Dead Like Me: The Story of a Teenage Grim Reaper

 

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Mandy Patinkin on January 13, 2012, outside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on January 13, 2012. Image by Bearian.

 

“Let’s go for a ride,” the voice says from a black screen. It is the voice of Ellen Muth, who in her early 20s gave one of the most convincing performances of a bored, somewhat lazy and uninspired young woman that I have ever seen on television.

The picture on the screen changes from black to a view of Earth from space. “My name is George Lass,” Muth explains. “I’m 18 -years-old and I am down there. Somewhere. And I’m going to tell you a story. Not my story, that’s later. This is just a story. Ready?

“Once upon a time, or more specifically, at the dawn of time, God, lower case g, was getting busy with creation as the kids these days are saying.” The view on the screen changes to that of an adorable and oddly expressive orange frog, which the narrator refers to as Toad. Toad later becomes George’s pet in the show.

George continues her story. “He gave Toad a clay jar and said, ‘be careful with this, it’s got death inside. ‘ Pleased as punch and oblivious to the fact that he was about to become God’s fall guy on the whole death issue, Toad promised to guard the jar. Then one day, Toad met Frog. ‘Let me hold the jar,’ Frog said. With a nod to Nancy Reagan’s pearl of wisdom, Toad ‘just said no.’ But Frog was determined, and after much wining, Frog just gave in. ‘You can hold it, but only for a second,’ he said. In his excitement, Frog began to hop around and juggle the Death jar from one foot to the other. Frog was an ass. ‘Stop!’ Toad cried out, but it was too late. Frog dropped the jar and it shattered to the ground. When it broke open, Death got out, and ever since all living things have to die.  Makes you wonder how much better the world would be if Frog stuck to hawking beer. So there you have it. The mystery of death finally revealed. We all die. Some of us sooner than later.”

This fine monologue is the introduction to Dead Like Me, one of the wittiest, most sarcastic fantasy/drama/horror supernatural television serials I’ve ever seen. The introduction is not the story behind the show, it is the reason for the show. The story is actually about many things. It is a story about death, and life, love, suffering, family, guilt, and most of all regret because in this show George Lass, Ellen Muth’s character, becomes an employee of the escapee from the clay jar: Death. Yes, it’s true. Just as Michael Landon was once America’s favorite teenage werewolf, Ellen Muth’s character, George Lass, is a teenage grim reaper.

 

Ellen Muth, star of Dead Like Me

Who Knew Grim Reapers Could be so Charming?

“Why am I so hooked on Dead Like Me? The writing.  Unlike classic supernatural television shows, contemporary shows generally have a staff list that takes two pages. Dead Like Me fits in this category, and yet, I have never seen an episode I didn’t like. It’s morbid, borders on the horror line, and one would think it would be a bit depressing, but it’s generally hysterically funny due to the non-stop one-liners of the narrator, George Lass (Muth).  The show also stars Mandy Patinkin as Rube Sofer, Lass’s supervisor.  I cannot imagine anyone else who could play this part. He is outstanding, and yet another reason why I love this show.

George comes from a typical Seattle family. She fights with her mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson); ignores her younger sister, Reggie, (Britt McKillip); rarely speaks to her once adored father, Clancy Lass, (Greg Kean). George is a dropout of Seattle college and on the day of her death, her mother rudely wakes her from a deep sleep by sliding open the curtains and pulling clothing from the closet to drop upon the bed. She then tells her it’s time to get a life. It’s time (oh gasp in horror unambitious young woman!) to get a job. George applies for a job at Happy Time Temporary Services, and like most young women, believes she deserves more than she’s earned, insisting she is qualified for a position as an executive secretary. She is hired as a file clerk. She remains with Happy Time for most of the show, and when she leaves, briefly, she realizes that Happy Time has become a part of her new dead-life and returns to Happy Time in the following episode.

As she leaves the building a man greets her by name and tells her she’s going to be late. She looks at him strangely, then turns away. He touches her hair. She hears a sound. She turns to see a toilet seat from the MIR Space Station crashing to earth. Before she has a chance to move, she is dead. Killed by a toilet seat. The ultimate irony for a disillusioned young woman who believes her life is crap. For the remainder of the show’s shockingly short run (2003-2004, two seasons), George, along with her coworkers, discovers there is a life after death. She is required to have a job, a home, pay for her own food, and basically survive, in spite of the fact that she is dead. Eventually, she even makes friends and kisses her first boyfriend.

George works with a crew of grim reapers, including Callum Blue as Mason, a sex-starved addict with a heart of gold; Jasmine Guy as Roxy Harvey, a cop with a bad attitude; Betty Rohmer (Rebecca Gayheart), a cheerful beauty who is eventually replaced by self-centered slutty actress Daisy Adair (Laura Harris). Although they are often at odds with each other, eventually the team bonds they become family, and watching the show end is a painful, like saying goodbye at a funeral.

There are two other minor characters who become major by the end of the show. One is George’s boss, Delores Herbig, “her big brown eyes,” played by Christine Willes. Delores is a child of the sixties who outwardly appears to be a middle-aged frump, but has a wild secret past that she often shares with George. The office receptionist is Crystal, also known as Jane Smith, a woman with a very secret past who spends most of her time staring, spying, and occasionally helping George. Crystal is played by Crystal Dahl.

Birth and Death of the Grim Reapers

Dead Like Me was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia for The Showtime Network. It is the creation of dedicated Star Trek fan Bryan Fuller, whose career dream was to write for the show. He eventually wrote episodes for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and was a full-time staff writer for its spin-off, Voyager.

Fuller came up with the concept for Dead Like Me as sort of a creative comic relief.  He then created the supernatural television comedy/drama/fantasy series Pushing Daisies, which aired from 2007 to 2009. Pushing Daisies is charming, funny, and resembles the work of Roald Dahl, who is believed to be one of the world’ greatest children’s authors. Fuller and Dahl share a quirky sense of humor that is addicting. Dahl also wrote episodes for supernatural television anthologies, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Dead Like Me was cancelled after the second season, yet another victim of Hollywood politics. The show’s ratings were never released, but according to an article in “http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/01/10/californication-has-its-best-premiere-no-shame-in-shameless-ratings-episodes/77988/”>TV by the NumbersShameless. “Dead Like Me” was nominated for two Prime Time Emmys.

Sadly, according to Fuller, Dead Like Me began to self-destruct almost as quickly as it was releasedFuller left the show after the first season due to conflicts, which he claimed included a “lack of professionalism“ on the part of the network. Rebecca Gayheart also left after the fifth episode, but her replacement, Laura Harris, gracefully took her place and the ongoing sexual tension between her character and Callum Blue’s character added a nice touch to the overall plot.

MGM announced they were developing sequels and films based on Dead Like Me in 2007. The first sequel was released in 2009. The story takes place five years after the end of the show. Laura Harris (Daisy) was replaced by Sarah Wynter and Rube does not appear in this film version, but is replaced by Henry Ian Cusick who plays Cameron Kane. Unfortunately, the show debuted exclusively on SuperChannel in Canada on January 16, 2009, and I haven’t seen it, though I’m looking for a copy.

It will truly be a pleasure to discuss my favorite episodes in future articles on this website. I believe this show is a supernatural television masterpiece.

Resources:

  • Dead Like Me. First aired June 27, 2003. Creator: Bryan Fuller. Players: Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Callum Blue. DLM Productions; John Masius Productions; MGM Television. Running Time: 60 min. 
  • Pushing Daisies. First aired 2007. Creator: Bryan Fuller. Players: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride. Jinks/Cohen Company, Living Dead Guy Productions, Warner Bros. Television. Running Time: 43 min.