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Living the good afterlife in 'Dead Like Me'

The new Showtime series follows a disaffected teen into the great beyond, or at least the really quirky beyond.

June 22, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Showtime describes its new weekly series "Dead Like Me," which premieres Friday, as a show about "life after life." It's not, however, set in heaven or hell.

The premise revolves around Georgia "George" Lass (Ellen Muth), a member of the young generation's disaffected who doesn't know what she wants from life. George is sullen, angry and aimless, and she hates her mother. Then one day, a toilet seat that has fallen from a malfunctioning MIR space station hurtles to Earth and fatally strikes her.

But it is in death that she finds true purpose in life. She even manages to find steady employment as a "reaper," one of many people assigned to take the souls of the living and send them either to their eternal reward or to eternal damnation. Her new boss, Rube (Mandy Patinkin), is a happy-go-lucky guy -- anything but a grim reaper -- who gives out assignments over meals at a waffle restaurant that plays Bavarian music.

"It's nothing about death," says Patinkin, the Tony Award-winning Broadway star and an Emmy winner for "Chicago Hope."

"It's all about life and just uses this comedic trick of having fun with the most horrifying aspect of our lives -- certainly one of the most serious aspects of our lives being the end of life. But it has nothing but a good time with that and shows you not to be afraid."

Patinkin sees "Dead Like Me" as the ultimate post-Sept. 11 series "in terms of don't walk around being afraid. Don't worry about getting out and living."

He finds that Rube is growing in wonderful ways with each episode. "I am just having a great relationship with the writers. Every suggestion I make, they seem to find a way to include it and make it better than I thought. Rube is a real fun guy who wants nothing more than to have a fun time in life, having fun turning darkness into light, doing what you didn't do in life."

The reapers don't have a free ride in the afterlife. Armed with new identities and faces, they must find a place to live, get a job and pay rent. And, in the case of George, do laundry for the first time.

Bryan Fuller, who was also the executive producer of the first three episodes, created "Dead Like Me." He left when another series he developed was picked up as a midseason show on the WB, so John Masius of "St. Elsewhere" and "Providence" took over the executive producer reins.

Masius says joining a show already in production "is a real trust exercise on a lot of levels. It's like Mom and Dad have gotten divorced, and Mom is dating this new guy. You have to build trust with the actors, the writers and the crew. If the material continues to be OK, then they are happy."

Showtime screened the pilot of the series for Masius to see if he would be interested in running the show. "I was moved by it," he recalls. "Visually, I thought it was really interesting. I loved the randomness of death and the fact you can't change fate. Bryan created this universe of a netherworld which felt unexplored to me and interesting."

Plus, says Masius, his 15 1/2-year-old daughter felt George was a real reflection of contemporary teen angst.

"She had a voice like she hadn't heard before in TV," says Masius. "It wasn't so 'Dawson's Creek'-y. You felt that you really get to see someone who is so dissatisfied with their life. That struck her, and that struck me."

And it also struck Muth when she read the pilot. "I think a lot of teenagers feel doubt," says the actress. "They feel they are different from everyone else, and a lot of teenage girls don't get along with their mothers. I also notice a lot of teenage girls not knowing what they want to do with their lives and they get so stressed about it. And I try to tell my friends: 'You don't have to know what you want.' "

Since Masius joined the series, Muth says George has changed a bit. "She has become much more open," says the actress. "Since the fourth episode, there has been much less voice-over and more dialogue. She's opening up more, and she is trying to be less isolated and make new friends."

Fuller's vision, she adds, was quirkier and more darkly humorous. "Masius has brought more sensitivity and less humor," she says. "It's more about people relating to one another."

But one aspect of the pilot hasn't changed: George's love-hate relationship with Rube. "George doesn't like to follow the rules, and she's always trying to find loopholes out of taking people's souls," Muth says. "But there is always a price to pay when you don't follow the rules."

"Dead Like Me" premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Showtime. The premiere episode has been rated TV14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14).

Cover photograph (Mandy Patinkin, clockwise from top, Jasmine Guy, Laura Harris, Ellen Muth and Callum Blue) by Kharen Hill.

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