Dead Like Me – Season One – a review

The best literature is more than a good story … it addresses themes that are universal to all of us, in ways that resonate with our common experiences. It usually presents us with a compelling story that captivates our interest and speaks to larger issues at the same time, and it almost always features characters that we can both identify with and look to for example. Over the millenia, the form of literature has certainly changed … the great epic poems of Babylon and Greece, recited by story-tellers from memory gave way to the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times, which again gave way to the printed novels and stories of the Gutenberg age. As we advance in time, the way we structure literature changes with us, and literature changes to accommodate the new forms. Great literature in its specific form is usually a combination both of a great story, and a great use of media … look at Shakespeare, famous not only for amazing, riveting stories with deep meaning, but also for using the poetic and dramatic forms in ways never seen before or since.

In the 20th century, through the media of television and film, new forms of literature have emerged. Like novels, novellas, and short stories, periodical publications and books, through movies, movie series, mini-series, and full TV series we are able to explore literature in a visual way, using both visual and verbal language to tell stories. These new kinds of media demand different methods and forms of story-telling, but in the end, the compelling stories will still always stand out, and most of those compelling stories will also be examples of innovative use of the media itself. (**WARNING** Some spoilers are ahead). Dead Like Me is an example of great literature expressed through the media of the TV series, at least as far the first season is concerned.

Full of little stories, the main story of Dead Like Me follows the death of an 18 year old young lady, Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth), killed well within the first half of the series premiere in a freak accident by the falling toilet seat of an off-target Mir space station as it crashed to earth. George is recruited into the ranks of a section of Grim Reapers, under the leadership of Rube (Mandy Patankin), and as the series evolves, we learn that Death is very much like life inside a large corporation, where middle management and below often toil on specific tasks with little idea of the larger picture of the corporation as a whole. In one defining line near the end of the series, reapers Daisy Adair (Laura Harris) and George finally decide that life is the vacation from the temp assignments of death.

Each of the episodes is a self-contained story in and of itself … I never felt unsatisfied stopping at the end of an episode, though I was always fascinated to look for more. At the same time, however, each episode also contributes to the larger stories, whether its George’s day job at Happy Time Industries (reapers have human persona’s and need day jobs to pay the bills like the rest of us …), the story of her family left behind, or the main story of Death Inc, there are larger arcs over the whole season. Like any great novel, there is more than one story being told here, though it all ties in to tell one compelling, huge story.

One of the most fascinating aspects of film and television as literature (like other forms, such as legitimate theater, etc) is that its a collaborative effort. With a great novel, like Great Expectations for example, it is the work, essentially, if one single mind. Surely, it took help to publish, readers to read your work, perhaps editors and typists as well, for Dickens to give us Great Expectations, but the essential creative aspect of it is all Dickens. With a novel, while it takes help to present the vision to the world, the vision itself is largely the work of one person.

In film and TV, or any sort of performing art, literature requires the cooperation of dozens of people. Beyond the technical aspects (which in film and TV are certainly NOT trivial to producing good art), great TV or film is a combination of great writing, great acting, and great production … to get a ‘Great Expectations’ from TV or film, you need more than just an amazing act of creativity from one person, you need a great act of creativity from dozens of people. The ensemble cast is one of the things that makes Dead Like Me such a treat. Ellen Muth does an excellent job of portraying thoughtful detachment, and the metaphysical confusion of her situation, but its really those around her that make the series jump off the screen. Mandy Patinkin’s dry, sarcastic delivery as Rube is tinged with a depth and mystery that only someone in middle management of Death Inc could have, and as an actor, he conveys more emotion with a wry smile than many actors ever manage. His love/hate father-figure relationship with George is one of the highlights of the show, and their interaction always sparkles.

One of the most under-rated performances here could be from Jasmine Guy as Roxy. Ever since her portrayal of Whitley on A Different World, I’ve felt she was under-rated as a TV actress, and in Dead Like Me, she definitely shows why. On the surface, Roxy is rough and abrasive … one of the first real scenes we see with her involves her running down another reaper (Mason, played admirably by Callum Blue) with her meter-maid car … but behind this hard surface is a woman of contradiction and pain that Guy captures beautifully. Honourable mention should also go to Rebecca Gayheart for her portrayal of reaper Betty Rohmer for the first 5 episodes, a reaper who was very well adjusted to her task. She escapes the after-life in episode 5 by breaking the rules (George becomes a reaper because her soul was the “quota” for her reaper) and hitching a ride with one of George’s reaps. Gayheart’s lighthearted portrayal of Betty gave a bright light in the darkness of the afterlife.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen television drama that even comes close to Dead Like Me. Its a show that begins with an intriguing premise that could easily turn trite, preachy, or superficial in the wrong hands, but instead it delivers on all the promise of its premise and adds some unexpected artistic flourish in the process. I know that in my part of the world, the DVD’s for the series are very reasonably priced … I got season one at HMV in Alberta for $29.99, and I’m on my way out today to get season two. If you enjoy innovative storytelling about compelling characters around an original idea, Dead Like Me is TV that is well worth your time.

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One Response

  1. I loved this show. I would have loved to see the stories in their fullest as well.

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