Saturday, September 25, 2010
Saturday Night at the Movies: "Dead Like Me"
You’ve got to feel a little bit bad for Bryan Fuller. Over the last decade or so, he’s created three quirky, unique television shows (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies), only to see them met by small (though loyal) audiences and cancellation from impatient networks. His latest series, Pushing Daisies, looked to be his first big hit; but its audience somehow disappeared after a longer-than-average hiatus due to the writer’s strike. Fox only aired four episodes of Wonderfalls in 2004 (though the entire 13 were subsequently released on DVD). His first series, Dead Like Me, is his longest-running to date—Showtime aired two seasons, totaling 29 episodes, before its untimely cancellation. Five years later, after much speculation, a direct-to-DVD follow-up movie has been released; all of them are now collected in the nine-disc Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection.
Fuller left the series early in the first season, though he remained credited as a consulting producer. We’ll never know what the entire series would have looked like under his watch, though the series certainly didn’t suffer a noticeable decline in quality after his departure. As it stands, Dead Like Me is not the expert melding of charming whimsy and pitch-black comedy that Pushing Daisies was, but it is still a fine series with plenty of pleasures to offer.
The premise of the show is fairly ingenious. Georgina “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) is an 18-year-old slacker who’s going nowhere; she’s dropped out of school and is working as a rather unskilled office temp. On her lunch break, she’s hit and incinerated by a falling toilet seat, ejected from the Mir space station. She’s dead, of course, but she discovers that she has been chosen to become a grim reaper, pulling souls from their bodies in the moments before their deaths and escorting them to the great beyond. They are, as one puts it, “bail bondsmen for the disembodied,” saving souls from the pain of violent deaths, usually executed in elaborate, Rube Goldbergian fashion by so-called “gravelings.”
George’s supervisor, of sorts, is Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who passes out the daily reaping assignments on yellow Post-Its to his crew of reapers: British bad-boy Mason (Callum Blue), hard-assed meter maid (later cop) Roxy (Jasmine Guy), and good-hearted Betty (Rebecca Gayheart). Betty “hitches a ride” with a departing soul early in season one and is replaced by Daisy (Laura Harris), a somewhat bratty actress. George quickly discovers that they’re also not paid for their services—day jobs are required to pay the rent, so in desperation, she returns to her place of employment, Happy Time Temporary Services, where she eventually becomes girl Friday for supervisor Delores Herbig (Christine Willes).
Season one runs fourteen episodes, most of them solid and enjoyable. Fuller’s “Pilot” episode is particularly funny, if a bit overwritten; as with Daisies, the premise of the show is a little convoluted and takes some explaining, and while some of it is quite amusing, it does feel like he came up with twelve witty ways to explain the concept and had to find a place for all of them. The series occasionally falls into that trap, with writers getting clever for the sake of being clever, but it’s not a pressing issue, and the series’ general inventiveness is one of its best qualities.
One of its worst is the inclusion of the family that George left behind: Her mother Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), father Clancy (Greg Kean), and sister Reggie (Britt McKillip). Early in the series, their presence is understandable and sometimes successful; learning to leave them behind is a major part of George’s period of adjustment, and her awkward interactions with those she loves (in a new body, unrecognizable to them) are occasionally effective and even bittersweet. But nearly every episode has a Lass family subplot, long after George has essentially ceased communications with them, and most are frightfully dull—Joy and Clancy’s marriage is on the rocks, Joy and Clancy are getting a divorce, Joy and Reggie have to sell their house, Joy is dating again, Joy has mother issues, etc. It is a little jarring to go from the unique, distinctive storytelling of the reaper scenes to the pedestrian narratives of the Lass family, which have been seen a thousand times on bad TV dramas and made-for-Lifetime movies. The family would have been better utilized as occasional, semi-regular characters (in some episodes, like the early “Curious George” episode or “Last Call” from late in season two, they are used quite effectively); as is, they are too frequently a distraction (and prone to loose ends, like Clancy’s homosexuality, which is hinted at in the pilot and then forgotten).
That flaw aside, Dead Like Me is a thoroughly entertaining show—smartly written, skillfully crafted (the special effects are quite impressive, as is the inventive camerawork), and marvelously acted by a talented ensemble cast. In all candor, I found that Muth takes a little getting used to (she’s simultaneously odd-looking and attractive), but once I had grown accustomed to her particular kind of snark and bone-dry line readings, you can’t imagine anyone else anchoring the show. Guy has some terrific moments (I’ve been a fan since A Different World), Blue exudes shaggy-dog charm, and Harris crafts a marvelously layered take on a character that could have been played as a broad stereotype (and is, in the later movie).
But Mandy Patinkin is the stand-out. Rube Sofer is the kind of role actors give their eye-teeth to land, and Patinkin plays for all its worth—but never reaches for effect, trusting the dialogue and his own rat-tat-tat delivery to achieve a truly memorable character. There were surely temptations to overplay, particularly in the tender, paternal relationship of Rube and George, but Patinkin never succumbs to that. He keeps him real—a prickly pear who cares about his crew but does not suffer their bullshit—and makes an undeniable mark on the show. His counterpoint, of sorts, is provided by Willes as George’s other boss, Delores Herbig; though initially a somewhat obvious one-dimensional type, Willes’ energetic performance (and the writers’ wickedly funny inferences about her past) is another highlight, and she becomes, in much the same way as Rube, a parental figure for George.
Season one’s greatest success is the full, complete arc of George’s character. She is, in many ways, quite unlikable when the series begins; her smarmy outlook and suburban ennui would have grown tiresome had she not been allowed to grow and mature. This is one of the pleasures of the well-written television series; over the course of that first year, she grows up, wises up, and learns—from the loss of her real family—to appreciate her new surrogate one. All of his is brought into sharp focus in the closing scenes of the excellent season finale, “Rest In Peace,” which also boasts plenty of screen time for Patinkin and a terrific guest shot by the always-welcome Harold Perrineau (Oz, Lost).
Other first season highlights include the thoughtful “Vacation” episode, the charming “A Cook,” “Reaping Havoc” (in which Gayheart’s Betty departs), and “The Bicycle Thief,” which includes a lovely subplot with Mason and a gay couple (it starts a little broad but becomes quite moving). The only truly bad episode of the bunch is “Nighthawks,” where they try to pad the season with some kind of a Friends-style “flashback” episode, an especially poor idea since the show was already in the habit of using quick clips from previous shows for background (so by the time we get here, we’re seeing some of these clips for the third or fourth time).
Just as George’s arc defined season one, season two slowly reveals the background of Rube’s character, in an extended subplot that is quite rewarding. It’s the kind of story thread that the television narrative does especially well, sliding in a tidbit this week, a throwaway line the next, building subtly to an exceptional payoff. Patinkin does some of his best work here (and this subplot also leads to a tangential scene in a long post office line that is one of my favorites of the entire series).
George gets to do some growing up in season two, embarking on a romance with the son of a departing soul (George: “I kissed him… and then I reaped his dad.” Daisy: “Hmmm. Complicated.”). Daisy also finds romance, in a multi-episode relationship with guest star Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) that takes a decidedly dark—and interesting—turn.
Other strong episodes include “The Ledger,” which includes a particularly inventive death by kitchen appliance; “Ghost Story,” a complicated episode that draws its several storylines together in a perfectly executed, beautifully cross-cut climax; “The Shallow End,” which concludes with a church scene that dips its toe into weightier issues than the norm; and “Rites of Passage,” in which George is challenged by the high-profile reap of an up-and-coming rock star.
The show draws to a satisfying if inconclusive close with the Halloween episode “Haunted.” But it was clearly not intended to be a series finale; Showtime’s cancellation of the series clearly caught the writers and producers unawares, or it might have been given a more proper send-off. But fans were thrilled when reports started to surface a couple of years back that MGM was financing a direct-to-DVD follow-up movie; some said it would tie up the loose ends, while others hoped it would serve as a vehicle to restart the entire series.
The resulting movie, Dead Like Me: Life After Death, doesn’t really accomplish either of those goals. It is something of a letdown, at least when compared to the series; it feels slight and undercooked, it never quite gets the tone right, and the changes (necessary due to casting considerations) are entirely unsuccessful. But Life After Death is not without its pleasures, particularly for jonesing fans.
The film picks up five years later, filling in the back-story via the not-terribly-inventive construct of an on-screen comic book (and frequent verbatim quotes from the pilot script). We catch up with the reapers at a moment of change and disorder; Der Waffel Haus, their frequent hangout and the location of their morning meet-up for assignments, has burned to the ground, and Rube apparently “got his lights” (the show’s slang for moving on). The crew gets a new boss, Cameron Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), a slick British business type who distributes assignments on PDAs.
Somehow, the change in leadership and Cameron’s looser management style (if I’m reaching for descriptors here, it’s because his character is so poorly developed) leads the reapers to start bending some of the rules—an interesting concept and a fresh take on the themes of the show. Roxy saves a life she’s supposed to reap and becomes a hero, Daisy leaves a wandering soul without taking him to his lights, and George reveals herself to Reggie more directly than ever before.
The family elements are still not quite successful (Joy has become some kind of a self-help guru or something), but they are meshed with the primary storyline fairly successfully. We also bring more goodwill to Joy and Reggie, simply because it’s nice to see the regulars back again (and I can only imagine that pleasure will be multiplied for the longtime fans who have waited five years to see them again).
The more serious problems are with the cast changes. Laura Harris reportedly had to drop out at the last minute, so Sarah Wynter replaces her as Daisy and fails miserably; not only does she look nothing like her, but her grating characterization bears only a passing resemblance. Wynter gets Daisy’s brattiness, but none of her charm—it’s a one-dimensional take on a previously well-developed character. And Cusick may very well be a fine actor, but simply put, he’s no Mandy Patinkin. The hole left by Patinkin’s absence is one that simply can’t be filled; in the bonus featurette, a producer says that they simply wouldn’t do the movie without Muth, but I’m afraid they should have included Patinkin in that equation as well.
On the plus side, Willes is also back as Delores, and her final scene features some of her best acting to date—which manages to keep her from succumbing to the maudlin overtones of much of the third act. Muth, Blue, and Guy are clearly having a great time, and there’s an inherent likability to the endeavor that the thinness of the project can’t erase. But ultimately, it’s rather like the television equivalent of Arthur 2: On the Rocks or Cocoon: The Return; you’re glad they all came back, but you wonder if it was worth the effort.
Dead Like Me is a quirky, funny, inventive little show with moments of terrific humor and genuine pathos, and it only stepped wrong when it shifted away from its protagonist to her uninteresting family. But even with that flaw, it’s still a series worth investing in. Its follow-up movie has its moments but isn’t altogether successful, primarily due to some unfortunate re-casting. Overall, the set is recommended to those exploring Dead Like Me for the first time, but fans who already own the show will find no reason to double-dip.
"Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection" is available now on DVD. Season 1, Season 2, and the "Life After Death" movie are all streaming via Netflix Instant Viewing. Seasons 1 and 2 are also streaming on Hulu.