Few television series have captured my interest. Most seem like they come straight out of an assembly line. There is the type of series that wants each episode to be independent from the next. There are two advantages to this formula. First, the viewer can skip a show and not feel lost. They are also great for airing reruns.
Dead Like Me, however, belongs to a generation of more audacious series. Its characters evolve and mysteries are revealed. The revelations that are spread throughout the series are reference points in subsequent episodes. Thankfully, Dead Like Me (first season) isn’t any longer than a long film segmented into 14 parts. Each chapter has its introduction and conclusion and the latter never seems rushed. Dead Like Me was broadcast on the American Showtime network in 2003. A second season was then produced, proof that the audience’s reaction was favorable.
One of the gems to be found in Dead Like Me is the reaper’s alter egos. They must keep secret their return to earth. Some pretty macabre reasons ensure they cannot be recognized by those they frequented before their death. Also, in order to avoid suspicion, because they are constantly on death scenes and because they usually leave while nonchalantly talking with a spirit (invisible to humans), they seem to use a mystic power of persuasion on potential witnesses. This aspect is never elaborated but the fact that we only vaguely talk about it makes the power even more mysterious. The aspect that is most susceptible to cause you to love or hate this series is precisely its gray areas. From time to time, they give the viewer a clue. At some other time, the viewer is offered a revelation. Some will find that the suggested "mechanism" about the afterlife is full of flaws. Personally, I offer the benefit of the doubt to everything that partially makes sense in this series, because it has a tendency to eventually return to a mystery and surprise you with some enlightening information.
The six reapers share an extraordinary chemistry. First of all, there is Georgia. The story revolves around her and she serves the dual purpose of narrator. Throughout the first season, her easygoingness and arrogance slowly give way to a more philosophical behavior. Ellen Muth incarnates Georgia perfectly. Excited, depressed, bored: she is always cute as can be. As is the case with most of the supporting actors, she blows up her character to the point of making it a walking caricature.
Then there is Mason, a rebel that refuses to work for a living. He steals, does drugs, flirts as if he hadn’t aged since his twenties (reapers, we must assume, are prisoners of a body that has no age but what remains of them continues to gain knowledge). Despite his vices, he is probably the most sympathetic character in the gang. He is interpreted by Callum Blue, a charming Brit totally absorbed by his role.
Betty, for her part, manipulates the living but is friendly with other reapers. Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend) plays the role. Her participation in the show is short and her departure is precipitated. She leaves when we start getting interested in her. Rebecca had sadly only signed for a few episodes and she will be sorely missed.
Jasmine Guy plays Roxy. She gives us the impression that her life was miserable. She emanates regret and nostalgia but behind her aggressiveness hides a nice femininity. Her character is left in the darkness but I suspect that the second season will teach us a bit more about her.
I had trouble accepting Daisy’s arrival as much as Betty’s departure. Thankfully, Daisy brings a lot to the story. She takes advantage of the situation by manipulation and the "top management" refused to let her break the rules of the afterlife. Laura Harris (The Faculty) personifies her and does an excellent job. Her interaction with Rube, Mason and Georgia is very particular.
Last but not the least: Rube. He distributes the tasks among the reapers. He knows a lot more than the others but has become a master in avoiding questions. Mandy Patinkin plays this father figure and Georgia’s boss. The role fits him so well that we have trouble believing that acting is his job.
During each episode, we follow events in Georgia’s family after her death. The first season is spread out on a period of one year, year during which her mother Joy, her father Clancy and her sister Reggie are in grief. The couple slowly drifts apart while Reggie, who is eleven years old, is traumatized. I don’t enjoy this mandatory part of the show as much as the rest of the storyline. It is depressing and seems to go nowhere. Cynthia Stevenson, in the role of the mother, can simulate no emotions. After trying to understand the character during four or five episodes, I gave up and wanted to leave her behind. She is very hard to sympathize with. The father (Greg Kean) is barely more interesting. I never feel the pain that these two claim to feel. One thing seems obvious however: their relation is traveling through a downward spiral but nothing concrete happens. It’s depressing for a comedy, even though it is black humor.
Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes) was a revelation for me. Her character is most probably the most animated one. She is overexcited and if she doesn’t fall in love with you, she’ll hate you. You can be sure she will surprise you!
We can witness one, two, maybe even three deaths per episode. Even though guessing how they will be orchestrated is so amusing, you will sometimes forget to count them because Dead Like Me has many tricks up its sleeves such as situation reversals and broken rules which leave little time for bloody accidents. As a matter of fact, the violence here is minimal. It is often suggested, very light or brilliantly filmed to turn the incident into a joke.
The gravelings, those 3D animated creatures, bring a magical touch to the story. They are fast, climb on walls and are those who cause death by frequently moving objects in a strategic fashion. If you are familiar with Final Destination, you’ll understand that they are the equivalent of the entity that commits the murders. The graveling’s presence is another little bonus that Dead Like Me has in store for its viewers.
What is there to say about the visual style and feelings that the series emanates? Everything is perfect. Quick sequences, slow one, atmospheric flashbacks. It will sometimes break your heart, sometimes you’ll catch yourself pondering philosophy.
The twelfth episode (Nighthawks) disappointed me greatly. Yes, we learn more about the reaper’s responsibilities but the episode is mostly built upon sequences extracted from previous episodes. It is a kind of recap for those who may have missed some episodes. The problem is that the devoted fan will be frustrated at losing all this antenna time.
As opposed to Nighthawks, Rest in Peace, the fourteenth and last episode answers a question I had asked myself early in the series that I never thought I would see answered.
I was more than fulfilled. Many aspects are settled in this finale that ends with a positive and touching note.
Dead Like Me is unique for a number of reasons. No need to be a fan of black humor to admire this series. In fact, it makes death so commonplace that we fear it less. Death is still and shall always be taboo and, in my humble opinion, Dead Like Me will have diminished my apprehension concerning death because of all fears, this one haunts me the most…