Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Flash Of Lightning May Just Be A Toilet Seat From Space . . . Dead Like Me Season 1!

The Good: Interesting characters, decent acting, intriguing premise, well-executed plots
The Bad: Severely limited potential, Character of Daisy
The Basics: Despite the limited nature of the series, the first season of Dead Like Me is funny, sad and ultimately entertaining over and over again.

There are a lot of shows that I think it would be fun to write for or act in. Dead Like Me is not one of them. Were I a member of the acting community, I would be terrified of taking a part on Dead Like Me. It's hard to imagine the appeal to wanting to be a regular on this show.

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.

The reason I would be wary of wanting to be on the show as a regular cast member is because the show is conceptually designed away from any character's longevity. 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 short, this is not a job one can take and be assured that it'll last if the writers or producers have a bad day.

The basic premise of the show is contrary to job stability. On the other hand, the show has a simple "out" when it wants to end the series; George can graduate onto the Great Beyond. The problem is, if season 1 of Dead Like Me is any indication, that time might not be too far off. I say this because in the limited series that is presented in the boxed set (it aired on one of the pay cable channel where the average season is fifteen episodes and it holds true to that ratio), there is a clip show. If one is running out of ideas in the first fifteen episodes, that does not bode well for the series.

Moreover, 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 characters in the first season of 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 Dolores Herbig - "Millie's" boss at Happy Time, Dolores 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 Dolores. 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.

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.

While Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) is dark and real, Dead Like Me is humorous and surreal playing with the conventions of death and reminding viewers of how precious life is. It's a lesson we can all stand to take a refresher course in and this is a very fun way to do it.

For other works with Cynthia Stevenson, please check out my reviews of:
I Love You, Beth Cooper
The L Word - Season 3


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

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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