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Dead Like Me (2003-4)
Creator: Bryan Fuller

review by Christopher Geary

Remember the quirky time warps of Tru Calling, where the young heroine was cursed to rewind days at the morgue, and save people who were apparently destined to die? Well, here's the morbid flipside of that scenario, as undead girl Georgia 'George' Lass (Ellen Muth) is tasked, as if by some unknowable higher power, to collect the souls of those doomed by fate, and check that they reach their final destination, ready or not. Here, there are no second chances for all those whose time as mortals is over. When she's tragically killed in a horribly farcical accident (hit by a toilet seat falling from the Russian space station), 18-year-old George becomes the latest recruit for a local team of 'grim reapers'. However, this somewhat unique television series fields elements of cynical soap opera, not genre stereotypes, so there are no hooded black cloaks and no scythes, except in the hilarious title sequence (which establishes the overall themes of Dead Like Me, with eerie perfection), and the reapers appear to all concerned simply like ordinary people, without any of the usual genre-TV super-powers or special gifts.

Introduced by George's frequent voiceover observations, the reaper squad - including no-nonsense 'manager' Rube (Mandy Patinkin), bitchy meter-maid Roxy (Jasmine Guy), British junkie wastrel Mason (Callum Blue), and fallen Hollywood starlet Daisy (Laura Harris) go about their often unpleasant daily work (post-it notes are used to expedite reaper assignments), following cryptic instructions handed out by Rube at the group's regular meetings in a German waffle house, where the reapers complain to waitress Kiffany (Patricia Idlette), about food, the inadequate menu, and much else besides. Kiffany, of course, soon becomes a philosophical 'den mother' to this bunch of warts-and-all misfits, but their newfound 'family' arrangement fails to satisfy the bitterly sarcastic George, initially, and she longs to return home to her living family... unfaithful dad Clancy (Greg Kean), grieving distant mom Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), and emotionally disturbed kid sister Reggie (Britt McKillip).

Unable to escape back to the potential of her teenage life, George must face the (un)reality of her bizarre situation, cope with having to secure a new identity, forge ahead to find gainful employment, and confront the rather shocking truth that being a reaper is just another shitty job with responsibilities that she cannot avoid. So, George starts working at 'Happy Time' temps agency, where amusingly scatterbrained boss Delores Herbig (Christine Willes), and somewhat weird colleagues like Crystal (Crystal Dahl), allow even undead filing clerks to 'fit in', and rather too comfortably, really. But that's just one of the cheerfully twisted little quirks of George's afterlife in Dead Like Me.

While compulsive Mason attempts self-destruction via drink or drugs, Daisy indulges her frivolously sluttish nature, Roxy manages to improve her lot by advancing from a lowly traffic warden to police officer, and the long-time dead Rube struggles humanly to overcome his own deeply personal and family ties to the past. As the programme's narrator, young George is obviously the central character, and much of what happens is examined from her increasingly jaundiced perspective. Essentially, Dead Like Me must be viewed as a black-comedy drama, albeit one that's rife with intellectual grace, episodes of romantic optimism, and conflicted profundity (and profanity too, which, although verbose, manages the neat trick of never being utterly gratuitous).

Despite being limited to a measly couple of seasons, running to a merely average total of 29 x 45-minute episodes, Dead Like Me is one of the best genre TV shows of recent times. Superb characterisations and genuine chemistry between the main performers is a given for any notable TV series but, here, the programme makers embrace various daringly imaginative aspects of how people deal with tragedy and loss, plus the feverish complexities of domestic strife, relationship blackmail, office politics, virtual slavery, and the many gruelling disappointments of life and/ or death. Episode titles range from the cine-literate (Dead Girl Walking, Reaper Madness, The Bicycle Thief, Nighthawks, Always), to the pragmatically descriptive (Rest In Peace, Ghost Story, Rites Of Passage, Ashes To Ashes, Forget Me Not, Last Call). All of them are pulp-poetically apt.

To dismiss Dead Like Me as nothing more than a living-dead soap opera is plainly unacceptable and dishonest as criticism. In fact, the Lass family's pet dog has more depth to its 'character' than the lead roles on many TV soaps. When J.D. (just dog) eventually dies, we may feel the acute sadness just as intensely as poor Reggie and her dad. As a complete television viewing experience, both seasons of this well-crafted show benefit from the thoughtful richness of commensurately fine scripts and expertly judged acting from the outstanding ensemble cast. The very last episode Haunted boasts one of the most surprisingly original and poignant closing narrations of any series, genre or otherwise. Don't wait for the visit from a stranger holding the post-it with your name on it; this is one of those great TV shows you really must see before you die!
Dead Like Me season 1 on DVD

Dead Like Me - main cast

Dead Like Me season 2 on DVD

read another review of: Dead Like Me: season 1

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