Poor Bryan Fuller, every project he launches is just too far ahead of the curve for the world and dies before its time. The most spectacular example of that was Pushing Daisies, which had the best pilot I’ve ever seen and strong ratings to match, but died out in the wake of the writer’s strike and a long hiatus. Before that, however, his most celebrated cause was Dead Like Me, which only ran for two seasons on Showtime before getting axed for reasons that are still kind of mysterious today. Ratings were fine, the show wasn’t hugely expensive to produce and the network was generally happy with the product despite constant tinkering and notes from Day 1. In fact, Fuller left after the pilot, but his whimsical touch could be seen all through the run of the show. But now, as though revived by the Piemaker, Dead Like Me has been touched and brought back to life!
They probably shouldn’t have bothered, though.
Dead Like Me follows the afterlife of Georgia “George” Lass, played by the unconventional Ellen Muth. I say that because she’s not what you’d call “Hollywood pretty,” which kind of allows her to sink deeper into the role of a fairly normal person stuck in a weird situation. Anyway, George gets hit by a toilet seat from the Russian space station on her 18th birthday and she dies in a fiery explosion, but luckily her soul is saved by someone Up There, who has a job for her. She, along with mentor Rube (the awesome Mandy Patinkin) and a crew of weirdos, live out a cosmic 9-to-5 job reaping souls from the soon-to-be departed, thus ensuring that they get to the Great Beyond with a minimum of fuss and paperwork. At the same time, there’s parallel stories involving George’s former family and how they cope with the loss of her and the breakdown of their family unit as a result, through the use of flashbacks and such. It was this blend of the fantastic and mundane that made the original series so addicting, as freeing souls for Heaven was presented as essentially another daily chore for George to endure even after she had seemingly been freed of responsibility and “growing up”. Unfortunately the show was cancelled abruptly and we never got any real resolution to the characters and their storylines, so five years later a direct-to-DVD sequel attempts to tie up those loose ends.
Life After Death picks up, as you’d expect, five years after the end of the series, and certainly visually things have changed. The movie aims for a more fantastic look, with a comic book theme and more cinematic shots, and it’s kind of a jarring contrast to the more “everyday world” feel of the TV series. We immediately meet George again as she reaps a soul to introduce new viewers to the concept, and then the movie jumps into the first problem I had: Rube is gone. Since they couldn’t get Patinkin to participate, they simply wrote him out and replaced him with Henry Ian Cusick, (aka Desmond from Lost). Except now instead of a laid back father figure, we have a tightly-wound businessman who delivers assignments on PDAs instead of Post-It notes. And he’s apparently not the altruistic savior he appears to be. This would be fine if that plot WENT anywhere, but it doesn’t. We never actually discover his motivation for acting like a wank aside from some silly babble about “chaos theory”, and it’s really off-putting to wedge a new major character in there like that and then do nothing with him.
Next problem: They couldn’t get Laura Harris to reprise her role as Daisy, so they went with her sister from 24 instead, Sarah Wynter. Now although Harris was pretty annoying in the first season of the show, by the second season she had totally made the character her own, which makes it all the more jarring when Wynter wrecks it again and turns her back into a ditzy blond actress-wannabe. Why they felt changing main characters with Rube was OK but didn’t want to create a new one for Wynter is beyond me.
Those major issues aside, the rest is probably about as good as it was going to be given the limitations placed on it. We follow the three threads in George’s life — her job, her family, and her “fake” job at Happy Time Temp Agency — as she finally does mature and comes to grips with adulthood. The stuff with her cat-crazy boss Dolores is tremendous and whole experience of being in charge at work for the first time foreshadows a plot twist that I probably should have seen coming but didn’t, which was nice. Unfortunately too much time is spent on a subplot with her little sister (who grew up a LOT in the five years that have passed) and her secret romance with a football player who George just can’t seem to reap. The end result is that the “movie” feels more like a 90 minute episode of the show that’s been stretched out too thin at times, and that’s disappointing given the wait for this. It had to both function as a sendoff for the series and a reintroduction should it get picked up again, and you just can’t have it both ways. I feel like they should have just done a huge fan-wank type of big finale instead of paying lip-service to the hope of making this a backdoor pilot and thus having it be “accessible” to new viewers who aren’t likely to pick it up anyway. I can’t recommend it for anyone but fans of the original show, and even then you’ll likely be disappointed so buyer beware. (Rating: ***)
Only a couple of things, as you get a commentary track with the director and Ellen Muth that’s well worth checking out for fans, and a 15 minute featurette with the stars of show talking about the challenges of resurrecting the show and such. Even then they don’t sound too positive about it, noting how tough it was to get back into character after so long. Nothing is really said about WHY they’re doing this, as in whether it’s supposed to be one final goodbye or a new hello on some other network, and that’s really what I was interested to know. (Rating: **1/2)
I mostly enjoyed it for what it was, but I’m not holding out hope of seeing it on Showtime’s fall schedule or anything, and if we don’t get another DVD sequel (this one apparently sat on the shelf for quite a while before release anyway) I won’t be too saddened either. A nice try, but maybe they should just let it die and go to the light, like the show so often preaches.
Tags: Pushing Daisies, SmarK Rants