Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
To put it bluntly, Dead Like Me is probably the greatest show you’ve never actually seen.
Sure, you’ve likely heard of it. The Showtime comedy, which ran for two all-too-brief seasons from 2003-2004, is a staple on various internet lists about great television shows that unfortunately ended before their times. As the first series from Bryan Fuller—who would go on to make other critically acclaimed and prematurely canceled shows like Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and of course Hannibal—it’s something of a cult classic among dedicated TV fans. But even now, almost two decades later, it’s a show that deserves to reach a broader audience, just as it was back then. That’s because Dead Like Me is still a brilliant and underrated gem, a story that simultaneously wrestles with both the challenges of growing up and the meaning of life itself.
As the title implies, Dead Like Me is a show about death. Or, rather, the afterlife, in ways both literal and figurative. The series follows a motley group of grim reapers, tasked with collecting the souls of the dead and ferrying them to their next destination, by way of various glittering phantom landscapes the reapers themselves are never allowed to enter. But the show is also about the daily lives of these same characters, caught between the physical needs of a real world that still expects them to pay rent and buy groceries, and the ongoing spiritual reckoning that asks them to grapple with the things that they themselves left behind.
Part horror story, part meditation on faith and part coming of age saga, Dead Like Me mixes dark comedy and emotional melodrama to make something that felt downright magical back in 2003 and has never been quite equaled in all the years since. (NBC’s The Good Place sports a similar interest in death and spiritual matters, but ultimately has a far more wholesome and hopeful tone than its distant, more sarcastic Showtime cousin.)
Dead Like Me centers its story on Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth), an intelligent but generally unmotivated 18-year-old slacker who is killed when a toilet seat from the MIR space station falls on her. After her death, George must join a team of grim reapers led by the gruff and sardonic Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who oversees a group that includes a rude traffic cop (Jasmine Guy), an optimistic adventure-seeker (Rebecca Gayheart), a messy British drug enthusiast (Callum Blue) and a lonely, spoiled actress (Laura Harris). As the reapers teach George to take souls, they also become her oddball second family, helping her process her own grief over the life she never fully took advantage of when she was living it.
Much of the show’s first season is dedicated to George learning the ropes of reaping: How the taking of souls is assigned (yellow post-its containing a name and time of death); can you refuse to reap someone (no); if there are ways to trick the system that decrees when someone must die (sort of, but grim consequences follow). As a character, George is wonderful-smart, incredibly stubborn, worldly, and strangely innocent at the same time-and her experience is a pretty relatable one, undead though it may be. She struggles with feelings of confusion and loss, is frustrated by the way the world works, and questions why she made some of the choices she did back when she still had the chance to make different ones.
Though the narrative often frames George’s undead status as a second chance, it never lets her—or us—forget that she squandered the time that really mattered, and hints that the best she can do is create a sort of secondary life here, which will always exist in the shadow of the one she had before. (In many ways, this is true of all the reapers, but most especially Rube, who is only now allowed to wear his “real” face again now that everyone who knew him in life has died.)
Dead Like Me also deftly balances day-to-day stories of George’s afterlife (she gets a job, joins the temp company bowling team, learns to do her own laundry, even briefly adopts a dog) with the emotional toll of her death. There’s a consistently bittersweet flavor to the series, even as it effortlessly dances between quirky supernatural subplots, poignant emotional questions about mortality, and pitch-black comedy. George may have gotten another chance of sorts by becoming a grim reaper, but her afterlife repeatedly forces her to confront all the things she purposefully missed before, from dating and romance to getting to the know the little sister she never knew idolized her so much.
Despite George’s death, her grieving family remains a key part of the show. Much of the series’ first season is dedicated to George’s stubborn inability to let go of the world she left behind. She sneaks into her old bedroom, visits the yard sale at which her mother’s selling her former belongings (luckily, reapers appear with different faces to the living), and even sits in on one of her father’s college classes. But we also spend plenty of time with the remnants of the Lass family, witnessing Reggie’s increasingly bizarre attempts to process her sister’s death that involve everything from filling a neighborhood tree with stolen toilet seats to taxidermy classes.
Because it is a show about death, Dead Like Me is also a show about what comes after. It doesn’t exactly show us what’s on the other side, so to speak. The dead pass over through sparkling celestial recreations of places and memories dear to them, but we never see their end destination. In fact, Rube specifically tells George that “it’s not for us to know” when she asks about what happens to the souls she reaps.
Yet, Dead Like Me itself repeatedly hints at themes of fate and forgiveness that feel comforting, even amidst the show’s gruesome deaths and dark humor. Even reapers eventually finish their jobs (after they each fill a predetermined quota, they get promoted, and pass on to yet another plane), but just like the people they once were, they aren’t allowed to know the day or the hour, either. Here, even death itself isn’t eternal.
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Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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