Judge Adam Arseneau is a grim reaper of love.
Death can be as complicated as life.
After years and years of waiting, of broken promises and delays, of stubborn tenacity on the parts of the creators of cult television darling Dead Like Me, we finally get Dead Like Me: Life After Death, a made-for-nobody feature-length tale that tries vainly to wrap up errant storylines and character developments cut short by the untimely cancellation of the Showtime comedy.
The end result of all our waiting? Utter rubbish. What a shame!
Facts of the Case
Ever since her life was struck short by a flaming toilet seat (don't ask) George Lass (Ellen Muth, Jack N Jill) has been living the ageless life of a grim reaper—taking souls from the bodies of those destined to die and guiding them to their eternal rest. It's a thankless job, and her co-workers, fellow reapers all, are a band of miscreants. The only thing that keeps them together is the tireless efforts of their boss, Rube.
Unfortunately for them, Rube is gone—vanished never to return. In his place is his replacement from the "company", corporate raider-turned-reaper Cameron Kane (Henry Ian Cusick, Lost) who brings a new ruthless, casual style to the job. Soon, George's fellow reapers are living life extravagantly and tossing their duties to the winds, which is something Rube swore would have dire consequences. To their delight, their actions don't seem to have any, and Daisy (Sarah Wynter) and Mason (Callum Blue) return to their old reckless habits.
Things complicate further when George comes into uncomfortable proximity with her real-life sister Reggie (Britt McKillip) when George's reaping assignment targets a friend of her still-alive sibling. The two bond, and George makes a startling revelation to her family.
When Dead Like Me was cancelled back in 2004, fans of the quirky life-after-death show were incensed. At the time, it was a shining gem of black comedy—more sardonic and lighthearted than Six Feet Under and nowhere near as depressing, but still darker and more perverse than the standard network comedies and sitcoms. It shone bright but struggled in its second season with sub-par storylines and declining ratings, ending in cancellation. Producers Stephen Godchaux and John Masius refused to let the show go gently into the black night and fought tirelessly for its resurrection, landing a commitment to develop direct-to-DVD films continuing the tale of George and her hapless grim reaper friends. Now, in 2009, the feature film has finally emerged. It was not worth the wait.
It is scandalous how superfluous Dead Like Me: Life After Death feels; how utterly irrelevant its storyline and character development, how poor of a job it does at capturing the quirky magic of the television show. It is nothing short of a catastrophic miscalculation on the part of the show's creators. You know how a movie comes out, and everyone says "Oh yeah, that was pretty good", but then they make like six increasingly unnecessary sequels that have less and less to do with the original creators behind the film, and get further and further away from the elements that made people like the film in the first place and go straight to DVD, never to be seen? That's what Dead Like Me: Life After Death feels like—an unnecessary sequel. And the fact that many of the original writers and creators were the ones spearheading this monstrosity makes it all the more tragic.
Well, except for one smart guy. Writer/producer Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) had nothing to do with this feature film, and his absence is like a gaping wound in the side of the feature, leaking fluid and blood with every lumbering step forward. His lack of involvement illustrates exactly how much he contributed to the show's initial success. Compared to the sparkling wit and sarcasm of the original run, Dead Like Me: Life After Death feels stale and stagnant, like a reheated microwave frozen meal. Fuller took his creative energies and pumped it into Pushing Daisies, which explains why that show is so awesome, and why Dead Like Me: Life After Death is so rubbish. I give him credit for not looking back and moving forward with new ways to express unfinished ideas.
Casting is a nightmarish problem in Dead Like Me: Life After Death. The most noticeable stab wound here is the absence of two-fifths of the primary cast, Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride) and Laura Harris (24). More sensible producers would admit defeat here and scrap the project, but unfortunately for us, they sauntered on. Rube has been "retired"—his absence is a throwaway plot point where we are informed that his character "got his lights" and is now gone without saying goodbye. No closure, no follow-up, just gone. As for Daisy, she suffers the more indignant fate of being recast entirely by Sarah Wynter, who aside from being blonde and having two breasts bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actress she is replacing. Adding Henry Ian Cusick to the cast is a nice touch, but he's no Mandy Patinkin. The man is an institution. His absence from this project alone is enough to sign its death warrant.
As for the returning cast members, any pleasure at seeing old faces reunited is tempered by the passing of time. Sure, Mason is still Mason—maybe a little more well-fed and healthy looking than we're used to seeing him, but that's okay. I hate to be the one to say it, but Ellen Muth is just too weird looking and old to pull off her character now. When the pilot was filmed way back in 2003, Muth was twenty years old playing an eighteen year-old. Now, six years later, she struggles. Her already deep voice has dropped even lower, and the excessive makeup applied to camouflage her aging makes George come off like a horrible, emaciated, chain-smoking transvestite instead of an eighteen year-old grim reaper. Harsh, but that's Hollywood, baby. Well, Vancouver.
So what's left to love? You lose Bryan Fuller, you lose Mandy Patinkin, you lose Laura Harris…and you're left with the skeletal outlines of a failed television show trying to desperately cram in the last few ideas it had left into a feature-length film. Not even good ideas, as it turns out; the plot is a dull cautionary tale about the importance of the reapers doing their jobs right. We only saw this story, oh, in every single episode of the show—so why tell it again? What was the point of bringing the show back, exactly? Sure, we get some closure on George and her family, but this is arguably a moot point; we knew it was coming eventually. The show didn't really need to spell it out for us.
Fans might be able to scrape up a bit of enjoyment at seeing their old friends reunite (well, three out of the five) but this feature feels so unnecessary, so secondary to the charm of the show. One cannot escape the feeling that something vitally important has been missed here. Dead Like Me: Life After Death fails to capture its own spark, the one that made it so endearing and beloved to its fans. The story here is mediocre, the excessive voiceovers feel outdated, the character development bizarrely at odds with the direction the characters had been moving during the course of the show—it all just feels so wrong. The absence of integral cast members and producer Bryan Fuller doom this feature before it even starts.
We were provided with a screener copy from MGM of Dead Like Me: Life After Death, so our examination of the technical aspects of disc may not represent the final retail product. I sure hope not at least, because visually, our screener looked like garbage, rife with compression artifacts and distortion. The audio comes in Dolby 5.1 surround, which is surprisingly lively in rear channels, featuring clean and clear dialogue and minimal bass response.
In terms of extras, we get a feature commentary track with director Stephen Herek and actress Ellen Muth discussing the ins and outs of shooting, and some of the challenges getting the project finalized. More interesting is a brief but informative making-of featurette, "Back from the Dead: Resurrecting Dead Like Me" running fifteen minutes featuring the obligatory cast and crew interviews. It's unfortunate the cast show more vibrancy and life here than in the entire feature film itself, but at least we get a taste of the old Dead Like Me crew here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As endings go, I will give credit where credit is due: Dead Like Me: Life After Death goes out the same way it came in. It is as apropos of a final moment as creators could hope. Hopefully they let the franchise die here because, after seeing this film, I have no more faith in future installments.
A staggering letdown, Dead Like Me: Life After Death fails in both of its endeavors—it does not bookend a beloved cancelled television show, nor does it entice new fans to come explore its reaping ways. For fans of the show, to watch this DVD is to invite in moths and rot and corruption in to erode the last memories of the show that you hold dear. One must grudgingly give the creators points for refusing to say die (no pun intended) but this movie is far too little, far too late.
Helpful tip to producers: When 2/5ths of your primary cast refuse to sign back up for the feature film version of your cancelled show? Just walk away, man. Just walk away.
This one is best left buried.
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