Dead Like Me: Pilot (2003) TV Review

People say that when you’re about to die you can feel Death’s icy fingers on the back of your neck. According to the new Showtime comedy/drama “Dead Like Me”, it’s not actually Death himself touching you, it’s his army of low-level “grim reapers”. In “Dead Like Me”, when one dies one doesn’t automatically go to Heaven or Hell, but sometimes one gets forced into service as a grim reaper — one of many “undead” whose job it is to escort the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

“Dead Like Me” also informs us that accidents are caused by mischievous little Gollum-like creatures called gravelings. This includes everything from engineering train accidents to dropping a piano on a woman walking down the street. The local group of grim reapers is led by Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who is a sort of supervisor whose job is to dole out assignments. His charges consist of the slightly “off” Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), the carefree Mason (Callum Blue), and the surly Roxy (Jasmine Guy).

Into the mix “dies” Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth), an 18-year old slacker who has dropped out of college and is now living with her parents, much to her mother Joy’s consternation. After getting a dead-end job as a file clerk, George is unceremoniously killed when a toilet seat from the Mir space station falls back to Earth during her hour break (which, she’s informed, is actually only 35 minutes). Forced into service as a grim reaper, George realizes that if living was hard, being undead is even more difficult.

“Dead Like Me” was created by Bryan Fuller, and can be seen as a more hip, not to mention comically dark, version of the long-running “Touch by an Angel”. Whereas “Angel” spent its time being uplifting, “Dead” is all about attitude and cranky humor. The pilot, which runs at an odd 75 minutes, is narrated by lead Ellen Muth, who is perfect delivering a steady dose of wiseass, cleverness, and general glibness. Muth is not overly glamorous looking, even though she has an odd attractiveness about her. She makes the episode work with stellar acting and a terrific presence.

But like a lot of pilot episodes, “Dead Like Me” has some gaping holes that needs to be addressed. For instance, the undead grim reapers are forced to earn money while performing their duties on Earth. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. They can turn invisible at will, which allows them to interact with the living, but for some reason they have to co-opt the homes of the recently deceased until another living occupant takes over. Also, if the undead are, officially, dead, why do they still have to eat? The reapers, especially Rube, eat like crazy. I’m sure the eating and money angle must have seemed great in the “idea” session, but I don’t know if anyone bothered to mention how stupid they seem onscreen.

If the grim reapers are forced to get day jobs and steal money from the dead to “make their keep” in the land of the living, wouldn’t that — Well, look, I don’t really know what’s wrong with this picture, but it just seems really dumb and poorly conceived. The real-world implications of the undead stealing cash from and living in the homes of the recently deceased reeks of gaping plot holes galore. This needs to be explained; otherwise I’ll end up thinking about it every time I see this show.

Aside from my problems with the undead’s status in the land of the living, the pilot of “Dead Like Me” was a thrilling movie. At over 75 minutes long, it could have been a feature length film. And in truth, it’s a lot more entertaining and original than a lot of movies I’ve seen of late, which should say something about the state of movies nowadays. The best aspects of “Dead” are of course its black humor, its witty dialogue and creative situations. The final 15 minutes, when George is sent to perform her first soul-taking, is the darkest moment of the movie, as her first “victim” turns out to be a young girl.

“Dead Like Me” has a lot of potential and Ellen Muth is outstanding in the lead. The presence of the veteran Patinkin can only help matters, not to mention bringing a certain amount of class to the show. Of the co-stars, Callum Blue’s Mason is obviously going to be George’s love interest, while Rebecca Gayheart’s Betty has the potential to get on the nerves. The pilot episode doesn’t say much about Jasmine Guy’s Roxy, who works part-time as a meter maid, so I have no opinions about her character.

If the writing remains this consistent, and Fuller and company manages to iron out some of the movie’s more boneheaded ideas, or at least explain them to within some realm of satisfaction, then “Dead Like Me” will most likely last for a while. And the fact that it’s on Showtime means it can curse like a bastard and no one will bat an eye. I guess that’s a good thing.

CAST: Cascy Beddow …. Jason
Ellen Muth …. Georgia ‘George’ Lass
Mandy Patinkin …. Rube
Rebecca Gayheart …. Betty
Callum Blue …. Mason
Jasmine Guy …. Roxy
Cynthia Stevenson …. Joy Lass

Buy Dead Like Me on DVD