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Radio & Television | ON TELEVISION / HOWARD ROSENBERG

Within 'Dead' beats the heart of a lively new series

June 27, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"I take souls for a living, and these are the days of my afterlife," announces Georgia "George" Lass, sounding like a macabre soap opera parody in Showtime's crackerjack new series, "Dead Like Me."

There was a time, some years ago, when television freely depicted and spoke of death, however obliquely and while rarely pausing to acknowledge its consequences and impact on the living. Now the ache of it haunts the medium, from Iraq to Laci Peterson.

And from the depths of TV itself come stiffs galore.

You get lifeless comedies and dramas that embrace decadence. You get stiffs like John Edward and James Van Praagh who make fancy livings by claiming to dial up the departed. You get TV news types and commentators draped in black crepe while covering funerals of the famous, their grieving faces at half-mast, their words falling like fake tears.

Yet arriving tonight is a series that's designed to be, in a sense, deadly.

Instead of a wormy cadaver, "Dead Like Me," is robust and original, crossing grimness with comedy while establishing its young protagonist as a "reaper" who plucks souls from the living just before they die.

Say what? Yes, a reaper.

If verbose at times, the show's seductive 75-minute pilot and next two episodes are also smartly written and urbane, tender without being sappy, and rich in wonderfully dark, twisted wit. That includes one especially memorable send-up -- a man getting a lethal jolt when an electrical current comes into contact with his urine.

Yikes.

Whether this distinctive, sardonic tone will endure remains to be seen, for executive producer Bryan Fuller left the series after the first three episodes and was succeeded by John Masius, who created schmaltzy "Touched by an Angel" on CBS before being packed off.

Here's hoping "Dead Like Me" doesn't become "Touched by a Reaper."

Catchy titles can be misleading. Just as HBO's scintillating "Six Feet Under" is much less funereal than about family and relationships, "Dead Like Me" is not remotely ghoulish or heavily sentimental. No chalky spooks or wandering mummies here. Instead, in a homage to Emily Webb's posthumous epiphany in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," the show's bored, aimless, sullen protagonist learns to appreciate the benefits of life only after hers ends prematurely at age 18.

A college dropout suffering from do-nothing burnout, George (Ellen Muth) is outdoors on a lunch break from her boring job as a file clerk when she's struck by debris falling to Earth from a malfunctioning Mir space station. She looks up, but before she can react, splat!

The item that clobbers her is a toilet seat.

Does Fuller's script flush her and be done with it? No. "I think for me death was just a wake-up call," George observes later, after joining a select few in a state of afterlife limbo and, in an awkward, angst-ridden adjustment, gradually finding purpose and understanding as a reaper. Presumably, this clarity will extend to warmer feelings about her testy, aloof mother (Cynthia Stevenson), who freaked her out when she was alive.

All of this has a certain logic. Figuratively speaking, who but the dead, looking back on it all with 20/20 wisdom, can fully recognize the follies of the living and the routine joys and aromas of life that are taken for granted?

As a reaper, George still maintains in human form, just not the one she had, and at times she feels bad about feeling nothing. Yet in one lovely scene, she sneaks back into her old room and snuggles up with a piece of her clothing, because the smell she misses most is her own. It's a nice touch.

Her fellow reapers include larcenous Mason (Callum Blue), kick-butt meter maid Roxy (Jasmine Guy), glamorous Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) and Daisy (Laura Harris), a former actress who arrives later in the series.

The head reaper is Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who dispenses tough love and hands out soul-taking assignments on yellow slips of paper over breakfast in a waffle joint. "What are you, like angels or something?" George asks when still learning the ins and outs of reaperdom. "No ma'am," Rube replies. "Angels don't get their hands dirty. Like upper-management types."

Ahead for George are challenges. One of these, affecting her deeply, is an assignment to take the soul of a 5-year-old girl who is about to die in an accident. On a more mundane level, reapers must find ways to sustain themselves, even though, in a technical sense, they no longer are alive. Just why they must do this is never made clear; in this instance Fuller's ways becoming as mysterious as the Almighty's.

In any case, George and her fellow afterlife homeless persons stay in residences vacated by the dead and earn money the old-fashioned way to keep them in the basics. This requires her to return reluctantly to the Happy Time Temp Agency.

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