Dead Like Me
Words – John Connors
Is there life after death? Is there life after life but before death? Well, `Dead Like Me` is a take on this sort of question, suggesting that some people end up as reapers, their job being to save the souls of the nearly departed, thus facilitating a harmonious passage to whatever is next. Not, you’d imagine, a topic from which a lot of entertainment could be had, but you’d be wrong. This is another of those US series that explores and unlikely subject, fills it with a wealth of characters you just want to spend time with and lets it run its course. We don’t have much telly like this in Britain, because we want everything to fit into a neat genre pocket and be populated by star names. Yet `Dead Like Me` even subverts our expected notion of how an oddball series might function. Most ongoing series have a plot that takes you through a series of happenings to a resolution, but this show kind of skirts the very edges of a plot and sometimes doesn’t give it any more prominence than as a setting for what is going on. It’s not that nothing happens – just as with, for example, `Sienfeld` - rather it’s how people react to what might be happening that’s the interesting thing.
At a glance, the series has a limited premise, especially without an archetypal hero/villain dynamic. It is established early on that the reapers are not really able to fix or alter events, they can’t really get too close to any of their subjects, neither can they really help them much. They just do what they do; several episodes deal with the central character, Georgia, attempting to interfere, avoid or generally act outside the prescribed rules, but with the same ultimate result- there is a very good reason for those rules. It does help bring in the viewer, especially as the explanations she gets after nearly mucking things up are those of a patiently exasperated teacher rather than a ranting superior. You sit there watching me having sympathised with what she’s done and when it goes wrong and she’s told again why you want to growl at the TV!. When Georgia asks Rupert if he’s angry with her, whether he is or not he’ll answer in an off hand way and, boy, does that get annoying. In a good way!
Even the series’ apparent evil beings- scampering transparent demons called Gravelings – are not there to be `defeated` or tricked. They are just there - part of the same process the reapers are part of. It’s such a wonderfully cyclical show, it’ll have your brain in knots!
So, then what do they do for 40 minutes each week? Well, there are the characters; each one an unfolding text of surprising depth, considering how sketchy they start off as. There’s the `who’s going to die` scenario where the reapers try to a certain who to save, often in a very public and crowded locale, when all they have for a clue is a post it note with a name and estimated time of death scribbled on it.
The tone of the opening episode is reminiscent of the film `Election`, though instead of the smarmy but clever go getter played by Reece Witherspoon, `Dead Like Me`s lead character Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth, is smarmy but lazy. A true can’t be bothered slacker in attitude, she slopes around the corners of her life not really enjoying anything except winding people up. The montage of scenes that establishes her attitude succeeds in making us like her even though she’s the sort of person who would definitely not be endearing if you were to meet her in real life. Sprinkled with some cool comments – “I excel at not giving a shit” – wry narration – first scene cuts to a pretty girl on a bench; “That’s not me” pipes up Georgia and a fresh directorial approach, it’s a diverting gambit. Even this part of the episode is delightfully detailed; the employment office woman’s attempt to keep smiling, the mother’s weary looks, the way Georgia imagines her little sister as being invisible. Of course, you do wonder why we keep cutting to shots of something falling out of Earth’s orbit; turns out it’s the zero gravity toilet and it plummet right onto poor George in the middle of a public square. Which is where the series really begins.
There’s plenty of exposition from herein but it’s employed through a variety of character types, each of whom is different from the sort of person you normally get playing series regulars. If they seem a little brusque and blase about the scenario, it helps us identify more with what George is experiencing and no doubt each of these characters will step up to their own storyline later on. We learn that George is actually undead; once buried, she will become a grim reaper, whose job is to take souls just before a person meets their doom. Each reaper gets assigned to a particular area; hers will be externally influenced fatalities. There are some inventive touches to what is a development of the vampire idea, albeit taking souls replacing biting the neck and, presumably these reapers are mostly goodies? They get their assignments on a post it note, with name and ETD (how? from whom? We’ll just have to wait and see). We also catch a few creepy glimpses of Gravelings, shaggy wild eyes creatures who most definitely scuttle about and cause some deaths.
To say the `Dead Like Me` is black comedy is obvious from the title, but that only hints at how amusingly some scenes are set up. There’s the flat they crash in with bodies of a gangland execution still littering the place, there’s sparkling but dark chit chat: “I know what will cheer you up.” “What?” “Your autopsy!” and there’s an air of devil may care abandon about the show. This is especially underlined by liberal swearing and a sequence set in a bank that fans will come to no doubt call `the classic bank scene from the first episode` in episode guides everywhere. It is masterful though; as George and her new found fellow reaper friend Mason speculate on who the victim is and how they’ll die as they watch as first a bank robber, then a cheated upon wife, both armed, threaten the staff. What actually happens is worth seeing for yourself but is sets up a signature that, if they can keep the standard, bodes extremely well. George’s first solo assignment addresses the issue of hwy, with their foreknowledge, the reapers don’t just save people. As it turns out the victim is a small child, the later scenes also swerve effectively around the potential schmaltz that could easily erupt, keeping it frothy yet debating the issues. That way, they can even get away with a fairground of lights in the closing few minutes! This opener is certainly a strong vehicle with some unique qualities, yet not too weird, a couple of scary bits and a strong central performance from Ellen Muth, who excels in the role. As subsequent episodes play it soon becomes clear that this is not a series that will benefit from reviewing each episode either as part of an ongoing story or as individual `adventures`. Often the plot, as such, is wafer thin, present only to provide a basic framework through the episode. The series is about people and the way they adjust to life changing situations and you don’t have to be dead to enjoy it or identify with it. One other thing that you don’t get to see till the second episode is the title sequence. Even if you never watch the show, you have to catch these titles; they are priceless. A montage of black cowelled, scythe carrying Grim Reapers engaging in everyday life; at work and at play, and accompanied by some lighthearted music, it’s a work of genius in itself.
Random thoughts, then, on season 1 episodes –
`Dead Girl Walking`: Essentially Georgia’s journey of discovery as she abdicates responsibility and we also see how her death has affected the family. Observations ahoy on where coins go in those very narrow parking meters and miniaturised food. The casual death of someone working in the restaurant is the surprisingly amusing apex of the episode, though the emotional bit revolves around Reggie collecting toilet seats!
`Curious George`: Revolving around a bear in a cage, this flips easily back and forth to Georgia’s office job (“I wish people were more complicated – but they’re not”). She revisits her house again, despite warnings by Rupe that she shouldn’t, and gets chased away by her mum. The message; that all we have is memories and you can’t better that, is a touch heavy handed, but every time we cut back to either the bear or the office, the one liners are flying.
`Reapercussions`: When Georgia deliberately causes someone to miss their appointment with death, it leads to all sorts of calamities including a steady stream of unexpected victims. Mandy Pitinkin’s looks of annoyance and frustration play well against Ellen Muth’s stubbornness. The office feud is delightfully gross.
`Reaping Havoc`: “When you can’t make sense of someone leaving, you try to make sense of what they left behind.” The first few episodes turn out to have been only an introduction because the quality improves with the next bunch. Sort of about friendship, it sees Georgia bemoaning that she has no friends; “as a young dead woman, where would I find that friend?” she asks. Betty would seem to be the answer only for her to unexpectedly leap into the afterlife. There’s a delicious sub story with Mason and an old woman where she ends up helping him to forge papers so he can get her money!
`My Room`: We meet Daisy, a 1930s actress who ends up sharing Georgia’s flat much to the latter’s annoyance (“I hated her instantly”). There’s a sweet vibe shining through this episode; both when Rupert encourage Georgia to stand up to her unwanted flatmate and in the pin/ball bowling metaphor that makes her realise that when she was alive, she never really lived. There’s something intriguing about having the opportunity about the notion that Georgia may put right for her sister Reggie, the things that she did wrong; a theme the series returns to.
`Reaper Madness`: Georgia encounters a young schizophrenic man called Ronnie who can see gravelings. The outcome is inconclusive (perhaps to be returned to?) but it gets Rupe into another huff, which is always enjoyable to watch. The episode also hints at a softer underside too, which provided it doesn’t start to become too dominant, should balance the dark humour that abounds. The scenes about the tooth fairy and the note give the ongoing sequences with Georgia’s family a much-needed heart. There’s a whimsical line that says “we all have voices in our heads” and it’s which one we should listen to that is the problem that supports the layers at work in such a clever show as this one. The best line though is Georgia’s observation regarding Ronnie – “except for the fact that he’s mentally ill and I was undead, it was starting to feel like a date!”
`A.Cook`: My personal favourite of the first few episodes, this could be the show’s first classic episode. It allows a few chinks in Rupe’s emotional armour because he’s not been someone we could really identify with at all. All of Georgia’s puzzled challenges towards him have been ours too. Yet here he is shocked to receive a note with the name of the cook at the gangs’ regular café hideout written on it, not least because he’s spent the last few episodes haranguing the quality of the menu. After the deed is done, Rupe feels guilty enough to volunteer to take over the kitchen for a while, a job he is not up to at first, until the cook returns, in spirit, to harangue him and a mutual respect develops between them. Thanks to a dazzling script as well as Mandy Patinkin’s stand out performance, we feel differently about this character by the end; plus it’s a great advert for the service industry and how we might treat them too. This being the series it is, we also see Dolores’ home life; an absurd existence surrounded by webcams that broadcast to her website `Getting Things Done With Dolores`. Quite bizarre. Plus Georgia inherits a pet from an old lady whose souls she takes and ends up having to give it to her sister. All put together, an excellent episode.
`Sunday Mornings`: A neatly scripted episode that looks at Georgia’s memories of Sunday mornings spent with her father and contrasts it with how he is now. When Georgia meets a student girl just like her in attitude, they become friends, which is how they end up a lecture given by Georgia’s father. It shows how her view of him is different to the reality, which ties in with the other strand in which Roxy gets so angry with an aggressive parking offender she pulls his soul out of his body for a few moments whereupon he thinks she is God and starts a shrine. It takes a painful method for Roxy to resolve this problem! Best bit is the made up words the trucker has invented to describe his experience.
`Business Unfinished`: Daisy and Mason try to pull a scam involving a recently deceased millionnairess and her son which goes on a bit, but we also catch glimpses of how Roxy died. Turns out she invented leg warmers in the 80s but her flatmate murdered her and took all the credit. The episode drags a bit but worth it for Roxy’s closing dance sequence if only because she’s the character you least expect to do that!
`Bicycle Thief`: what starts as an acknowledgement of the horrors of public transport and being unable to buy a bicycle ends up with Georgia getting a new job and experiencing the going away party that Dolores has planned. The series is certainly not afraid to move on, seemingly writing out Happy Time here. Nor do the writers simply confirm stereotypes; while the gay couple we see in this episode start off as an archetypal camp couple, their real love for each other is portrayed subtly and then strongly when one of them dies. That Mason, the archetypal lothario is affected enough by the trauma to give Daisy and Georgia his house suggests a show ready to embrace fast character development too. There is also a great two minute vignette of Georgia’s new job, where her boss will only communicate by email even though he sits a few feet away! She walks out.
`Nighthawks": A weird one this, coming over at first like one of those clips episodes as the gang have to complete self evaluation tests, the questions of which have them thinking back. Then it lurches onto another plain when Georgia finds out that Rupe’s note suggests someone dies on her parents’ drive. In the end it turns out not to be anyone from her family, but the thought that it could be sends her off the deep end again. What she learns is to keep a distance from things because she cannot affect the outcome anyway.
`Vacation`: Memories of childhood family holidays contrast with current ones as Georgia’s family spend an unhappy, awkward time at the country retreat, which she remembers with affection. Meanwhile, the gravelings are having a day off, allowing the reapers to catch up on paperwork. It’s funny in places- Rupe’s inability to get to grips with modern technology, the scenes of people doing daring things as if they know there will be no death today – and also thoughtful. People are filed by their last thoughts and we read Daisy’s; “Why has no one ever loved me?”
`Rest In Peace`: Rounding off the series first (but hopefully not last) season, this episode ties things up neatly enough as Georgia has “her day” and feels things are going to go right for her which, in the end, they do. The incidents include a hectic rush to the vets with Dolores’ cat, an act of generosity and a graveside toast. It feels like one of those old film comedies with a lesson to teach though what it is actually doing is re-establishing the series with Georgia as a more willing reaper.
AFTERLIFE AS WE KNOW IT
John Connors looks at the second – and final – season of Dead Like Me
“Life sucks and then you die – and then it still sucks!”
Perhaps it’s the subject matter, perhaps it’s the fact that not a huge amount of what we might call `plot` actually occurs each week, but something has conspired to turn Dead Like Me into an ex-show cancelled after two seasons, not it must be said, a decision that had anyone launching letter writing campaigns and chaining themselves to buildings. Just another cancelled telefantasy show and goodness knows there are enough of those. Which is all a bit of a shame as this was a show that possessed a canny ability to make something out of very little, in the style of Seinfield or even MASH but because it inhabited a fantasy area this may have sat uneasily with lovers of those and other similar series. For sci-fi fans meanwhile, there probably wasn’t enough sci-fi; you know what they’re like! On the other hand we do have one and a half nifty seasons of sparkling dialogue, surreal happenings and oddly entertaining death sequences. Which is certainly worth celebrating. I say `half` because, as this second series panned out it became clear that something had gone missing along the way and attempts to develop the style with ongoing storylines didn’t really suit the series very well, suggesting it was brought to a close at exactly the right moment.
Season two kicked off with Send in the Clown, which re-positioned some of the characters in a promising way. Roxy ends up joining the police after executing a brilliantly staged assault on a petty criminal. While a policeman is congratulating her on this feat, the wheelchair bound old woman she saved is crushed by material from an unloading truck in the background. Ahh, its good to be back in this afterworld! Meanwhile, George gets promoted at Happy Time after taking a shine to a new intern much to Dolores Herbig’s disapproval. It’s looking as if the writers are aiming to install some maturity in George this season, while at the same time her parents are immaturely arguing their way to divorce. The going back to the home scenes did start to pall halfway through last season, adding sentimentality to a show in which it just didn’t fit, so its good to see them sparring bitterly and with some irony now. As ever, the episode is crisp and to the point and even the potentially schmaltzy scenes of Mason posing as rather unconvincing clown so he can be near his next victim- the little girls’ father- has a wry denouement. Elsewhere, revel in the newspaper obituaries being described as “the reaper’s sports pages”, a graveling sneaking a drag on a cigarette before throwing it into a gas leak and some sharp office politics that envelops George- especially when she gets to benefit in the end.
The Ledger opens with George wanting to know whether Rube wrote the post -it that prepared for her demise and what other information he possessed. It’s the little mystery that we keep wondering about and Rube isn’t letting her in on the secret. In fact Its altogether a bad day for our heroine as her bike is stolen and she sees the For Sale sign up outside the family home. TV that plays on our dislike of officialdom always scores and this episode has a double helping- the police’s indifference to her lost transport and then, when she gets back late to the office, a confrontation with an over zealous security advisor. The latter has been called in due to stationery supplies- particularly post its – going missing and it’s a gem of a cameo as he boils all his ideas down to increasingly awkward acronyms! Of course, surprising the viewer, it’s not George who’s taking the supplies anyway but that silent receptionist. Ellen Muth is in fine sarcastic form throughout even though at the end George realises, having acquired a new car, things do move on. There are a few issues dealt with here, though none too deeply, but a recurring theme is George feeling guilt over her parents’ split. There’s always lots happening of course and the highlight of these sidebars is Roxy shooting Mason under the table; pay off perhaps for his magic act which is the episode’s only annoying strand simply because it goes on much longer than it should.
In Ghost Story George’s reaction to being invited to join in on Happy Time’s annual retreat is less than enthusiastic; “why retreat at all- who’s attacking us?” she moans amidst something of an existential crisis; yep even dead people can have them. “Whatever everyone else was doing” she muses “I always went the other way” and the episode effectively manages to paint her as a loner without drawing on anything particularly too sugary by way of illustration. This is reflected too in the ongoing surliness of sister Reggie who is leading her mother quite a dance through the opening stories of the season. There is a sense that the episode is trying to tell us more than it eventually does and when Rube, already annoyed with George for high tailing it out of town minus her post it note turns up at the campsite, matters tend to lose their clarity a little. It’s not really in her character for George to feel quite so left out especially when she’s so super sarcastic all the while, so this doesn’t really gel too well. Mason, meanwhile, is searching for his post- it which he inadvertently mislaid and this should provides some comic relief but again extends its reach and ends up with him and Daisy (whose character is becoming far more likeable) getting drunk while attempting to search Rube’s flat. None of it really pulls together though maybe if you enjoy workplace-bonding experiences as excruciating as the one depicted here, it will mean more to you. Happily that’s an aberration as the next episode The Shallow End succeeds in achieving what its predecessor set out to, but with panache. Flitting between flashbacks of ten year old George first realising that whatever she did, people didn’t like her and present day George continuing to be the office tyrant, there is a lot to enjoy and the side story of Mason and the self important old dead man who wants to go to his own funeral provides some laughs. The `nice girls finish last` idea is given a fresh coat of paint here and if there are no pat answers, there are certainly all the right questions. Good old fashioned double take has a role to play too; the scenes with put upon Ethan, a nervous IT person, show of Ellen Muth’s comedic skills and there are some priceless waffle hous scenes when Mason’s unsettled victim wanders in wearing nothing but a towel! There’s even a surprise ending too when ten year old George sees a couple of gravelings in a swimming pool but they back away from her.
Hurry is all about life being “one big race to the next thing” and sees George musing on how when she was alive she couldn’t wait for what was next. Through multiple strands, each following the team’s reap that day, the idea of time, waiting and the way we live our lives is examined and if there is no particular conclusion then at least each scenario is different whether its Mason chasing his target around town on a bicycle, Daisy being chatted up by an endless supply of men at a speed dating event or George `cracking the whip` at Happy Time because there’s a management consultant watching the staff’s every move. Ironically considering the theme it does begin to drag a little and Rube’s mystery package that is eighty years late doesn’t quite work as an idea. Still, the office scenes are fun and seem to be the area where the second season is at its best. It’s Daisy who gets the best line though when one of her potential suitors complains “all the women I know hate men”. “No” she responds “they just hate you”! In Escrow or `in between` in property sales speak tries none too successfully to link its stories with the theme of waiting. Georgia is assigned to choose one of three applicants for a job but finds this extremely difficult as each of them is a particularly awful stereotype and they proceed to give appalling interviews and then bombard her with silly gifts, including a rabbit in one case! This is funny but the strand where Mason has to reap a faded 60s rock star he was a fan of fails to catch light. Mason’s pathetic streak is beginning to grate because it shows no sign of development; compare this to the way George has changed since the series began. There’s a sort of romantic sub plot with George’s mother falling for a city centre flat and perhaps it’s occupant and this does reach for something but isn’t given enough attention in an uneven episode. It does pull together for a surprising ending though and its fun seeing Daisy going to church for her first confession in 75 years.
We’re back in church for Rites of Passage in which Daisy’s guilt over taking a dead woman’s necklace coincides with her latest reap being the priest she confessed to last week. Knowing his fate allows Daisy to tell the priest who she is and what she does in a couple of touching scenes. Mason is funnier this time round too as he tries to get backstage at a big acoustic concert that a pop star who is also George’s reap is giving. That said, the backstage scenes go on too long though there’s a funny scene when Mason, too, decides to reveal his occupation to some doom laded goths. More seriously, the episode touches on the mourning process. When the pop star dies, there is a candelit vigil by fans outside prompting George to comment that nobody would do such a thing for her, unaware that back at home, led by her spiritually inclined grand-mother that’s exactly what is happening. The episode also touches on Reggie’s feelings more than usual, which might encourage the writers not to let her continue to be a moaning brat!
The Escape Artist finds George in the unlikely environment of a country club in an overlong conversation with someone whom you know a) she will fall for and b) will be connected to her reap. Thus it falls into place. Meanwhile Rube and Daisy are in Reggie’s school in a situation that provides some humour – Rube’s awkwardness around kids and intrigue – a boy repear whom Reggie sees in action saving the soul of an unfortunate komodo and who tells her he has heard of George. If the writers are working towards a meeting between the sisters then they need to push this plot a little faster; and not just cos the series is ending. The third strand is delightfully indulgent as Roxy and Mason get steadily more tipsy whilst waiting for a delayed flight to take off. Be Still My Heart follows up on George’s infatuation with Trip from last episode allowing a typically anarchic Mason to offend the wake while the two lovebirds try and get some time together. More seriously Daisy gets into trouble when she leaves clues at the scene of her reap as to the identity of a murderer; a cardinal sin in her profession. The character’s flirtation with religion has been a satisfying theme this season and hopefully something that will continue. Certainly there is a genuine attempt to create development from one episode to the next as Death Defying takes up George’s fury after Trip has dumped her after they slept together while Rube is off looking for more clues regarding the package that arrived a few episodes back. Neither scenario is as engaging as it deserves to be. Despite some amusing banter between Rube and the young clerk at the records office, which references age and time differences, the writers are stringing this one out just a bit too far. All Rube ends up doing is staring dolefully at old documents and we’re left to guess the rest. Mandy Patinkin is under-used all season really. George’s predicament gives Ellen Muth free reign to sulk and be obnoxious but seems such an unlikely development all things considered and there are some drawn out bar scenes involving Daisy and a boorish tv producer called Ray that add little even if they are the start of sub plot that will run to the end of the series. What these last few episodes seem to indicate is that the series is in a rut and sometimes feels so clever about what it is about that there is little fun for the viewer. The sparks that made the main characters so engaging even when there was little going on have dimmed now there is more actual plot whilst the novelty of various deaths has also grown repetitive and increasingly far fetched. You also notice little things; from keeping a distance from the gravelings the reapers now give them a hand from time to time and we never see `Millie` now, with the decision presumably having been taken to ditch the idea that the reapers look different in death, though it suddenly becomes a big point in the last episode.
Whilst proving that you can make comedy out of anything, Ashes to Ashes hardly allays the undercurrent that is pulling the season down as Reggie is now starting to behave in a way that is not only unsympathetic and unlikeable but inexplicable too. It feels as if the writers are obliged to include George’s family each week even if there is clearly little for them to do. Nevertheless you will smile as George, after feeling sorry for a down and out who turns out to be her latest reap, lumbers herself with his burial costs. There are a few points made about the inequalities of the system, but the series generally avoids this kind of topic lest it be seen as being too serious. Perhaps that was a mistake. Most of Forget Me Not certainly is. This unsuitably titled episode wastes a huge amount of time in a boxing gym and sees the reapers exercising their hostility towards Daisy’s boyfriend. Its hardly worth the payoff when Mason ends up killing him and we see a Graveling being created. Also overdone, largely because they play it for supposed laughs, is George trying to get a lately deceased pensioner who can’t remember anything to accept she’s died. Whereas series 1 would have brought it to a sharp point, here they pad it out and its as much of a relief to the viewer as it is to George when the job is finally done. Last Call bucks the trend and is quite playful as Mason, wracked with guilt over Ray’s murder is further rattled when he receives a purple post it note leading him to believe its his last day. It’s a neat riff on superstition that is balanced by the subsequent Always in which Rube has to visit his daughter- now an OAP – who is about to die. More could perhaps have been made of this though the writers have remained curiously reluctant to tell us too much about Rube meaning we don’t understand him at all. His flashes of kindness are mingled with a brusque air and a sense of superiority and it is the series’ biggest disappointment that we never really get under the skin of the character.
The series ends obliquely with Haunted in which George concludes “its not so bad being dead like me” after she’s finally let Reggie see her at Halloween, the one day when the reapers appear as themselves, though the younger girl is probably unclear as to what she really saw. Its exactly the kind of low key moment that has served the series well and the episode as a whole suggests a new tranquillity has broken out now that nasty Ray is gone and Rube’s personal dilemma is resolved (he’s cheerful throughout for a change). It underlines that unless the series was prepared to become more dramatic and emotional, which would probably spoil the chemistry anyhow, there wasn’t really anything else to do with it. We don’t get any big answers but then Dead Like Me has only ever flirted with us; it was never really going to even ask big questions.