Sunday, September 9, 2012

If You Haven't Been Into Dead Like Me Before Now, "The Complete Series" Is Worthwhile!

The Good: Interesting characters, Decent acting, Intriguing premise, Well-executed plots, Includes everything!
The Bad: Severely limited potential, Repetitive
The Basics: When George Lass is killed in a freak accident, she becomes a Grim Reaper and her adventures in the afterdeath are all compiled as Dead Like Me - The Complete Collection!

There are very few concept shows that truly grab me, series' where the premise is based upon a very simple gimmick. I will admit, however, there have been a few and when Dead Like Me made its debut on DVD initially, I was excited because the show was heartwarming, funny and often clever. Despite the repetitive nature of the plots, there was just enough with the gimmick - Grim Reapers working and "living" among us - to keep me interested and engaged. So when I became a fan of it on DVD, it amused me but I was largely unsurprised when it was canceled after its second season.

I was, however, disappointed. I waited two years for the series to get a proper sendoff with the brand new film Dead Like Me: Life After Death and while it was worth the wait, it was not all it could have been. Simultaneous with the release of Life After Death is a complete series boxed set that puts everything from the series together in one, neat, slightly slimmer package. And for those who have not yet gotten into Dead Like Me, this is a treat and THE way to collect the series.

This boxed set features the original pressings of:
Dead Like Me - Season 1
Dead Like Me - Season 2
Dead Like Me: Life After Death
While the packaging is different and saves some shelf space, there are no additional programming features in this set.

For those unfamiliar with Dead Like Me, it begins with the death of Georgia. When Georgia ("George" from here on out) is killed by a toilet seat from the space station, she finds herself not dead, but rather undead. As a member of the undead, her soul is conscripted to walk around taking the souls of the dead from their deceased bodies to the entry point to the Great Beyond. George's soul is not allowed to rest and she finds herself in the company of Rube and his team of Reapers, while still plagued with day to day concerns like keeping a day job and finding a place to live.

One of the premises of Dead Like Me is that each Reaper is conscripted to fill the post when another Reaper reaches their quota of souls they have to take. The thing is, none of the Reapers knows their quota. Rube has been around for hundreds of years, while Mason and Roxy have each been around for less than fifty. Betty, around since the twenties, helps to illustrate my point rather early in the series. Because there is no knowledge of how many souls each Reaper must take to move on into the afterlife, there is nothing that prevents any character from disappearing at any moment.

In the second season, George continues her undead work of being a Reaper while letting go of the attachments of her former life, namely her family. George learns to find her own path as her parent's divorce and her mother starts dating. Her boss - in the Reaper world - Rube, begins to deal with unfinished business of his own, an act that should be fraught with consequences . . .

. . . except the series ended.

The second season of Dead Like Me is a trip away from what many might expect of the show. The first season was very much George's story. The second season departs frequently from George and focuses instead on those around her: Rube, Joy, Mason, Roxy, and Reggie. And the truth of the matter is, the second season is pretty much enough. Unfortunately, Dead Like Me's ratings plummeted in the second season and Showtime did not pick it up for a third season.

Fortunately, the series did come back for a lone film, Life After Death, but it has some fundamental changes from the series. For Life After Death, the story picks up five years after George's death. She continues her work as a Grim Reaper taking the souls of the soon-to-be dead when her world is turned upside down. Der Waffle Haus has burned down and Rube, her boss since her death, has moved on to his next plane of existence. After a brief period to take this in, George and her fellow Reapers, Mason, Roxy and Daisy are whisked away to meet their new boss, Cameron. Cameron does not care about reaping as much as he wants to make money on the stock market and he outfits his reapers with handheld computers with their assignments and sends them out into the world.

But soon, chaos descends when George's reap is both a soul not close enough to death to take and the secret boyfriend of her younger sister, Reggie. As Mason takes to robbing, Daisy has a disastrous theatrical debut and even Roxy explores the apparent lack of consequences by saving the life of the man she was supposed to reap, George keeps it together by trying to do her job. But when she encounters her sister and is forced to reveal who she is to her, the consequences quickly begin to mount. While George tries to prepare Reggie for the death of her boyfriend while juggling her Happy Time boss Delores wrestles with the impending death of her beloved cat Murray, Roxy and the others stage a coup on Cameron to set some order back to those working in the afterdeath.

Unfortunately, Dead Like Me suffered because the particular Reapers on Dead Like Me are involved with taking the souls of those who die in mysterious accidents (toilet seats falling from space, pianos falling from cranes, slipping on banana peels and hitting their head), the possibilities for story telling become somewhat limited. After all, there are only so many times one can sit down to watch people die in crazy ways.

Thus, the show is forced to rely on the character struggles of George to progress and it seems like many of them, like learning the mechanics of being undead and realizing how precious her wasted life was, are learned in the first season. The strength of the show is that the characters are decent and likable. The primary characters in Dead Like Me are:

George - A slacker who dies abruptly and finds herself a Reaper. The show revolves around her as she learns to let go of the life she once had and move on into becoming a motivated worker as a Reaper. At the same time, she takes on an alternate persona; Millie, who works in an office job at Happy Time Temp Services,

Rube - The lead Reaper. He has a love of food and has been removing souls for the longest time. He keeps the balance in the group and makes sure everyone follows the rules. Despite the problems she causes him, it is clear Rube has parental affections for George and he wants her to succeed and be happy,

Betty - An egocentric, somewhat eccentric reaper who helps George get settled before she makes a profound leap into the unknown,

Roxy - A no-nonsense reaper who works as a metermaid and treats George with a lot of adult respect,

Mason - The good-looking, dope using reaper who is often clueless and befriends George while trying to score with anyone he can,

Daisy - Betty's annoying replacement who is egocentric and barely empathetic. In fact, her most profound moment is one that Mason has on her behalf. She muscles in on George's space and annoys the viewers,

Clancy and Reggie - George's father and sister, they are hit hard by George's death and work hard to move on afterward despite one being unfaithful to his wife and the other staging a string of pranks and becoming obsessed with death,

Joy Lass - (yes, the name is a pun) George's unlikable, overbearing mother who slowly begins to reveal her very human heart as she struggles to keep the family together after George's death,

and Delores Herbig - "Millie's" boss at Happy Time, Delores is, in short, a character. Enough said on her.

The characters are interesting and fun to watch, but given how much is explored with the older Reapers, there seems little territory after the first season unexplored. If George is the centerpiece of the show (and she is), there is little left for her to do but grow to the point where she may experience the same conflicts and emotions as her Reaper predecessors, which may fit the character, but will be dull for us viewers as we've already seen such development in the other Reapers.

What makes Dead Like Me worth watching outside of its humor and heart wrenching truths is the acting. This is a pretty stellar cast. It's wonderful to see Jasmine Guy playing such an intriguing character as Roxy and Christine Willes is brilliant as Delores. Cynthia Stevens - if the commentary track she participates in is any indication - is a great actress as her character is so unlikable and unloving whereas the actress is very vibrant and interesting.

Mandy Patinkin is great as Rube. He makes Rube a real rock of character for George and the audience to rely on. His gestures and mannerisms make him more than a strange boss, but also a very parental character. Patinkin also takes on his character's roles as cook, parent and boss with good humor and brilliant physical acting when needed. Patinkin sells the audience on the credibility of all of the mechanics of the afterdeath.

Jasmine Guy is fabulous in each and every one of her scenes. She plays Roxy with strength, dignity and an intriguing quality of aloofness that draws the viewer to her. As well, Cynthia Stevens steals the show in the second season of Dead Like Me. Stevens evolves the unlikable character of Joy well beyond the writing. She has an expert control of her face and voice, softening almost imperceptibly as her character is challenged or damaged. And when she does smile, Stevens provides an inner glow that truly transforms her character. She's the consummate professional.

Ellen Muth, however, is the breakout star of this show. Playing George, the talented Muth provides realism in her character's initial sarcasm and disinterest and humanity as George wakes up to all she missed out on in life. Muth does great physical work in the course of the first season transforming George from a slouching, bored teen into a well-postured young adult who has bright eyes and a clear voice. Muth does an excellent job playing off each of the actors and actresses and makes Dead Like Me fun to watch.

On DVD, Dead Like Me The Complete Collection has all of the original bonus features (and no new ones). There are a few interesting commentary tracks and one or two featurettes on the making of the series and film, but nothing earthshattering. Still, they are fun and add some value.

And sometimes, "fun" is enough and Dead Like Me is worth adding to anyone's collection and this is the best way to do it!

For other complete series', please check out my reviews of:
The X-Files - The Complete Collection
Six Feet Under - The Complete Series
Wonderfalls - The Complete Series


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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