To those who latched onto this nugget of television, Dead Like Me was a remarkable show that introduced the viewer to an entirely alternative view of mortality. But after two seasons it ended, leaving those that loved its unique quirkiness to lament its passing.
For most shows they’re never heard or seen again, unless they’re re-imagined or warrant some horrible Walton’s style reunion sequels. But almost without precedent those behind Dead Like Me decided to tie up some loose ends and give the ardent fans one last farewell to the reapers with this one off direct to DVD movie five years after the show was unceremoniously canned.
For those who never sipped at the sweet nectar of this dark comedy, the concept behind Dead Like Me is both disturbing and comically irreverent. The focal character is a young girl starting her first day at work, Georgia ‘George’ Lass, when she’s struck and killed by the toilet seat of a space station re-entering the earth’s atmosphere during her lunch break – killing her instantly. She’s dead, but not gone.
Dead people fall into two categories it appears, those destined for somewhere else (good or bad) and those who for whatever reason are chosen to become part of that process – grim reapers. It’s not that grim reapers actually kill people, what they do is move amongst human kind and take their soul just before death so that they look normal in the afterlife. Failure to do this as her mentor ‘Rube’ said once results in the unfortunate scenario of ‘wearing that face for eternity’.
George and her associates are a particular division of the reaper crew that work murders, accidental death and natural disasters. It’s explained that each reaper has a number of souls they must collect before they too are allowed to move on, although some of them have been doing the job for many decades without that happening.
In the show, the reapers meet each morning in a fast food location, ”Der Waffle Haus’, where their leader Rube hands out post-it notes to them all detailing who, where and where they are to collect the souls of the soon to be deceased.
Except when this movie starts that regimented plan has gone out of the window, as reapers George, Mason, Daisy and Roxy are standing on the street in front of a burned out Waffle Haus and their leader Rube is nowhere to be seen.
A limo arrives and takes them all to an expensive restaurant where they meet Rube’s replacement, the style-over-substance Cameron Kane. He replaces post-it notes with Palm Treos, and tells them that if they can do what they like unsupervised. At that point if you’ve watched the show you’ll know that there will be consequences for failed reaping, and it doesn’t take long for things to go entirely off the rails.
For fans of the original show you’ll be glad to know that most of the cast returned, but not entirely. The amazing Ellen Muth is back as George, without which I couldn’t really see the point in doing this. Britt McKillip as her younger sister is back too, Cynthia Stevenson as her mum, Callum Blue as Mason, Jasmine Guy as Roxy and the wonderful Christine Willes as cat-loving Delores Herbig from the ‘Happy Time’ temp agency where George works.
The only exceptions are Mandy Patinkin, who doesn’t return as Rube and Laura Harris who was previously Daisy. Daisy is in this story, now played by Sarah Wynter. The irony of this casting choice won’t be lost on anyone who watches 24, because Sarah Wynter played Kate Warner in that show, and the women she replaced, Laura Harris, played her terrorist sister Marie. Her appearance is the only visual diversion from the original cast, and they even get the weird Happy Time receptionist ‘Crystal’ to make a cameo.
But back to matters of life, and death.
After the introductions are over the majority of running time is about how each of the reapers reacts to the total lack of control and the consequences of those actions, or lack of action.
Daisy takes the soul of a delivery man in a hair salon, but can’t be bothered to help him to the light, resulting in a haunting. Roxy saves a man who she was supposed to reap, who then goes on to kill himself and others. Mason is caught on CCTV being shot multiple times at the scene of a store heist without it killing him, although I’m not sure how this actually goes really wrong as such.
But predictably the biggest problem is held for George, as poor information causes her to miss a reap and the young man concerned not to die. But there is an extra twist to this story, because the boy is actually the secret boyfriend of her sister Reggie, who’s going through much of the same emotional rollercoaster that George was when we first met her six years ago. The transformation of Britt McKillip’s character from awkward Reggie of old to spirited young women is both charming and shocking at the same time, and is wonderfully counterpointed by Cynthia Stevenson as her seemingly unchanging mother Joy. Greg Kean doesn’t make an appearance as Clancy Lass, who has moved away to a ‘new family’ we are told.
In the last episode of the original series George almost told Reggie who she really was (she doesn’t look the same to the living as she did when alive), and this provides some tension when their paths ultimately cross because of the dying boy. George must take his soul, but Reggie needs to say goodbye first. The lead up to this is that George actually tells her who she is, which she takes well considering the gravity of that particular news.
In the meanwhile Mason, Daisy and Roxy have decided that Cameron Kane isn’t a good influence or leader. They set about to kill him, which proves a challenge as he’s obviously dead already. They try shooting, drowning, dismemberment with a chainsaw. The even use him as firewood. But their ultimate solution is quite brilliant, and almost entirely guarantees that he won’t be back anytime soon, barring intervention from ‘senior management’.
Providing some hilarious interludes through the story is Delores Herbig and her terminally unwell cat Murray. The two take a holiday where ailing Murray can experience all those things one should do before dying, like skydiving. But eventually he does die, and Delores wants to give him the biggest send-off ever! The scene is revealed very cleverly where they’re holding a memorial service for Murray, which is prepped by her commenting that there appears to be plenty of ashes for one cat in his urn. One’s drawn to conclude that Murray and Cameron Kane share a destiny, which is to be launched into orbit on top of a rocket. Brilliant!
The thread that ties all the elements together is letting go. It’s good to mourn for people, or pets, or places, but eventually you need to let them go and move on. As Reggie and Joy move on when they sell the house and leave the city, leaving George behind. It’s sad, but a new beginning for everyone. I was left wondering if the message that Bryan Fuller and the other writers who contributed to this Dead Like Me special were sending was that it’s time to let go of this show for those that loved it, by going out on a high.
The final scene underlines this thought beautifully. George is left alone outside the house where Joy and Reggie once lived, she looks up and out of the sky falls thousands of post-it notes. It’s a symbolic message direct from an unseen Rube, and as she looks upwards she smiles and says ‘I’m…so…fucked!’
I can’t really put into words how good this Dead Like Me movie made me feel, it entirely vindicated the efforts I made to watch the show and take an interest in the characters, it was like receiving a personal thank you from those that made it. And because of that I’m going to be brave and say that I don’t want it to come back, I want it to remain forever untarnished in my mind as one of the most imaginative TV experiences ever.
Perhaps at some point George and the reapers will be back, but who can say when or if. What I can say is then some showrunner needs to tackle and hog-tie Ellen Muth, as she’s an incredibly gifted actress who’s so far been massively under-utilised.
If you remotely enjoyed the show then you’ll love this movie conclusion, it is quite wonderful.