Someone will doubtlessly say that a reality show is not that much different than a documentary from the “life and work of” category. I beg to differ. Documentaries are usually done about interesting, accomplished people. They have an interesting narrative, a message and an ending. Reality shows on the other hand are almost always feature shallow, loud, uninteresting attention whores (and when I say whore, I mean both genders), have no narrative, no direction, no message and drag on forever (or until the ratings drop). That’s the difference folks.
So I avoid watching TV in general. I tune in for shows that I know and like, and just ignore the idiot box at any other time. When I feel like watching TV I usually switch it to History Channel (when it’s not airing reality crap), Comedy Central, Adult Swim or one of the movie channels. The side effect of my TV watching habits is that I tend to miss good shows when they are on the air. Case in point: I discovered Firefly years after it was canceled, and then half-assedly resurrected as an underwhelming motion picture.
I still watch Lost, but it’s more of a habit these days. Somewhere I have a strongly worded draft of a post about the direction the show has taken, but that’s a discussion for later. I am pleasantly surprised by Dexter which is still going strong after 4 seasons, refusing to be formulaic and finding new and exciting ways to engage the viewers. It’s currently the only show that actually manages to keep me on the edge of my seat. Every time I watch it, I feel uneasy – I actually worry about the main character getting caught. And that’s an accomplishment. Other series that regularly captured my attention this way were Firefly, Farscape and the first season of Heroes (I pretend the show ended there and then).
I recently discovered another show, that while not perfect, makes me actually care about it’s characters. Oh and it makes me smile as well. Dead Like Me is an MGM and Showtime dark comedy about the life of Grimm Reapers who were given a job to help souls cross over to the afterlife. The job comes with some interesting perks. For one, you are virtually immortal. You don’t age, you get Wolverine like healing factor and immunity to most toxins and poisons. The downside is that you are dead. Your fiends and family and friends will no longer recognize you and you will eventually see them grow old and die. Also, your afterlife is put on hold for you until you reap an allotted number of souls. Your last soul is your ticket to paradise, and the person you reaped takes over your soul taking responsibilities.
The main character George is a sarcastic, introverted college dropout who gets killed by a toilet seat that detached itself from the falling MIR space station and fell somewhere in downtown Seattle. Her life ends at a ripe age of 18, and she is recruited to become a Reaper, much against her will. George has a lot of trouble coping with this change. To begin with, she does not very happy about dying so young. Especially since she has spent most of her life trying to avoid new experiences, relationships and social situations – she realizes that she has not really lived at all. She also has trouble adjusting to her new job which is actually quite morbid, depressing and also boring. Not only does she have to bear witness to death and misfortune every day – being a reaper involves surprising amount of paperwork. Oh, and you don’t get paid – so she must get an even more boring office job to afford food and place to sleep.
The show juxtaposes human tragedy, drama and often gruesome death scenes with offbeat, ironic humor and cleverly written dialogs. It is silly one minute and profound the next. You wouldn’t think this combination would actually work, but it does. It’s original and it brings a lot to the plate.
The Reapers themselves form a little dysfunctional family that sort of acts as a surrogate for their true families that they have lost. They are all broken people, learning to cope with their extraordinary circumstance. Each of them is plagued by bouts of depression which is something that comes with the job. Seeing death every day is no picnic, and it does take a toil on the Reapers. Mason turns to drugs and alcohol (in vast quantities due to their Reaper metabolism). Daisy pretends to be perky, happy and silly ditz to hide her inner turmoil. Roxy externalizes her problems channeling them into general verbal and physical hostility. Rube dishes out poignant and very zen-like advice to everyone willing to listen. He relies on his wisdom and experience but it’s not always enough. And there is George who is just hopelessly lost, confused and torn between a desire to live and her duty as a Reaper. She desperately clings to her past life, trying to re-connect with her family. She can’t stand by watching them suffer, but every time she tries to intervene she makes it worse for them. It upsets her both when they suffer and when they don’t – it pains her that they are starting to forget about her. Every time she spies on her loved ones is like sticking a knife into an old wound, but she can’t stop herself.
Dead Like Me has an extraordinary cast of characters and good writing, but it is not devoid of flaws. The first few episodes have excellent pacing, direction and an a story arc. Around episode six the show starts meandering, losing the strong narrative devolving into a more episodic format with a mild application of the proverbial reset reset button at the end of each episode. At the same time, one of the more interesting characters (Betty) leaves the show.
You see, Betty was intriguing because she was the only “well adjusted” Reaper of the group. She was the only person who managed to find joy in her work. She loved helping people to cross over, loved to listen to their stories. She had her demons like everyone, but she somehow found a balance that worked for her. Then she leaves and and is replaced by a flanderized version of herself. Daisy is the same character archetype: attractive, confident, perky, fashionable. But she has none of Betty’s depth of character and remains a vapid, shallow comic relief character until the second season when she finally manages to develop a personality and come to her own.
Dead Like Me also features a textbook case of Excecutive Meddling. In the Pilot episode you can see a clear foreshadowing of an interesting plot development. George sees her father share a strangely long hug with one of his concerned male students who came to her wake. There are hints dropped throughout the first few episodes that the father might be gay, and that he might be having an affair with said student. But then he turns out to be fucking a female student instead. Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator then promptly abandons the project citing creative differences. In a later interview he confirms that yes, one of the reasons why he left was that he was forced to rewrite that particular piece.
The series reaches all time low in episode 12 which is a recap-clip show. You know, it’s an episode where you show clips from previous episodes. It has virtually no plot, other than some contrived excuse which would allow characters to set up flashback sequences one after another. In modern TV, a clip show is a shark jumping moment for a decent series. It shows that the studio either ran out of cash, ideas or network funding. Dead Like me had no business having a clip show after airing only 11 episodes, but they did it anyway with predictable results.
Fortunately the show eventually picks itself up. Season 2 brings back overall story arcs (though not as strong as at the begging) and finally fleshes out Daisy making her into an actual human being. The quality is not consistent and I noticed that the writes tend to be a bit lax about the rules of their own universe as well as character development when it serves the plot, or helps them to set up a joke. For example in most episodes Reapers are required to babysit a recently deceased soul until it crosses over. Abandoning a reaped soul is a big deal and Reapers get in trouble for doing this… Unless of course it’s one of these episodes where they just up and or run off from the scene for dramatic effect. Similarly George is sometimes shown crawling out of her shell, making friends, or hanging out with a boy at the end of one episode, only to be lonely, miserable and antisocial at the begging of the next one.
Despite abundance of flaws, I like it. Let me put it this way: It’s not the best show I’ve seen. It’s not even the best show I’ve seen this year. But It makes me smile. I genuinely enjoy watching it and I guess that’s all that counts. Sometimes the characters do things for the plot sake, sometimes executive meddling screws up story lines, some episodes are complete shit. But overall, I’d say that it’s well worth watching. There is enough there to keep me interested. It’s an entertaining mix of good ideas, well written (though sometimes inconsistent) characters and clever plot lines .
To put it plainly it is somewhat different from the generic sitcom pulp we see on TV these days. It stands out and it has it’s own unique brand of humor and it’s own rhythm. This originality can probably be attributed almost entirely to Bryan Fuller. Trust me, you will notice his departure as it coincides with a visible shift in storytelling and characterization. Still, the central themes, characters are there giving it enough momentum to remain quirky and interesting to the very end.
If you’re interested, I have good news for you. The whole series is available on Hulu. This means that you can legaly watch it for free, from the comfort of your computer screen. Unless of course you live in one of the regions that Hulu decided to block, in which case – you can probably watch it on IMDB.
Word of warning though: if you start watching this series you might develop a schoolboy crush on Ellen Muth.