Dead Like Me is a quirky and remarkable series about so-called Reapers, people who, directly after their deaths, are charged with harvesting souls from those who are about to die themselves. As one might imagine, it is very dark, yet it is also often hilarious as it works its way through observations about what is most valuable in life and how utterly warped yet oddly gallant we can be as we seek to cope with the rocky terrain of living.
It begins with the death of "George" (Georgia) Lass, a rather sullen girl of 18 who is killed by a Russian space station's toilet seat, hitting her at about 200 miles per hour upon reentry as she leaves a temporary job agency. Nice start, eh? Her initial inability to stop seeking out her family is one of the shows main, best pillars. To those still living, Reapers appear with different faces than they wore in their previous lives, so you can imagine the possible strains and clashes.
The series follows her slow, stubborn acceptance of her indoctrination into a club whose existence she never suspected. Her varied fellow Reapers, clusters of whom cover their own basic territories, come from several eras, the earliest seemingly in the 20s or 30s. They meet each morning at a waffle house, their overseer hands them Post-Its (yes, Post-Its) sporting the names, places and ETDs (Estimated Time of Death) of their days' clients and off they go. The people on the list range from homeless transients to upscale gay couples to stolid military men, each of whom accepts their fate in a variety of ways. Many are understandably shocked, some are outraged and others, like the yoga master, go with both regret and warm grace.
Aside from their ability to harvest souls, Reapers have no special powers, with the exception of the ability to withstand otherwise fatal injuries, already being dead. They must still support themselves, tolerate the same frustrations & abuses the living undergo and yet maintain a hard-to-navigate distance from the main flow of humanity. Its no easy task, as they still long for comfort, comraderie and love as they did while alive. Their inner-circle relationships are uneven and those with the living are problematical at best. The opening montage each week reinforces their plight quite humorously. While they appear in normal clothes in the series, it features Reapers in classic dark robes with hoods, bearing scythes, doing laundry, playing basketball and the like. If you don't get a grin from that the first time you see it, you must be dead.
The deaths are colorful and then some, but only occasionally gory. As with real violence, these versions are often flat, dull and obviously final. Some are a bit pedestrian (a hoisted piano falls on a woman as she walks under it), while others are utter knee-slappers, as when a smarmy news reporter turns to see a bear right behind him, pisses himself mightily and is fried when the urine reaches a power cable with an exposed section. ZAP! What is funny in the series does a neatly-balanced dance with what is sad or philosophical. Did you know that death still includes paperwork? Lots of paperwork, as it turns out. The amusing process of updating "the books" thereof takes up most of one episode. Here are a few quotes from the inspired dialogue:
You get the picture.
The actual instigators of the deaths are CGI "Gravelings," nasty little creatures who loosen supports, throw banana peels in key places and trigger many colorful methods of cacking it. The Reapers simply take the souls a moment beforehand to spare them the aftermath and send them on their proper ways. For a math whiz, the nearest thing to "Heaven" we are ever shown is a huge cloud of algorithms, numbers and symbols whirling about in a colorful pattern. For a somewhat aloof society woman who is still of good heart, it is a representation of her beloved yacht. The variations of both situation and imagery make for a rich vista, yet part of its charm lies in the fact that it is so seamless, you are never really distracted from the narrative. Oh my, special effects that simply have a story-enhancing effect rather than just being glaring. Now that's class.
The sterling cast features Ellen Muth in the lead, which she handles with great feeling and dry humor; the notable theatre veteran Mandy Patinkin as "Rube," the middle-manager who receives the master list he dispenses to the crew with pragmatic melancholy; Jasmine Guy, as a no-nonsense yet world-weary meter maid who was once a budding dancer before, well, just watch it; and Callum Blue as Mason, the fumbling British druggie who left this earth by trying to get the ultimate high with a drill to one temple. There are also notable guest stars such as Yeardley Smith as a fellow Reaper and Susan Smith, who neatly yet more sympathetically reprises her role as the uptight Mrs. Montgomery from the sitcom "Dharma & Greg." Don't miss the earthy Patricia Idlette as the main waitress at the waffle house where they meet for their assignments.
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Of special worth is the musical soundtrack by Stewart Copeland and Emilio Kauderer, with contributions by Ceiri Torjussen and Alan Hewitt. It has a central tone, yet is also incredibly varied and inventive. The theme is whimsical in a classy manner, yet the sobering moments express a similar character of real merit. When Copeland left The Police, he went on to do film scoring and commissions for original orchestral pieces, which form much of the DLM background. If you've ever seen "Rumblefish," you've heard his work. His partnering with Wall of Voodoo's Stan Ridgway on "Don't Fence Me In" from that soundtrack is a potent thing. The music for DLM is ornate and inspiring; it is constantly whimsical, yet it has muscle to spare without being at all derivative.
The show originally ran on Showtime and was taken up by the Sci-Fi Channel for a rerun in 2006. It lasted only two short seasons, as is all too often the case with truly inspired, original televison works, but it can be had on DVD for a reasonable price. It is a 5-star work, beautifully written and refreshingly different from any other tale relating to death one could name. Along the way, it makes many a touching and thought-provoking observation about what is precious, what is tragic and the buffet of funny, gracious ways that we can skate the line between both, if only we can learn the vital trick of appreciating the carousel's variety enough to keep trying, which is its central and ultimately uplifting point. Highly recommended.
"Stop noticing. That's what Rube says. That's how you survive. But Mason's right. What Rube says is bull. You SHOULD get close to everything you care about… things come and go… people come and go… and maybe some of us learn to stop caring about it. But I keep reaching out, even though my hand keeps getting slapped away."
– review by HellPope Huey