DeFlip Side #25: Dead Like Me

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Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

So here I was, two months ago, lamenting the loss of Farscape but consoling myself (and you) with the fact that rare as it may be, more good television would eventually come along. Well, as usual, I was right. Only this time, the good stuff comes at a premium.

The show I’m talking about is the new series Dead Like Me. The reason it comes at a premium is because you need Showtime in order to see it.

Yes, I said Showtime. Now don’t rush to judgment. I know Showtime has a track record of throwing on some pretty lousy shows. Just think Odyssey 5. What’s that? You’ve never heard of it? Well that’s because the programming brainiacs over there scheduled it on Friday nights opposite Farscape.

Odyssey 5 actually had a pretty cool premise: a group of astronauts are in orbit when the Earth explodes. An unknown entity appears and sends them back in time five years to discover and then stop the chain of events that led to the planet’s demise. With a talented cast, headed by veteran genre actor Peter Weller, the show looked like it might have some legs. But it soon degenerated into John Carpenter’s They Live meets V’ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where computer intelligences spawned on the Internet had taken on human form and were walking among us. Or anyway I think that’s what it was about. I was only watching in bits and pieces by the time they made this revelation. And the show ended shortly thereafter, anyway.

So it goes with most of the original series you see on Showtime. While HBO seems to launch hit after hit—The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City—Showtime has generated one miserable failure after another: Going to California, Fast Forward. Even J. Michael Strazinsky’s Jeremiah seemed to be on shaky ground for a while, though they recently announced its return. And what hits they do have—Soul Food, Queer as Folk, Stargate SG1—appeal only to very specific audiences.

But I will give Showtime credit in one respect: they have the courage to make gutsy choices with series that are different, edgier. Unfortunately, edgy doesn’t necessarily mean watchable. Which is why Dead Like Me has come as such a pleasant surprise. It’s the first Showtime series I can remember since John Byner’s Bizzarre that keeps me tuning in.

The show begins with an end—the last day in the life of George Lass, a 18-year-old college dropout with no prospects, no ambitions and no clue what to do with her life. Fortunately for her, that life is about to end. The Russian Space Station MIR is falling out of orbit, throwing off debris. And George is at Ground Zero when its toilet seat makes landfall—with her face. Before she can even fully comprehend what’s happened, she is met by two Reapers—as in grim, collectors of souls—and informed that instead of passing on, she has been chosen to become a Reaper herself. Her postmortem conscription into a job she doesn’t really want forces George to confront the ambivalence she had in life, and find herself in Death.

The casting of George was crucial because on paper she sounds like your stereotypical slacker teen headed for hard life lessons—or death lessons in this case; whiny, self-involved and really easy to hate. But the character is played perfectly by Ellen Muth, who somehow manages to be apathetic and expressive at the same time. She makes you really believe that George is not so much lazy and uncaring as she is lost, and because of that you really start to care about her.

And if George forms the heart of the show, then her Reaper boss, Rube, gives it its soul. In another casting coup, actor Mandy Patinkin brings so much verve and natural energy to the role of the put-upon Reaper foreman that it’s hard to believe he’s acting. Patinkin is a veteran of the craft, probably best known to genre fans as Inigo Montoya from Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. He was also in Alien Nation and Dick Tracy. The contrast between his assertive Rube and Muth’s muted George is one of the key strengths of the show.

The other Reapers help as well, with an assortment of personalities all their own: no-nonsense Roxy, played by Jasmine Guy; adventurous Betty, played by Rebecca Gayheart; and offbeat Mason, played by Callum Blue, mainly a television actor in the UK.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the show is that, as Reapers, George and her coworkers are technically undead, and inhabit bodies, although they look different than they did in life. It means they have to put up with all of life’s hassles—finding a place to live, making enough money to eat. It leads the Reapers to come up with creative and sometimes macabre ways of getting by. It just adds another interesting and realistic wrinkle to both the characters and the series, because they’re not the group of goody-pure, holier than thou life menders that usually inhabit shows about the afterlife. Della Reese and Michael Landon are nowhere in sight. The Reapers may be angels of death, but they’re a pretty rough-around-the-edges bunch.

And in George’s case, this second skin gives her an opportunity to interact with her family more than she ever did in life, although she’s forced to do so indirectly.

That’s not to say the show is perfect. I’ve noticed some flaws in its continuity, chiefly concerning the souls the Reapers are supposed to collect. In one episode, George is intent on letting a person go on living. But Rube tells her that if the soul it isn’t collected, it’ll spoil, like milk past its sell-by date, and make the person bitter and miserable. But just two episodes later, George learns that people sometimes miss their appointments with death and get a free ride until their names comes up in the hopper again. Testing this hypothesis, she prevents one of her scheduled pick-ups from arriving at the time and place where he is supposed to die. I couldn’t see how this was any different from her stopping the death directly, and even she asks about whether or not the soul will spoil. But we never really get an answer.

Still, these nitpicking points are not enough to detract from what works. And I’m kind of surprised how well Dead Like Me does work. Its premise has formulaic written all over it, but the show manages to dodge that bullet week after week with stories that are unexpected and well-written. And above all, it’s funny. I don’t mean sitcom funny. I mean the kind of funny that grows naturally out of any character driven story where differing personalities begin to interact.

Another reason I think Dead Like Me stands half a chance of pulling ahead of the Showtime pack is because its one of those rare genre shows with mass appeal. Death is something we all think about, and because of that, a wider range of people is more likely to give the show a try. I’m not pretending that we have the next Six Feet Under on our hands. Dead Like Me is too much of a sleeper for that level of success. But I will say that Patinkin, at least, deserves to be considered when the next Emmy nominees are selected. He’s ten times better than that annoying Larry David could ever hope to be. And Muth deserves at least some recognition for being able to go toe to toe with him in her own understated way.

If you want to try the show out, you can watch on Friday nights at 10. Think of it as your lead-in to Destinies. But if that time doesn’t work for you, just watch Showtime or Showtime Too or Showtime Extra or any of the other pointless Showtime networks that are now available. You’ll probably find it running on one of them around ten or eleven on any given night. They’re plugging the hell out of the series, and have it in heavy rotation. Odds are you’ll see it whether you’re looking for it or not. They’re smack in the middle of their thirteen-episode run, and I’m sure they’ll rerun it from the beginning when that’s up. So give it a looksee.

But don’t get too attached. Since I like it so much, I’m fairly positive they’ll cancel it any day now. It happens so often that sometimes I feel like a Reaper for television shows. Seriously, kudos to show creator and writer Bryan Fuller for crafting something smart, different and highly enjoyable. Never has the dramatic motif of death by toilet set been taken to such heights.

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