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DVD Review: Dead Like Me: Life After Death

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Much like Judd Apatow, Bryan Fuller has been hit by the Louisville Slugger of fate creating innovative, yet ultimately cancelled shows. Before Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me ran on Showtime from 2003-2004. Its main character Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth), a bored college dropout, dies when a toilet seat from the Mir space station slams into her. Because she didn’t care about choosing a direction in life, she is reincarnated as a grim reaper.

Every week George would be assigned souls to take by fatherly Rube (Mandy Patinkin). She’d bond with her fellow reapers: angry meter maid Roxy (Jasmine Guy), immature thief Mason (Callum Blue), carefree flapper girl Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), and vain actress Daisy (Laura Harris). Reapers don’t get paid so George worked at the Happy Time employment agency. She’d crack wiseass jokes about workplace clichés and her nutty maternal boss, Delores Herbig (Christine Willes).

One of the inventive aspects of Dead Like Me was how it turned death into black comedy. People rarely died predictably. Their last moments unfolded like the Three Stooges performing a Rube Goldberg routine. And, the “reaps” as they were called, also commented on the morality of ending life.

In almost every episode, George would observe how the Lass family was grieving her death. The marriage of her parents, Clancy (Greg Kean) and Joy (Cynthia Stevenson),  slowly unraveled; Reggie (Britt McKillip) obsessed over her dead sister in odd ways. Too late does George realize that she affected those around her. Drama was intense, but never clichéd. The show had tight narratives and creatively used similarities between subplots for dramatic and comedic effect.

When Dead Like Me ended, fans petitioned Showtime for another season. In response, MGM, which helped produce Dead Like Me’s original run, is releasing a direct-to-video continuation of the series called Life After Death. If this film sells well, we can expect more of them or a new season. All I can say is ouch! Aside from trite jokes involving money and mouths, that sort of deal makes me further doubtful that television will survive. For fans, it’s not great, but watchable, especially for George meeting Reggie at last. For anybody that I’ve hooked with my series recap, please buy Dead like Me: The Complete Collection, which includes Life After Death and both seasons. Dead Like Me was and still is one of the most daringly funny shows ever on TV

Life After Death opens five years after George Lass died. After witnessing their meeting place, Der Waffle Haus, burn to the ground, the reapers are soon whisked to a fancy restaurant. They meet Cameron Kane who introduces himself as the new head reaper. According to him, Rube got his promotion having reached his quota of collected souls. George remains skeptical but has even more problems. Her latest assignment is to claim the soul of a high school jock named Hudson Hart who has a secret relationship with her younger sister. Meanwhile, the other reapers fall under Kane’s spell and start misusing their reaper powers for personal gain.

Life After Death feels like a slightly below average TV episode than a movie. It lacks Dead Like Me’s clever writing and dark sarcasm. In the original episodes, the reapers were always breaking the rules and suffering the effects. Rube would threaten to drop the sky on them if they tempted the law of unintended consequences. Here, their slip-ups feel like retreads of funnier storylines. The plot feels forced and lacking in explanations. For instance, It’s suspicious that Kane picks the reapers up in a limo so quickly after seeing Der Waffle Haus burn down. Yet, the reapers are sucked into Kane’s trap only because that’s what the plot needs.

I do like the natural growth of George, Reggie and Joy. At Happy Time, George handles more of Delores’s duties and shows more responsibility. Joy is a grief counselor and author. She uses her work to repress her fears of being a bad mother which is still a problem. Reggie no longer thinks about death and her sister all day, but is a loner in school. More scenes of her school and home life would deepen her character. A handful of dialogue divided between her mother and George is barely enough. New fans could mistake Reggie for a Gilmore Girl or a Disney Channel-style teenager. At least George’s mission allows her to admit she loves Reggie and give her mature “Rube”-like advice to help her get past the death of her first love.

The movie really misfires on the introduction of Cameron Kane. The idea of a bad boss or Satan-like antagonist is intriguing, but tricky to add in since reaping on Dead Like Me was usually more Office Space than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Suave and sociable, Kane is a very complex man. Nevertheless, the plot plays it safe by never letting the viewer learn much about him. That’s odd, since he’s not the trusty type that “upper management” would consider to lead a reaper team.

Most of the TV series cast return in their original roles. The acting quality is as good as before. Of the new additions, Henry Ian Cusick is a truly oily Kane. Sarah Wynter is miscast as Daisy, replacing Laura Harris. While it’s true they played sisters on 24, Wynter acts more melodramatic. Harris’s Daisy used perkiness to mask her sadness. To be fair, it’s consistent with how her character is written in the movie.

Fans of the show will notice a new visual style. Warm colors like red dominate scenes rather than cold blues. There are less fast-motion effects and more sweeping camera shots. Filming moved from Vancouver to Montreal. Ostensibly this adds to the impression that life is changing. Really it doesn’t add much to the movie. In one scene the new dynamic approach is distracting. George and Delores hold a job interview rehearsal in a room with a long table. The pressure felt by the interviewee is over amplified by wide angle camera lensing which stretches the table’s length.

It’s worth watching Life After Death to see most of your favorite characters again. But the writing is losing its direction. The filmmakers’ claim they want Dead Like Me to live again. Then why do they resist describing the characters’ future in more depth? Being off the air for so long, a lengthy transition seems logical. George moving away from grieving about her past is significant. But mature or not, she can’t have run out of cutting criticisms. Dysfunctional families, corporate America, and modern life are still ripe targets for dark humor and fresh writing. This new film leaves fate of Dead Like Me in a mysterious and not very reassuring state.

The commentary features director Stephen Herek and Ellen Muth. It’s average–no huge gaps, but not overflowing with tons of details. The two have a professional attitude towards each other so don’t expect a lot of joking around. The revealing part of the piece is that I’ve been mispronouncing Ms. Muth’s name all these years. It’s Mew-th not Moo-th.

The behind-the-scenes featurette captures the cast getting back together and returning to their roles. The clip is very helpful at summarizing the movie’s approach to the two season-long storyline. Besides that, it’s the usual interviews with everybody on the set. At least it’s not filled with lots of people saying “It’s awesome to be working on this movie with such awesome people” It’s not so awesome for me. Thanks, but no thanks.

Grade: C+

Bonus Features Include:

Audio commentary with Director Stephen Herek and actress Ellen Muth

Back From The Dead: Resurrecting Dead Like Me

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About Kevin Gustafson