Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger doesn't fear the Reaper, especially when she's this cute. Flaming toilet seat projectiles from outer space are a different matter entirely.
A new series about life after life.
Sometimes you don't know what you are looking for until you find it. Television has always been chock full of fluff, but occasionally a series comes along that speaks meaningfully to its audience. Dead Like Me has generated a lot of buzz through sharp marketing and a bit of controversy, yet it also legitimately touches people. With its offbeat tenor, incisive writing, salty characters, and surrealistic blend of spirituality with death and humor, Dead Like Me is a television program with potential to make your "must see" list. It also has potential to make your other list…you know, the fecal one. With any luck, this trial will help you decide on which of your lists Dead Like Me belongs.
Facts of the Case
When a flaming toilet seat from the space station Mir sends Georgia "George" Lass (Ellen Muth) to the afterlife, she finds that she has won the Grim Reaper sweepstakes and become a freshly minted Reaper. George wasn't all that interested in living; she doesn't seem too keen on the afterlife, either. This lackadaisical attitude perturbs her new boss, Rube (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), who patronizes her with pet names like "Peanut" and "Toilet Seat Girl" as he tries to get her to do her job. George's new coworkers are not exactly shining examples. Roxy (Jasmine Guy, A Different World) is a pissed-off meter maid with a brass-tacks attitude toward soul harvesting: "You ain't going anywhere 'til I've filled my quota." Mason (Callum Blue) is always looking to score drugs while he raids the bodies of the dead for cash: "These paintings…are any of them valuable?" Betty (Pipe Dream, Robin Cook's Invasion), a quirky but kind loner, is as close to a role model as George is likely to find. When comely slut Daisy Adair (Laura Harris, The Faculty) joins the team and moves in with George, the Reaper gig gets even worse.
In times of stress (in other words, daily), George peeks in on her family to see how they are handling her death. George's dad, Clancy (Greg Kean), who may or may not be gay, has affairs with his university students and avoids talking to his wife as much as possible. For her part, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson, Live Nude Girls, The Player) is bitter and critical of everyone around her. This includes George's younger sister, Reggie (Britt McKillip Wes Craven Presents: Don't Look Down), a withdrawn rebel who has built a huge toilet-seat memorial in George's honor.
Because reapers don't get paid, George supports herself by temping at Happy Time. Her dubious mentor Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes, Outrage) injects each day with overbearing sweetness and sharp criticism. Between her estranged family, uninterested reaper cohorts, and oddball coworkers, George casts about for a semblance of stability and friendship while she grapples with the idea of escorting souls to the afterlife.
Dark comedy is drier than slapstick, more cerebral than sitcoms. As a dark comedy, Dead Like Me gets to make fun of situations that inhabit suspect territory for television comedy. But the series walks right past obvious veins of dark comedy ore and mines rather plain chunks of ground instead. Dead Like Me immediately establishes that it doesn't care where you think it should go.
Jasmine Guy's meter maid, Roxy, is no-nonsense and relatively unlikable. As the season progresses, we see a bit of her back story and gain a modicum of sympathy for her. One particular episode explains how she died: in a petty struggle for money and fame involving a popular '80s fashion accessory. This revelation is played absolutely straight, with a despondent Roxy mourning the life she could have had.
Some time over the next few days I had just finished brushing my teeth and was preparing to shave when the image of Roxy and her fashion idea came to mind. In that instant, I realized that the entire situation was funny. Not only was it funny, it was hilarious and bizarre. Thinking over the scene, I realized it had never been set up as funny, but when you think about it logically the absurdity rises to the surface. Humor can be tricky at the best of times, but Dead Like Me takes an even greater risk by not tipping its hand. The writers do not tell you what to think; in fact, they don't even clue you in. This approach requires some involvement on the part of the audience. If you don't invest some thought into Dead Like Me, in all likelihood the series will pass you by without much impact.
Not all of the humor is so subtle. Though it runs a brief 14 episodes, Dead Like Me lands a healthy number of sarcastic digs. Series anchors Mandy Patinkin and Ellen Muth are responsible for most of them, but everyone gets their shots in. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. It is only near the end of the series that Dead Like Me reaches a poignant blend of humor and pathos, but we have some real zingers to carry us through the first half. Here is one of the tamer examples from Roxy: "I told that bitch that her weave looked like carpet, and now my social insurance number pulls up two bankruptcies!" The undead have had decades to perfect their delivery.
Humor is the highlight, but Dead Like Me is also a character study. George, the central character, balances a three-ring circus of family, work, and reaping souls. I most enjoy her interactions with flighty mentor Delores Herbig, a powerfully peppy character that is larger than life. Christine Willes is a riot as the patronizing office enforcer, handing out collating and filing duties with a pasted-on smile. When Delores lets her guard down a bit, we see glimpses of a truly strange woman. Rube is another complex mentor for George, seeming both calm and unstrung at the same time. Mandy Patinkin maddeningly underplays the role at times, but it is clear that the writers have some sort of explosion waiting in the wings—and you know it will be good. The characters don't grow as much as I'd like in this season, but my wanting them to is a sign of their power.
In spite of its snappy sarcasm, disaffected characters, and surrealistic premise, Dead Like Me manages to create a few moments of genuine artistic merit. The clearest example is the episode "Nighthawks," which puts Hopper's famous painting into motion. It is only in this episode that we see depth in Daisy Adair, or get a sense of discomfort from the reapers, or sense that George is in serious danger of obliteration. Rube seems melancholy and vulnerable. The episode perfectly captures that mixture of energy and despondency that the night brings. Another standout is "Reaper Madness," a strange and funny episode where a schizophrenic young man falls for George, who sees the same figments he does. Little does he know that the wraiths are actually Gravelings, agents of death that set things in motion. My personal favorite moment in the series is when Mason must harvest two souls at the peaceful home of a gay couple. It leans towards stereotype, but delivers a powerful message about love and companionship.
The message is delivered in a slick package. The widescreen transfer is sharp, detailed, and bright, suggesting high-definition roots. Television productions are scrambling to address the intense spotlight of high-def detail. It seems that cast members with natural, untouched good looks were selected to minimize this effect. Thus, the actors' blemishes and imperfections are in full view, but they still look good in spite of this high relief. The Gravelings are a little hokey, but in terms of pure visual style this series shines. The soundtrack is weighted toward the front stage, but enough surround effects are present to make us feel enveloped. The music by Police founder Stewart Copeland is a treat as well.
This good-looking, good-sounding, character-based, dark comedy delivers a wealth of layered detail. It is punctuated by a handful of outrageously funny moments. If you are looking for a television program that carves its own path into the absurd and morbid, it is a series you should check out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So we're ready to induct Dead Like Me into the television Hall of Fame, right? Not so fast, Peanut. Much like George herself, Dead Like Me has its fair share of annoying personality traits.
DVD boxed sets of television programs are interesting because they show us the progression of a series in a relatively compressed time frame. By the same token, watching a season's episodes back to back without the intervention of time tends to highlight flaws. Dead Like Me is impressive in the speed with which it develops a voice, but it also quickly gets into a rut.
The rut goes something like this. George tumbles out of bed and arrives at Der Waffle Haus, disheveled and uninterested in working. Rube throws a snappy diatribe her way and gives her a Post-It note with the name of her mark. She grimaces, leaves, and then somehow thwarts the system. Maybe she doesn't take the soul, or maybe she talks the future stiff out of his appointment with Death. In any case, she does something that "isn't how we do things" and gets a reprimand from Rube, who just "doesn't know what to do with her." The next day, there she is back at Der Waffle Haus. The first few times that George mucks with the system, you can chalk it up to rookie jitters. But when she fails to take a soul and the consequences lead to hundreds of unexpected deaths, we can reasonably expect a hell of a fallout. Instead, we get a Rube who is slightly more livid than usual, and the next day she's right back on the job (albeit slightly sleep deprived from a few Gravelings who threw dirty socks at her all night). Is there no cause and effect in this show? Do the reapers all suffer from amnesia? Rube's vague threats of serious punishment turn inane. What does she have to do to be punished…create an undead fascist regime and start taking the souls of prominent religious figures?
If I hear the pet name "Peanut" one more time, I will purchase five tons of Georgia boiled peanuts and dump them through the front door of the screenwriter.
How do you like voice-overs? When used judiciously, they can be a nifty device that gives us a conspiratorial sense of involvement with the main character. Every episode in Dead Like Me begins and ends with a lengthy voice over by George. Sometimes, the device works. Other times, you roll your eyes as the dearly departed, dour teen drones about the fleeting beauty of life. It seems that every voice-over from the beyond from Our Town to American Beauty imparts the same message: that we living dopes are too stupid to embrace life. Hearing George's voice-overs in such rapid succession makes it clear that some of them are deeper than others.
As I stated above, "Nighthawks" is memorable. It is multilayered, artistic, symbolic, and meaningful. It also consists primarily of flashbacks, which is really annoying. It is particularly annoying when you see how short the first season was: 14 episodes.
Flick Filosopher MaryAnn Johanson sums it up nicely when she says that this series "manages to hit every imaginable wrong note along the way." I won't go that far, but truthfully Dead Like Me has a fair number of missteps. The deaths are one thing. Rarely are they moving, even though they are played up. Dead Like Me has been criticized for being too full of itself; such criticism is the result of this misplaced emphasis. There were only two cases where the deaths had emotional impact: George's first harvest and Mason's encounter with a gay couple. The rest of the deaths are handled with all of the awe we might afford a Happy Meal. Though it is a series about death, Dead Like Me somehow manages to circumvent death's inherent cachet.
If you are clever, and then you point out how clever you are, are you still clever?
I find George's family almost completely uninvolving. I realize that George has an attachment to them, but I don't. Don't take this as a slam on the actors who portray the Lass family, because they deliver. It's more that I don't really care whether or not her parents get divorced, or whether or not her sister screws up. Clancy's affair, be it with a man, woman, or hand, doesn't really concern me.
The biggest nail in the coffin is actually inherent to the series and will be based on your personal tastes. Dead Like Me is a dark comedy, but it isn't a black comedy; it never sticks its own neck out that far. George is never truly punished, nor is she rewarded. Her coworkers are doggedly set in their ways: Mason is always a goofy stoner, Daisy is always needling. The world of Dead Like Me is decidedly humdrum. You can go with that and view Dead Like Me as a statement on the mundane, and choose to focus on minutiae that take on greater importance. Or you can be bored out of your mind. The simple fact is, many people take the latter path and fail to be entertained. The series might be making a point that the reapers are dead set in their ways, but it still amounts to no character development.
Although the extras package is thorough, you might find yourself overwhelmed by all of the self-love. The featurettes loudly proclaim Dead Like Me's splendiferousness, becoming useless as meaningful features. (It doesn't help that two thirds of the behind-the-scenes featurette is clips from the pilot.) The audio commentary contains several worthwhile passages, but I had a hard time choking down all of the gushing praise the actors heaped on each other. To rebut this rebuttal witness, the defense asks you to put yourself in the shoes of an actor in an ensemble audio commentary. There you are, sitting in a booth with the cast you've worked with for a few short months. As you critique their performance, you recall that you have to work with these people next season. What are you going to say? "I've always thought your delivery sucked in that line, Mandy" might not be the wisest, or most polite, thing to say. Nonetheless, DVD consumers and fans often detest these love fests, and the commentary on Dead Like Me is particularly lovey. The only unbiased extra is the deleted scenes, which are both substantial and interesting.
Throw Office Space, Our Town, and Six Feet Under into a blender, puree for a minute, then season with salty dialogue and surreal situations—the result will resemble Dead Like Me. It sets a distinctly individual tone and introduces ardently flawed characters, never telling you what to think or feel. This approach will enthrall others while annoying others. I found a lot to like in this series, though I was frequently annoyed by misplaced emphasis. It is a series with vast potential; you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Every time this court feels like sentencing the defendant, another random scene pops into mind and makes his honor laugh. A continuance is granted, but we'll be keeping an eye on you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Audio Commentary
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