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Time of the Season: S1 of Dead Like Me (’03)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 8, 2007

“Life sucks, and then you die. And then it still sucks.”

A regular on critics’ “Brilliant But Cancelled” list, Showtime’s black comedy series Dead Like Me (teenage girl dies, finds out she has to continue to wander the earth, reaping a countless number of souls as an undead, before she can pass over to the official afterlife) also had the huge advantage of both seasons being in my brother’s girlfriend’s DVD collection, meaning I could theoretically watch the whole without spending the roughly $16/season rental prices at my local video store. Score. Anyway, it’s going to be an inevitable point of comparison when the CW’s cult-hit-to-be Reaper debuts, so I figured I’d give it a whirl before my next project, the similarly death-focused but uh, slightly heavier Six Feet Under. Here’s what the box score looked like:

The Good:

  • Ellen Muth as protagonist Georgia “George” Lass. Not too pretty (for TV, anyway), or even particularly likeable, George is the perfect everydeadperson–cynical, immature and lazy–making the show’s ridiculous central premise surprisingly buyable. She’s relatable without being too cute about it, and whiny without every being too irritating. She looks even younger and less experienced than her young, inexperienced character. And of course, Muth’s gone on to do absolutely nothing since.
  • Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy as Rube and Roxy, the two no-shit-taking elder-statesmen of George’s reaper group. Rube, both a boss and a father figure to Georgia, functions alternately as both the show’s brain and heart, and Patinkin plays him as a scowling, callous schmuck whose good intentions still manage to always shine through. And Jasmine Guy is just awesome as the show’s necessary ass-kicker, a perpetually pissed off meter maid whose “oooh look at how perpetually pissed off I am!” schtick somehow never becomes grating.
  • The show’s general set-up of Grim Reaping as just another boring, annoying, and endlessly repetitive day job (and even worse, a non-paying one, meaning the characters either need to get a supplementary boring, annoying day job or to skim from the corpses of those reaped). I’ve never seen a show so unimpressed with death, much less one in which death is the show’s central premise. Original stuff.
  • Cursing. You don’t realize how much you miss it in broadcast TV until you watch a show like this–one that doesn’t make a point of foul-mouthedry, but can insert swears where they’d actually be in real-life dialogue. Sort of important, y’know?

The Bad:

  • Exchanging Rebecca Gayheart for the evil sister from S2 of 24 (real name: Laura Harris) halfway through the season. Dunno if it was due to conflicting schedules, backstage disputes or what, but Gayheart’s sweet, super-enthused Betty was one of the show’s most compelling characters before she decided to hitch a ride into the afterlife with one of her reaped, her void getting filled the next episode by Harris’s similarly perky but far more irritating Daisy. Such obvious character swaps are always distracting and usually unwelcome, but to do it before the first season even ended was just bad form.
  • The Scrubs-style moralist summarizing at the end. Maybe it’s inevitable in shows like this, but c’mon, is it so much to ask for one death-focused comedy that can just keep it light for a whole episode every now and then?
  • Having a clip show a mere 12 episodes into the series’ run. Everyone knows you need at the very least, two years of material to cull from for a decent clip show. One with less than even a full season’s worth of footage to work from is just fucking lazy.

The Questionable:

  • Callum Blue as Mason, the group’s loveable British ’60s holdover scamp. Don’t know whether he’s trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but he’s the only one in the group that I’m still undecided about.
  • All the post-death stuff with George’s family. There’s some seriously compelling stuff in there with miserable, frustrated mom Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), increasingly distant dad Clancy (Greg Kean) and confused, troubled daughter Reggie (Britt McKillip), but the show doesn’t seem like it quite knows where to find it yet. Consequently, most of their screentime feels purposeless and even slgithly irrelevant to the show at large.
  • Ex-ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s musical score. Pretty jazzy theme song, but the rest of the incidental music feels like it was composed for a different, more self-important show.
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5 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1 of Dead Like Me (’03)”

  1. Victor said

    God I hated this show. I remember watching most of the first season when our house briefly flirted with On Demand Showtime and waiting episode after episode for it to get better and constantly getting disappointment.

    I could write some sort of response blog of my own detailing what I didn’t like about the show but I’ll just give five major issues (just the tip of the iceberg).

    – The protagonist pissed me off. Aside from being not attactive enough for television she just wouldn’t get with the program, always whining about how reaping wasn’t for her.

    – Sassy meter maid…far too much sass. I couldn’t stand her insessant talk to the hand attitude.

    – The completely ass backwards way the reaper system operates. Atleast “Reaper” has powers and stuff. These guys are just vagrants running around trying to touch people.

    – What’s the point of a show on Showtime if you can’t throw in atleast one nude scene an episode?

    – What the fuck’s up with the Graveling shit?

  2. Andrew Unterberger said

    oh yeah, I totally meant to put the Gravelings in the Bad column. Cheesiest shit ever.

    and your hatred of strong, clothed women is going to continue to disqualify you from enjoying a large percentage of decent TV

    The reaper system is pretty cool, though I wonder if it’d get kind of awkward if they showed up for like, an argument that escalated into murder. What are they gonna do, just interrupt and be like “hey, don’t mind me, just let me touch your arm and then you guys can get back to your shit”?

  3. Danielle said

    Also in the good camp, for me, is Christine Willes as Dolores Herbig in all her scrapbook-y glory.

    I did read that Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond, brotha) will play a role in the upcoming Dead Like Me film. Could be interesting.

  4. Anton said

    I heard she had that pout surgically installed.

  5. Victor said

    It’d be even more awkward if someone suffered a heart attack during sex.

    Also how does a reaper take care of a huge mid air plane disaster or a huge war battle? Who’s reaching the guy dying in the middle of the desert somewhere? If I buried somebody alive in the woods to die would a reaper go through the trouble of locating them, digging them out only to take their soul?

    Such questions and lack of nudity abounds.

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