Before Their Time: Dead Like Me

My favorite coming of age show is about a dead girl.

Her name is George (short for Georgia) Lass. Snarky, cynical, and disengaged, George (Ellen Muth) is sort of Daria Morgendorffer lite, an unemployed college dropout (and would-be family dropout) who doesn’t see the point of doing or being anything. Goaded by her exasperated mom (Cynthia Stevenson) into gainful employment, George picks up a dreary temp job in a basement file room. Her first lunch break ends prematurely and spectacularly when a piece of the Mir space station lands on her. You think you’ve ever been embarrassed? The show seems to ask. This chick has to spend the rest of her afterlife known as Toilet Seat Girl.

George may be dead, but she’s far from gone. She has become a Reaper, responsible for separating souls from bodies and shepherding them into the afterlife. The motley crew who greet her freshly disembodied soul turn out to be her new coworkers. Thrill-seeking Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) collects Polaroids of everyone she reaps; Mason (Callum Blue) squeezes the work in between his pursuit of various extralegal scores of cash and/or drugs; and Roxy (Jasmine Guy), reliable and imperturbable, times her parking meter patrols to coincide with her reaps. The group is headed up by Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who deals out assignments on Post-It Notes while acting as pack leader, peacemaker, enforcer and now, trainer: middle management for the business of death.

After a brief reprieve – during which she attends her own autopsy and funeral – George finds herself corporeal again, now with superhuman healing abilities and a different face than the one she wore in life. She’s also flat broke. Reaping is an unpaid gig, and when she’s not learning this new trade George needs to find work, an apartment, and some laundry skills. Like any adolescent conscripted into unwanted responsibilities, George tests the rules and Rube’s patience looking for a way out. Her reluctance also assumes a moral dimension, and she protests – sincerely – that the arrangement is at least as unfair for her clients as it is for her. Rube doesn’t dispute this, but he doesn’t stop giving her Post-Its, either.

To be fair, reaping does seem more like a shitty temp gig than a higher calling: The jobs come on short notice, with limited information and zero pay. Reapers receive only a location, an estimated time of death (ETD), and a partial name. On the Old Age or Plague beats these constraints might not be too inconvenient, but Rube’s division covers External Influences: murder, suicide, accident, etc., with an emphasis on the etc. The show mines the problem of identifying the soon-to-be-deceased (before their decease, if possible) for some terrific gags, as people succumb to everything from angry bears to wayward banana peels. Many of the deaths play like the sequences that opened Six Feet Under, but with more artful misdirects (hint: it’s not always the angry bear) and a touch more humanity.

As she considers the forces that booted her out of life and into adulthood, George probes the contours of the life she lost, realizing too late how much she took for granted and wondering why she had been so reluctant to live while she was alive. She disobeys Rube again and again to steal back to her family’s house, desperate to connect but reduced to watching at a distance as her mother, father, and younger sister struggle to cope with her absence.

Although the show doesn’t pull any punches in its depictions of grief, Dead Like Me is ultimately a celebration of life. Irreverent and quirky without being twee, it suggests how to go on in the face of dispiriting odds. Everything from the dialogue to the soundtrack telegraph the beauty and absurdity of being alive. Our deaths may be foreordained, but our lives are not, and our uses of that brief bright time are circumscribed only by our will and imagination.

HOW TO WATCH: Dead Like Me aired just two seasons on Showtime from 2003 to 2004. It is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and both seasons are available on DVD.

MUST WATCH: The pilot is an excellent introduction to the show’s cosmology and characters, and is too fast and funny to feel like exposition.

FAVORITE LINES: “I excel at not giving a shit.”

“Even though I did my best to do very little, most everyone else was doing a lot less.”

“I know what might cheer you up: your autopsy.”

“You can’t save anyone. All you can ever hope to do is make it easier.”

“Standing outside all that bullshit, I started to realize how warm and comforting that bullshit could actually feel.”

“Fear’s grip loosens when you’re already dead.”

“Except for the fact that he was mentally ill and I was undead, it was starting to feel like a date.”

PAIR WITH: Waffles. Lots and lots of waffles.

WATCH OUT FOR: Dead Like Me introduced me to both Squirrel Nut Zippers and Métisse; the soundtrack is varied, original, and frequently unexpected. Dead Like Me premiered on Showtime in 2003, airing only two seasons before suffering an untimely demise.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller, whose other writing and production credits include Hannibal, Heroes, Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and episodes of Star Trek shows Voyager and Deep Space Nine. He’s currently involved in the adaptation of American Gods and until recently was also working on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.

AFTERWARDS: The show was awkwardly resurrected as a direct-to-video movie in 2009. They weren’t able to get Mandy Patinkin. The movie’s not terrible, but it lacks much of the show’s texture. The overall effect is way more sitcom-y than the original. I’m not saying you have to skip it, but you don’t have to watch it, either.