Dead Like Me


Rating 5

Created by Bryan Fuller

Written by Bridget Carpenter (5 episodes), Dan Fesman (3 episodes), Bryan Fuller (2 episodes), Karl Gajdusek (4 episodes), Stephen Godchaux (14 episodes), Paul Lieberstein (1 episodes), Mona Mansour (1 episodes), John Masius (7 episodes), Anna C Miller (1 episodes), Pete Ocko (3 episodes), J J Philbin (2 episodes), Tom Spezialy (1 episode), Ian Thomas (1 episode), Harry Victor (3 episodes), Annie Weismen (4 episodes)

Directed by Sarah Pia Anderson (2 episodes), Steve Beers (2 episodes), Milan Cheyluv (1 episode), Kevin Dowling (2 episodes), Michael Fresco (1 episode), David Grossman (4 episodes), Peter Lauer (4 episodes), James Marshall (1 episode), Robert Duncan McNeill (2 episode), Helen Shaver (1 episode), David Straiton (1 episode), Brad Turner (1 episode), Tony Westman (1 episode), James Whitmore Jr (4 episodes), Scott Winant (1 episode), Jeff Woolnough (1 episode)

Starring Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Cynthia Stevenson, Jasmine Guy, Callum Blue, Rebecca Gayheart, Laura Harris, Britt McKillip, Christine Willes, Greg Kean and Crystal Dahl

Georgia ‘George’ Lass (Ellen Muth) is a disaffected and cynical 18-year-old who stays on the sidelines, refusing to participate so as to avoid disappointment. When she drops out of college she is forced to look for a job by her mother Joy (brilliantly played by Cynthia Stevenson) and ends up at Happy Time, a temporary employment agency, where she is given a menial office task by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes). However, when George is killed in a freak accident involving a toilet seat on her first day she becomes a grim reaper, part of a group of five reapers led by Rube Sofer (Mandy Patinkin) responsible for reaping the souls of people killed in accidents and at the hands of others.


‘Dead Like Me’ was broadcast in the US for two seasons and a total of 29 episodes on the Showtime subscription television channel between 27 June 2003 and 31 October 2004. It was created by Bryan Fuller, who had previously been a writer on ‘Star Trek Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Star Trek Voyager’. He went on to create the short-lived ‘Wonderfalls’ (in collaboration with Todd Holland) and ‘Pushing Daisies’, as well as working as a consulting producer and writer during the first season of ‘Heroes’. Fuller wrote the first two episodes of ‘Dead Like Me’, but left after five episodes due to conflicts with MGM Television, the company that produced the show. He described the period as “the worst experience of my life,” although he continued to receive a credit as a consultant. The creative direction was subsequently dictated by John Masius (the show’s executive producer) and Stephen Godchaux, its most prolific writer.

The show is brilliantly executed, from the memorable opening credits onwards. It takes the simple premise of life explored through death (George does not really begin to live until she is dead) and produces a near-perfect mix of black comedy and poignant drama, set against a supernatural theme. It follows George’s journey as she slowly begins to understand what life really means; both through her reminiscences about her parents and younger sister and through her relationship with the people she meets in death, including the two people who become almost surrogate parents to her, Rube and Dolores. Even in death, George is required to deal with the mundane matters of life and in the guise of “Millie” she once again ends up working at Happy Time.

The standard of writing throughout is extremely high and the cast is superb, bringing life to several memorable characters. Rebecca Gayheart was cast as one of the original reapers, the 1920s flapper Betty Rohmer. However, Betty was written out the show after five episodes and Gayheart was replaced by the actress Laura Harris, playing Daisy Adair, a would-be Hollywood starlet who claims to have died in a fire on the set of ‘Gone With The Wind’ in 1938. I don’t know the reason why Gayheart left the show, although I guess it could have been connected to the departure of Bryan Fuller. She did have, at that time, seemingly, a rather chaotic life and in 2002 had been dropped from the main cast of the television series ‘Firefly’ after just one day of filming. She was replaced on that occasion by Morena Baccarin. Fans of that show would not agree with me, but I think it would have benefited greatly from the presence of Gayheart, who would surely have given us something more spirited than Baccarin’s depressingly bland performance.

I like Rebecca Gayheart a lot and also like the character Betty, so her early departure was initially disappointing. However, Daisy Adair proved to be one of the show’s great characters. I was previously aware of Laura Harris from the Robert Rodriguez film ‘The Faculty’ and from an episode of ‘The X Files’. Her performance here is outstanding, as we slowly learn more about the very sad and poignant nature of her character, which she carefully hides beneath a brazen and self-absorbed exterior.

This is just one of several really outstanding performances. The character I found perhaps most interesting is Joy Lass, George’s mother, played by Cynthia Stevenson, who once again is not what she seems on the surface. Dolores Herbig is also worthy of mention; George’s seemingly annoying manager at work who proves to be very kind-hearted and acts as a mentor/mother figure to her. Dolores is played by Christine Willes, who has subsequently featured in a recurring role in the television series ‘Reaper’. The actor and singer Mandy Patinkin is always very watchable and Rube Sofer is another particularly noteworthy character, his relationship with George and the other reapers being one of the many joys to had watching the series.

The show’s most overtly comic character is the constantly hapless Mason (Callum Blue), a 1960s alcohol and drug addicted drop-out who killed himself drilling a hole in his skull in search of the ultimate high.

There is a notable shift in emphasis between the first and second seasons. Season one is more comedy-attuned and irreverent, whereas season two begins to delve more deeply into the lives of the various characters, for example exploring the relationship between Joy Lass and her daughter Reggie (Britt McKillip), George’s younger sister. As a result, I think, having watched the series in its entirety three times, it’s a more interesting season, as much as I like the first one. It contains several memorable and heartrending moments, such as the scene in the episode ‘Rites of Passage’ when George’s free-spirited grandmother Phyllis (beautifully played by Barbara Barrie) holds a small framed photograph of her grand-daughter up to her chest, tears in her eyes, or in ‘Always’ when Rube sings a lullaby to his daughter Rosie, now a elderly woman, in the final moments of her life. There are also scenes that leave a powerful impression, such as one in the episode ‘Be Still My Heart’ that sees Daisy crouching down, terrified, in a hotel room closet while the young woman whose soul she has come to reap is brutally strangled by her married lover.

The second season is also notable for an appearance in three episodes by Eric McCormack, playing a distinctly unpleasant character quite unlike his signature role in the long-running sitcom ‘Will and Grace’. I should not, of course, forget to mention Ellen Muth, who is perfectly cast in the lead role as George Lass, although I can never quite get over how scarily skinny she is. Muth, who apparently has an unusually high IQ and is a member of both Mensa and Intertel, made her acting debut in the 1995 film ‘Dolores Claiborne’ when she was 14-years-old, receiving many positive reviews for her performance.

My only criticisms of the series are two very minor quibbles. In ‘Reaping Havoc’, the fifth episode of the first season, an Irishman who dies goes into the light when he sees the white cliffs of Dover, which are to be found on the south coast of England and would have no emotional pull whatsoever for someone from Ireland. The storyline required cliffs, but this is cringe-worthy. In ‘A Cook’, the eighth episode of season one, Mandy Patinkin adopts a Scottish accent that is so awful it is embarrassing, worse even than the typically dreadful Irish accents that so many American actors seem to feel the need to adopt at least once in their acting careers.

Accurate data about viewing figures for the show are not available. It has been claimed that it was watched by an audience three times the Showtime primetime average; although there is no evidence I know of to back this up. Whatever the truth, Showtime decided not to commission a third season. However, a direct-to-DVD film version was released in the US in February 2009. It was written by John Masius and Stephen Godchaux and reunited several of the cast from the television series, although Mandy Patinkin, Laura Harris and Greg Kean, who played George’s father, Clancy, are absent. The film was directed by Stephen Herek, whose previous films include ‘Critters’, ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and the live-action version of ‘101 Dalmatians’.

Review posted 21 March 2009


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