Saturday, November 19, 2011

Behind the Curve: Dead Like Me

Back in June, I ended my post on Pushing Daisies by saying that I might check out creator Bryan Fuller’s other shows, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me. After finding that both seasons of Dead Like Me are available on Hulu, I’ve been slowly working through the entire show and finally finished this week. 

For those of you who haven’t seen the show before, the basic story is that 18-year-old Georgia Lass (aka “George”) is killed by a flaming toilet falling from an abandoned space station. But while life is over for George, she isn’t exactly dead yet. She’s un-dead and, whether she likes it or not, part of the ranks of grim reapers. These aren’t your stereotypically reapers though – they don’t carry scythes or dress in dark robes. They look like anybody else and their job isn’t to decide who lives or dies but only to reap the souls of those who are about to die to make sure they go on to find “their lights” instead of being trapped in their dead bodies. (And if you haven’t seen the show before, note that there are some spoilers scattered below.)

Dead Like Me is not Pushing Daisies, and I couldn’t like it anywhere near as much as I love Pushing Daisies. However, I can see that the show is playing with some of the same themes, such as death and the afterlife, bizarre ways to have people die, a character trying to connect with family once no longer a part of them (George and Chuck), viewing a family trying to cope with grief in their own disparate ways (Chuck’s Aunts Lily and Vivian; George’s parents and sister Reggie), and a character wanting to really live after dying and seeing how sheltered their life was (again, George and Chuck … there’s a good quote illustrating this in the “Rites of Passage” episode about all the “firsts” George never had: “It’s always the same, whether it’s asking someone out, jumping in the water, or losing your virginity, they always say the same thing -- just do it. … My very important problem was, I’d never done any of those very important things.”).There’s also the small similarity of having female characters with traditionally male nicknames (once again, Chuck and George). 

In trying to figure out how I want to say everything I have to say about this show, I decided to start with a pro/con list. Without further ado, here are those lists.


- George’s boss Dolores Herbig (“as in her big brown eyes”) is so ridiculous....and hilarious. Any scene she’s in she’s sure to steal.
- I had been hesitant about Mandy Patinkin because I didn’t really care for his character on Criminal Minds much, but I liked him here as Rube. (Even if the character is kind of a jerk, he does a good job with the role). Also, for the Criminal Minds fan, look out for a guest appearance from AJ Cook (JJ on Criminal Minds).
- There’s often some good shots cinematically speaking.
- I like that we see what George’s family is up to after her death and I do like the interplay between George’s mother joy and George’s little sister Reggie. (Although I did find it odd that after a while, we would still know what was going on with George’s family when she did not seem to be keeping tabs on them anymore. How could she go from caring so much about how they were all doing to not being concerned and trying to find out more about the sale of her family home, her parents’ divorce, and how Reggie was coping with the divorce?)
- It’s also nice to see the flashback scenes with little George, baby Reggie, and their parents.


- It feels like the show is trying to be a lot of things at once - dark humor, teenage angst, family drama, corporate cog-in-the-wheel doldrums (ala Office Space and many others), and contemplations on death and the afterlife - and I’m not sure it’s succeeding with every one at all times. True, the same could be said for Pushing Daisies, but I guess I enjoyed the murder, romance, and dark humor combo more, and that show seemed to pull it off better so that the transition from one genre to the other was seamless.
- I think a major problem for me is I just don’t like the character of George all that much. She’s too bitchy and self-absorbed for me to care a whole lot about her and her problems. Also, it seems like every episode she has some sort of revelation … only to end up the same person again the next episode with no growth in character.
- And speaking of, the reapers (besides George) have been around a while (1930s, 1960s, etc.) so why haven’t they matured yet? Especially Mason who spends 40 years boozing and taking drugs before finally cleaning it up a bit in the second season … only to go right back to the drink. Okay, I get for comic effects it helps for him to be a lush who has trouble getting anything done right, but it’s also frustrating to see a character who never grows up.
- Really, who thought it was a good idea to get rid of Betty and replace her with Daisy? I’m not sure whether I dislike Daisy more when she’s keeps talking about how many famous Golden Age Hollywood actors she gave sexual favors to or when she’s struggling with finding religion (a crises of faith brought about, mind you, from stealing a pretty cross off of a dead woman, who she notes was mean anyway and didn’t need it anymore). In the second season, she was finally starting to grow on me somewhat, part of which was the appeal of the growing relationship between Mason and Daisy, as the two actually show some decency in the way they watch out and stick up for each other occasionally.
- Would be nice to have a little more of the back stories on the other reapers. We got a little bit on Betty, Mason (although not how he ended up state side), Daisy, and Roxy, but not so much Rube (still a mystery how he died).
- The obscenity! Sometimes it adds humor and/or characterizations but sometimes it’s just more than enough. Really, do Showtime, HBO, etc. feel that the thing they bring to the table over the networks is swear words? Hint: there’s other ways to be edgy....
- I just have a hard time suspending belief for some of the things that happen in this show. And, yes, I understand that it’s a show about grim reapers, so it’s not exactly realistic, but it does aim for a small amount of realism and I would like to see questions of the reapers’ everyday existence better answered in that case. (See unanswered questions below for more on this.)
- There’s so many unanswered questions.

That last point brings me to my unanswered questions (some of which are wrapped up with my cons), of which there are many.

Unanswered questions:

- It feels like Fuller’s a little sketchy on the rules of reaping sometimes. For instance, in one episode, if someone “misses an appointment” with death, it’s no big deal, just a clerical error that happens sometimes but it’s rare; a previous episode it’s a huge deal that George prevented a little girl from dying because her soul would rot inside her; and in yet another episode if a reaper isn’t there, a soul is stuck inside the body. It’s not as simple as Ned’s three basic rules, of which there is no variation.
- Also, with Ned’s alive-again touch, we don’t have to get into questions of heaven, hell, purgatory, what is a soul?, and so forth like we do in Dead Like Me. This gets messy, especially if the writers of the show don’t seem to feel like answering them, because the questions are there nonetheless. A few episodes feature an animal reaper so then of course we also get into the question of do only people have souls?
- It’s also unclear just what reapers can and cannot do. It’s posited that they can get hurt but it heals quickly, but why does Mason trip for so long then? Or how can Roxy threaten him with shooting him ‘where you’re not sure it’ll grow back’? They’re not supposed to interact too much with the living because it could disrupt the flow of things (although supposedly if it’s someone’s time to go, it’s someone’s time to go so it shouldn’t matter) but then they’re also encouraged to get jobs, find housing, etc. as those things aren’t provided in compensation for their “public service”. And why are they always discussing death and soul-reaping in Der Waffle Haus then?
- I appreciate how grim reaping is treated like a soul-numbing (no pun intended) job here, with Rube as “middle management,” the reapers having to do self-evaluations, and so on. But having to file souls by last thought? And deciding to start this monumental process inside Der Waffle Haus? That episode was just a little absurd in concept.
- Who exactly is “upper management” any way? Who was that woman with the red hair who they kept panning in on in the “Nighthawks” episode? Is she “upper management”?
- Also, I hate to get all nit-picking but since the characters themselves mention things like Social Security numbers, how on earth do they get all of this? Yes, now they look different from their past selves to anyone other than reapers and they give themselves fake names for day jobs, but how do they have documentation for these jobs as well as housing, automobiles, banking, etc.? How also does George manage to go out to bars and drink alcohol when she’s only 18? Does she have some sort of fake id that says she’s 21 or older?
- And, as the reapers never age, what do they do over time ... do they remain the same place without raising suspicion?
- And how do the reapers not raise suspicion on account of them always being on the scene when there’s some bizarre accidental death?
- What happens that Roxy disappears sometimes, once even for a few episodes in a row? Where did she disappear off to and why was it never explained? She’s a very entertaining in her own way, and I hated when she didn’t get enough screen time.
- I could not stand Daisy and Ray (Eric McCormack from Will & Grace) as a couple, even for only a few episodes. His character is an abusive, jealous jerk and what she saw in him is beyond me. But I don’t understand his death scene though - he has no soul??? He’s a graveling now??? Or his soul turned into a graveling because it wasn’t reaped??? And then how does George just touch him away??
- And finally, what’s with the final episode? Who is the guy with the white sneakers? Why is he significant? What does he do to the other people and what happens to him that they all get reaped at the :59 of a hour? 

Clearly I liked the show enough to keep watching it even without cliffhangers or really any ongoing suspenseful story lines to compel viewers to come back each episode, but I was not over the moon about it. In fact, I’m still puzzling over exactly how I feel about the show.

Dead Like Me: Life After Death

Dead Like Me didn’t have a less than two minute wrap up of everyone’s life on the last episode like Pushing Daisies did, but it did get a follow-up movie some five years later. I was excited and hopeful that this movie would address some of my unanswered questions, but that proved unfruitful. Actually it left me with more questions. For instance, “Millie” looks different now, making me wondering if the reapers change appearances after a certain amount of time to avoid detection, but everyone at Happy Time seems to think she’s the same person so I guess not. The rules seem even less fixed than before with the movie raising the possibility that the un-dead can be killed and that souls can get lost and not find their lights if not properly helped by grim reapers (didn’t seem to be so much an issue in the show). And what’s with the post-it rain fall at the end? Is George middle management now???

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should start with the brief run-down of the movie which is that it’s five years later and Rube’s time as a reaper is up so the rest of the reapers get a new boss. At first, they love that the new boss is all about enjoying life and forgetting about staying on the fringes as Rube recommended. But quickly they realize that this is not a good plan, but not before breaking the rules and meeting the consequences.

There are tons of changes besides Rube being gone – Der Waffle Haus burns down so we don’t have that familiar place. But every other familiar setting is gone also. We never see inside of George and Daisy’s house any more, Happy Time looks like it’s in a complete different building (one that is more austere and cold), and Joy and Reggie are in a different house. This last one makes more sense than the others because in the show they kept talking about moving after the divorce, but that was in part because Joy didn’t have a job and couldn’t afford their old house. Now Joy is writing books and run a grief counseling group so it seems like she has the money.

The characters are also different. Joy never seems to have any of her familiar sass, and Clancy is out of the picture having moved away and started a new family. Reggie’s a teen (makes sense because it’s 5 years later) and has different struggles to worry about now. Daisy is played by a new actress who is awful, although the character herself also seems to have changed and become ditzy. (As much as I didn’t like Daisy overall, Laura Harris could breathe life into the character and make her interesting and even sometimes sympathetic. Sarah Wynter has no such gift.) 

This movie was pretty awful and didn’t capture any of the good parts of the show. It was filmed in a different way that seemed less warm, and overall felt more dramatic than the show with less of the dark humor that I enjoyed best. In short, there’s no satisfying ending here at all and I’d actually recommend fans of the show away from the movie so they keep the good memories of the show instead.

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