The direct-to-DVD movie based on Showtime’s cancelled comedy series Dead Like Me finally arrived in my mailbox after a Netflix snafu and now I’m wondering if it was worth the wait to see the show live on.
I watch a lot of TV. I tend to categorize my shows into groups: Watch Live (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, House), Download (Terminator, Dollhouse, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations) and, lastly, Netflix. There’s also a Guilty Pleasure category which involves certain reality shows that Joel McHale can’t fully skewer on my weekly dose of The Soup. All this is another way of saying there are shows I watch because I find them thought-provoking, well-told narratives and others I watch mostly as light entertainment when I’m in the mood.
Dead Like Me fell into the latter category and onto my Netflix queue as well. The series opens with eighteen-year-old Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth,) a hyper-cynical college drop-out, getting struck down by a toilet seat that has fallen to Earth from the International Space Station. Now she’s a Reaper who must guide recently deceased souls into their afterlife until, at some unspecified time, George, too, will finally get to go into the light for all eternity. She’s got a boss, Rube, played by the series’ best asset, Mandy Patinkin, who gives her the time and location of her next reap on yellow Post-its. George also has co-workers: tough cop Roxy (Jasmine Guy,) cute-but-dumb Brit Mason (Callum Blue) and the beautiful Daisy who allegedly died in a fire on the set of Gone with the Wind.
I found George’s sarcasm really off-putting and annoying at first and if I wanted to ruminate on mortality, the far superior Six Feet Under was still on-air, anyway. I dropped Dead Like Me after two episodes. Then, one quiet weekend, I decided to marathon the entire season and that’s when I fell in love with the paternal kindness and existential angst of Rube espousing ancient Sumatran mythology to his crew over late-night diner food. Food he is very particular about. (F-bombs aplenty on this show. Be warned.) And the humor and poignancy in certain deaths, the occasional cool guest star, and Mason being such a mess. And by the time the series was reaped at the end of season two, I was sad to see the lights go out on Der Waffle Haus.
Life After Death opens with George looking over the charred remains of the diner. That’s a damn fine metaphor for the feature because, five years later, everything I enjoyed about this show is gone. Including Mandy Patinkin, who wisely decided not to return. Thus we learn Rube has “gotten his lights” offscreen and the gang of reapers has a new boss. The new guy is slick businessmen Cameron Kane, played by Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick. I love Desmond, so I figured if anything, at least they have a good actor in the mix. And Cusick does a decent job, I guess. But his character is so one-note and the script so predictable, I felt bad for him.
On the other hand, Laura Harris, who played Daisy, also decided not to return and now they have a new actress in the role. A bad actress. A really bad actress. All of the vulnerability beneath Daisy’s flirtatious, con-woman exterior is absent from Sarah Wynter’s performance. As Cameron seduces each of the reapers into breaking universal rules for the afterlife, Daisy’s selfish quest for fame culminates in a scene so cringe worthy, I had to look away. (It involves a performance of Macbeth.) And Daisy isn’t the only character that isn’t quite herself: Callum Blue amps up the petulance so much that Mason comes off more like a caricature of a wanker than a lovable clown. Roxy, however, has a decent storyline, just not a lot of screen time.
The one bright spot of the movie is George’s interaction with her surviving kid sister Reggie (Britt McKillip.) The former Wednesday Adams-like weirdo is still a social outcast in high school, but she’s also maturing in a beautiful young woman. When George comes to reap the soul of the football star Reggie’s in love with, the two sisters reach towards some of the closure they were denied when George met her untimely demise. The movie is a nice little coda to George’s relationship with her living family, but that’s about it.
Maybe fans should just accept that when a TV show gets cancelled, simply returning in any form isn’t good enough. I’d rather be left to imagine what happened to the characters after a series finale than get a quick cash-grab that ultimately doesn’t even give much of a conclusion anyway. It doesn’t ruin the memory of a good series, but it does leave a bad taste in my mouth. I’d hate to see Deadwood get such a shoddy treatment, and Al Swearengen was one of my all-time TV favorites. What’s kind of funny is that Life After Death opens up with a bunch of comic book panels, and a few great TV shows currently live beyond television in decent comics. Buffy and Angel, especially. Farscape and Firefly, slightly less so. But bad writing is even more apparent in comic-form, so that wouldn’t have elevated Life After Death, either. After a number of years away from the series finale, casting problems, and a weak script, Dead Like Me… well, insert your own death-related pun here. The series is better off dead, should go gently into that good night, directors shouldn’t play with dead things, etc., ad infinitum, until Dead Like Me really gets its lights.