistent.
This is the part that undoubtedly drew me to the series initially, but watching it back, it’s a mess. Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) narrates each episode and, to the show’s credit, does an accurate job of showing an 18yo’s thought process. The problem is it’s so stream of consciousness, that it does little for character development, world insight, or plot progression and instead acts as filler and padding.
It partially feels like padding because Dead Like Me is one of those rare shows that doesn’t fit the right running time. An average Dead Like Me episode would work wonders in a 30-35 minute show… but there’s too much story for a 22-24 minute show and simply not enough for a 42-45 minute show.
As it stands, you’ll notice a lot of narration, and when there’s not narration, there’s a whole lotta’ silence. Again, the silence is a good way of showing an 18yo observing the world around her, but it’s not effective for a visual medium.
The characters are where the show really struggled, since they come across as an afterthought. The first two episodes spend so much time on the world that they don’t invest in the characters. Then, the first time they explored a character (in episode 5), they killed her.
The show didn’t seem to know how the reapers felt about their situation as we learn very little about them before they were reapers, and what they do tell us shows they haven’t changed. This leads to more questions and some pretty large discrepancies in the first season.
Although not the star of the show, Rube (Mandy Patinkin) is a great example of inconsistency and thoughtless development. It’s implied that Rube, the Alpha Reaper, didn’t ask questions about why he was chosen and what he’s doing until George came along. This is pretty shocking considering all the other reapers claim Rube has been doing this for a long time (at least a hundred years judging from everyone else’s time of death). Although they explore Rube more in the second season, he initially comes across as the perfect soldier: follow orders, don’t ask questions. This is wildly inconsistent since he apparently knows more than anyone else, but never asked any questions!
Otherwise, Rube — as Patinkin is in many roles — is the no-nonsense, by-the-book, sagacious leader looking out for everyone’s wellbeing even if they think he’s being ruthless.
Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) is our apathetic protagonist. This is a real challenge to write effectively since apathy is a better character trait for supporting cast members, not the protagonist who has to have a passion (or compassion) to drive the moral compass of the series. As it is, her apathy feeds off the fact that death is pretty much the same humdrum of life.
What makes this especially challenging is the fact that the first episode shows what George’s life was like before she died and she was just as apathetic. No doubt, their reasoning behind writing the character this way was, “Now that she’s dead, she’ll have to learn how to be alive!” Although ironic, this would work better in reverse. Why not have had George as a happy-go-lucky girl excited to finally move out of her parents’ house and start her life only to die. Then, you’d have a protagonist who’s determined to live life to the fullest (in death). That happy disposition would work in contrast with her job as a grim reaper. Still ironic, but there’s an energy to it.
This is disappointing since no where does Muth look more natural than when she smiles. Her grin spreads from ear-to-ear and she looks so genuine and beautiful, it’s almost her downfall as an actress as it can transport you out of the show. Unfortunately, George spends much of the show being angry, apprehensive, and pouting.
Mason, Roxy, Betty & Daisy
I’ll start with Roxy (Jasmine Guy) as she’s written well with a strong backstory… of course, it’s explored in Season 2, which I stand by is when they got their act together. Rather than explain her former life away in an instant (as with all the others), Roxy has an entire episode dedicated to her backstory. It turns out, she invented those 80s, knee-high socks and her roommate (and friend) killed her to make a fortune. It provides a look into Roxy’s disposition and justifies all her actions up until that point. You understand her because of how she died.
This increases the stakes because for all intents and purposes, Roxy would’ve been famous, but she was already content in life. Now, in death, she’s jaded and pessimistic as a parking enforcement cop. It’s obvious that the powers that be want her to see the good in people… which also justifies her actions in Season 1 when she stops a man (who was nice) from being murdered. Roxy is great.
The other character they detail well is Betty (Rebecca Gayheart). Her character is absent-minded and nonchalant, but materialistic… Not so much about jewelry and TVs — although she does collect those — but, much like a psychopath, she collects ‘trophies’ from her “victims” in the form of Polaroid photos. The writers dedicate an entire episode to Betty’s character, the first character they explore on the show… and then they pull a Doyle (Angel reference) and off her in that very same episode (now 5 episodes in). Reportedly she was supposed to return at the beginning of Season 2, but apparently there were some issues between her and the studio.
Meanwhile, Mason (Callum Blue) is the perfect example of how the show created characters as an afterthought.
Mason died after he drilled a hole in his head to get the perfect high. Although this was in the 60s and Mason is now a reaper, he hasn’t evolved. He’s still a delinquent who makes his income as a thief and drug mule. This is perplexing since you’d think there’d be some disdain for what he does now or maybe he blames the era he was born in for his behavior, or maybe his family situation. None of this is ever explored though, he was a thief and drug-addict and now he’s a thief and drug-mule.
There’s a lot that could be explored there, not the least of which is the drug lords who could very well all be reapers, but he’s limited to being dopey and passionate about one thing, Daisy.
Daisy (Laura Harris) is Betty’s replacement and her inclusion was desperately needed. Once Daisy enters the scene she acts as the adhesive to the gang. She’s bubbly and self-involved, but she ends up rooming with George, one of the most reliable reapers to Rube, is the object of Mason’s affection, and representative of Roxy’s former friend. Up until this point the characters only interacted as an obligation, but with Daisy a part of the troupe, they all start hanging out.
Meanwhile, Daisy’s peppy persona adds immensely to the otherwise dour and drab show — something George could have been. The fact that Daisy was not originally intended for the show is further proof of how much of an afterthought the writers put into their characters.
George’s Family (Joy, Reggie, and Clancy)
Irony knows no bounds as Joy, the mother (played by Cynthia Stevenson), is vile, unforgiving, and a tyrant. She only knows how to smile to emphasize a sarcastic comment. She is one of the worst characters ever written — suck it, Faulkner, Jason’s got nothing on Joy. I give Stevenson credit for sticking with the show despite being the unforgivable villain — she’s what you would imagine Maleficent’s mother was like.
Stevenson does her job well and is very convincing, but it’s the kind of role where you’d knock back a few shots of tequila in between takes — and after a scene, apologize to your fellow actors and tell the crew you love them.
Reggie (Britt McKillip) plays the younger sister and is very humorous. In another family, Reggie would be the perfect comedic vessel for demonstrating how children explore and understand death. Unfortunately, she’s muzzled because her character conflicts with the mother and father. It’s a shame that divorce is the epicenter of the household vs any conversation about death.
Meanwhile, Clancy (Greg Kean) is so detached from his family that it’s never clear how the death of his daughter affects him. He’s more invested in his affair than the death of his daughter, his estranged wife, or even Reggie. It just doesn’t make sense, like George’s family was originally not going to be included — again an afterthought.
Conclusion & Creator Bryan Fuller
The creator, Bryan Fuller left the series early on (within the first season). With that information alone, it’s clear the show was on uneven ground with many issues behind-the-scenes. It sounds like the show barely made it into production and even then, the studio had a much different vision than Fuller had intended.
There is an interesting article where Fuller gives some details into what Season 2 of Dead Like Me would’ve looked like had he been in control. When asked about Pushing Up Daisies (which he also created), he said:
“It was originally going to be a spin off of Dead Like Me. The second season arc was going to play like this: George was going to find out that somebody was swiping her souls and she wasn’t able to stop them. Then she would discover that there was a guy who was touching dead people and bringing them back to life, and she would have a kind of adversarial/romantic relationship with him. Then he would touch her and she would come back to life and she would actually go back to her family for an arc of episodes. Eventually George would realize that she had left her job and that she needed to go back and be responsible; that she needed to grow up and do what she was supposed to do. The guy would then touch her again and she would go back to being a grim reaper — and he would go off and have his own show.” -(MyersBizNet)
While I enjoyed the second season much more, this premise alone makes more sense.
As I said, in reviewing the characters, it wasn’t clear there was a game plan for George’s family. From a structural standpoint, they could have easily been a thematic throughline, showing how the living coped with the death of a loved one, but the idea that George would return to them in Season 2 would be fascinating!
Speaking of her family, apparently there was a reason for the father to be so disengaged:
“He was going to be gay and around episode six or seven where she discovers he was gay and she learns to value her life even more because hers was a life that wasn’t meant to be because her father was gay and wasn’t wired to procreate. So the life that she lost is much more valuable to her. It affected her life and her story and made it mean that much more.”
As for beyond that:
“I wanted to be able to cut to 20 years in the future and have George looking like George and still carrying out her missions. As far as specifics go, she wasn’t going to meet her maker – but that wouldn’t stop her from trying.” -(ComicBookResources)
At the heart of Fuller’s comments, he seems to know where George was meant to go and that there was a purpose for her becoming a grim reaper. Without his direction and input, the first season idles… hoping the concept is enough to keep viewers coming back. Then, the second season was spent actually doing what television ought to be doing, which is telling stories, developing characters, and giving some food for thought.
It’s a show that would probably benefit from a remake… but it’s also one of the rare series where I’m a purist and wouldn’t want anyone but Ellen Muth in the title role.
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