overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

Dead Like Me: Season One

by Joelle Tjahjadi

When Georgia "George" Lass (Ellen Muth) dropped out of college, she didn't envision herself ending up at some dead end temp job. Nor did she realize that she would die an ignominious death one month later as the victim of an errant toilet seat collision from the Mir space station.

In death, however, George finds what she didn't get in life: a second chance. Upon her death, she becomes a Grim Reaper, a person who takes the souls from those who are going to die, and also guides them towards the afterlife. She is joined in this slightly off-kilter take on the traditional hooded, sickle-carrying figure by fellow Grim Reapers in the Violent Deaths division. Her fellow reapers include Daisy, a former actress, Roxy, a meter maid with a temper, Mason, a clumsy drug addict and Betty, a cheerful woman who loves taking polaroids of the dead-to-bes. George & co. are headed by the taciturn, no-nonsense Rube, beautifully acted by Mandy Patinkin of The Princess Bride fame. George's new colleagues become her post-death family and like any family, they snipe, gripe, and trade swipes at each other, often to amusing effect.

Dead Like Me is the sort of show I would never have dreamed of watching if my friends hadn't dragged me (protesting apathetically) in front of the television and said, "Sit. Watch."

I was hooked after the first episode. The show has a darkly comedic wit and a slanted personality all its own. Thanks to the uncertain yet honest narration of George, viewers get to experience a second shot at life and death from beyond the veil.

The show is told from the point of view of our eighteen year old protagonist, complete with the apathetic sarcasm that accompanies the onset of adolescence. This kind of narration can get old very quickly, but the writing is fresh and the wit, cutting and dry, brings new perspective to the trials and tribulations of dealing with life after death. George's afterlife is complicated by her new job. The daily post-its containing the place and ETD (estimated time of death) of each soul she has to take can be wearing, even for a dead person. Each grisly and often hilarious death serves as a starting point for us to explore the quirky lives (both pre- and post-death) of the reapers through their interactions with the reaped souls. With so much death in each episode, one would think that Dead Like Me could become overly heavy and melodramatic, but this is leavened with a large dose of bizarrely appropriate humor.

While she is certainly the main character of the series, George Lass isn't its only focus. Small hints about the rest of the reapers are given out as the show unfolds. We get to learn bits and pieces of each reaper's journey to where they finally end up. We learn about Roxy's beginnings as a dancer and inventor, Mason's passion for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and we even wonder if Daisy's quest for sex with the glamorous of Hollywood is a mask for something more.

Despite a large cast of characters that can be daunting at the beginning, it is easy to appreciate their various exploits, whether it be swindling a dead person's relatives or collecting toilet seats to adorn a tree.
Despite a large cast of characters that can be daunting at the beginning, it is easy to appreciate their various exploits, whether it be swindling a dead person's relatives or collecting toilet seats to adorn a tree. Throughout the first season, we are introduced to the various characters through our cynical heroine. The introductions are swiftly done, and nicely managed. The advantage of having such a large cast is the many stories that each person carries with them. We are given mere slivers of information about each character, barely enough to draw some sort of conclusion about them and their motivations, but intriguing enough to keep us watching for more.

The show also explores the impact the death of a child has upon a family. The viewer is treated to the dubious experience of watching the slow unraveling of the Lass family after George's demise. George's mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), is a pessimistic creature, quick to put down her remaining daughter and husband, even as she regrets that her last words to George were ones of anger. It is ironic that such a person so sapped of happiness is named Joy? Or perhaps it is a literal description of who she is, since her full name, "Joy Lass" is homophonic for "joyless." Clancy Lass (Greg Kean), George's father, responds to the loss of his daughter and the sarcastic downers of his wife by turning to the arms of another, younger woman.

The major story arc in the series is George's adjustment to becoming a reaper. It is a long arc that ends, appropriately enough, with George finally accepting her lot as one of the undead. There are still questions left unanswered and other subplots left hanging, but such is life. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems on the surface, and rarely is it ever only what it seems. For a show that merely focuses on the trials and tribulations of an undead eighteen year old girl, it covers a lot of ground that is unexpectedly deep and wiser than you think.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 4.