cast: Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Callum Blue, Britt McKillip, and Jasmine Guy
creator: Bryan Fuller
600 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
MGM DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Inspired by Piers Anthony’s On A Pale Horse, Dead Like Me ran for two full series. It told the story of Georgia ‘George’ Lass (Ellen Muth) who was killed by a toilet seat from a Russian space station and then chosen to be one of numerous ‘grim reapers’ who collect the souls of the dying and make sure they get to the other side.
The series’ strong point is undeniably the characters. George is endearingly naïve and Ellen Muth gives her a nice blend of cynicism and teenaged awkwardness. Muth is ably supported by the wise and weary Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and an utterly fantastic Dolores (Christine Willis) – whose office chirpiness belies a horrible private life of substance abuse, giant cysts and sex with the homeless. Fellow reapers, Mason (Callum Blue), and Daisy (Laura Harris), are intriguing characters but poorly acted, Blue never gets to grip with Mason, and Harris’ Daisy is almost identical to Nicole Kidman’s starlet in To Die For. The first few episodes are also unbelievably strong. George rails against the limitations of being a reaper and the unfairness of death. She struggles to find a job and a home as well as her desire to return home as her family starts to tear itself apart over her little sister’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The stories brilliantly balance cynicism and dark humour with sentimentality and the writing is consistently funny and engaging. Then everything stops.
If you look at the writing credits, you see that a few episodes into the series, the creator relinquished his writing duties (in fact, he was basically forced out). The result is that the plot arcs concerning George’s challenging the system and her little sister’s weirdness disappear with nothing to replace them while George and the other reapers sit in a waffle house and George’s family does… well… nothing much at all. In fact, after the first few episodes, no new ideas or plots are introduced at all resulting in the series stagnating creatively. This lack of ideas is exemplified by the fact that the series makes it to about ten episodes before it feels the need to recycle old material in the shape of a clip-show composed of memorable lines from previous episodes.
The greatest tragedy of Dead Like Me is that it could have been different. In recent interviews Bryan Fuller talks about a plot-arc where we ‘discovered’ that George’s father was actually gay and George had to struggle to come to terms that she should never have been born. This plot arc was reportedly axed under studio pressure but goes some way to explaining why the series simply stopped. If you look at many recent TV series you see that the first season is frequently the strongest and this is because by the time the series gets to be filmed, the creators have had a large amount of time to plot out the series and what happens. The actions of the studios resulted in much of the creative thinking that went into Dead Like Me before filming started never making it to the screen, forcing writers and producers to create on the fly. So rather than the challenging plot arcs Fuller planned, we’re left with solid and engaging characters who spend all their time sitting in a waffle house, and George’s family having literally nothing to do apart from play out an undetermined and unclear unhappiness that is never explored or explained. Lacking plot or direction for the characters, the writers fell into the increasingly clichéd idea of people with magical powers having to balance the responsibilities of their occult life with their real life. While it might have been fresh when Buffy started doing it and engaging when Spider-Man struggled with it, it is now becoming a tiresome cliché. While Fuller’s planned plot-arc of Clancy Last’s homosexuality might have yielded some interesting dramatic tensions and opportunities, the writers struggled to supply George with more mundane and uncontroversial life lessons. So rather than dealing with the fact that she should never really have been born, George learns lessons like there’s more to work than money and it’s important to have a friend.
The unfortunate creative stagnancy of Dead Like Me serves to prove two interesting points about TV. Firstly, in order for a series to function properly it needs a clear agenda and a driving creative force behind it. Without a creative vision, a series all too easily collapses into a rut. Secondly, we have now reached the point in sci-fi and fantasy media that it is no longer sufficient to include the heroes’ private lives. These private lives clearly need the same depth of thought and originality as the series’ main plotlines if the series is to function. Compare this to Buffy’s high school career essentially being just a high school career and the balancing act facing Spidey in Spider-Man 2 being between jobs, relationships and super-heroics with little to be said about the nature of relationships or work (a problem that also affects Alias with its ridiculous “Oh my god… my boyfriend’s taking singing lessons! subplot from season one). Dead Like Me’s insights into real life are pedestrian at best and insultingly simple at worst and this reminds us that heroes in domestic settings is nothing new, clever or interesting… genre writers now need to have clever things to say about domestic life as well lest our cinema screens see such horrors as ‘Blade: the post office’ or ‘Hulk 2: waiting in for the gasman’.
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Dead Like Me starts more strongly than many recent series and its delightful characters and witty tone and writing make it a real heartbreaker. It could have been superb and it could have taken genre TV one step further out of the ghetto but, sadly, it never happened. However, the DVD set is still worth a look because when Dead Like Me is good it is very, very good even if when it is bad it is horrid.