The Strange and the Painful
What happened to you, Georgia? You used to have friends. You used to be smart.
—Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), “Pilot”
It’s just about, “Wake up, and live this life that you know, this day.” Because you may not get a second chance.
—Mandy Patinkin, commentary, “Pilot”
Rube (Mandy Patinkin): Public transportation is the great equalizer. George (Ellen Muth): I don’t want to be equal. Fuck equal.
—“The Bicycle Thief”
“Everybody dies. That’s just the way it is. I’m told I’m not supposed to argue or question or even try to understand. I’m told a lot these days, ever since my life was snuffed out by a toilet seat from an old space station, and I joined the ranks of the undead and became a Grim Reaper.” This would be self-introduction, provided by George Lass (Ellen Muth) at the start of episodes of Dead Like Me, catching you up in an instant on her endlessly dire situation, as well as her inspired sense of humor.
The first season of this excellent Showtime series, now available on DVD, is punctuated by such dry self-reflections, by George and her fellow Reapers, as well as moments that are oddly poignant or philosophical, concerning the extent of human hubris and the limits of human understanding. According to the show’s premise, Reapers exist among the living, lifting the souls they are told to take. These come daily on lists delivered mystically to their Reaper boss, Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who hands out names and ETDs (Estimated Times of Death) to the appointed soul takers. “Reapers,” says George, “don’t get a free ride.” That is, they must find employment, squat in dead people’s apartments, scrounge for food and clothing, and come to terms with what they do “for a living.”
Watching the start of the Dead Like Me pilot—specifically, the shot that has you hurtling toward earth from the heavens—Jasmine Guy (who plays a Reaper named Roxy) observes on the DVD commentary track, “The more you watch this show, the more you learn from it.” She’s right. The series is consistently instructive as well as entertaining, provocative as it’s observational. “Friends and family usually want a piece of you after you die,” observes George in “Dead Girl Walking.” “After all, who you are is what you left behind.” This as she’s cajoling a recently dead kid’s parents into letting her keep his tv.
Only 18 years old and newly graduated from high school, George dies when she’s angry at her mom (Joy [Cynthia Stevenson]), disappointed in her dad (Clancy [Greg Kean]), and miserable at the prospect of filing for the rest of her life. And then, just as she’s passively resisting her seeming fate, dawdling during her 35-minute “lunch hour,” hot dog in hand, her time is abruptly up. Specifically, she’s slammed by that toilet seat, loosed from the falling Mir space station. Without warning, she’s splatted straight into oblivion.
At that very same moment, George finds herself outside her (pieces of) body. Brushing at the dust on her blouse as frightened bystanders run for cover, George is greeted, as it were, by Rube, head of the Reapers’ Accidental Deaths Division. He sets about teaching her how to be undead, to negotiate a mundane physical world, to gauge emotions now observed from a dimensional distance. (“You’re learning,” he notes during one of George’s frequent early spasms of “Why me-ing.” “Just smell some fuckin’ roses already.”)
The living can’t see George when she’s merely undead, but once she’s deemed a Reaper, she takes a visible form—of another girl, not herself (Millie, played by Laura Boddington), for those worldly bystanders (“Reapers look different to the living”). For us, however, she remains George, wry, sarcastic, and resilient. “I was born again,” she narrates following Rube’s initial coaching, “but not in a creepy, religious way. All around me was a bright, shiny new world. And death was everywhere.” Rube takes her on as a sort of child, calling her “Peanut” and encouraging her to accept her lot, even if it is, by definition, impossible to comprehend. No questions, he declares. Death is ordained, decided and dispensed by powers beyond comprehension.
It’s fate, but also not. “I love the metaphor aspect of the whole piece,” says Patinkin as he watches the pilot. “Today, there is no need for suffering. The way we take people’s souls before they die is a metaphor for that.” It is and it isn’t. For the Reapers, taking souls is a job, not a choice or even a lifestyle. Or, more poetically, according to George, “Death was a fragrance long after that person had left the room.” As Rube (or Patinkin) sees the Reapers’ mission as a reduction of measly (or even grand) human pain, it’s also a means to rationalize, to make sense of what seems meaningless and merciless. “Life and death can be real simple,” explains Rube to George. “You just have to do what I tell you.”
Neither is simple, ever, and this is the series’ essential insight. Rube takes his own mentoring very seriously, and ensures George’s immersion in her new existence by assigning her to work with more experienced Reapers. At first he fobs her off on British-accented, punkish, occasionally Spike-like Mason (Callum Blue), who models how to lift cash from recently dead bodies (credit cards aren’t useful for the undead); soon she’s bunking with the eternally vivacious Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), who wears designer shoes and perfect lipstick. By way of explaining the significance of their task, Betty asserts, “Hundreds and thousands of people die every day. Bodies are easy—dig a ditch, light a match—but what about the souls? Who takes care of them?”
Mystified by Betty and alternately charmed and repulsed by Mason, George struggles to find her place in between. “I was rudderless,” she says in the second episode (“Curious George”), “I didn’t belong.” Rejecting such tenuousness, George tries to hurt herself but can’t make it stick, her body being undead and all. “Reapers heal way too fast,” she complains. “I wanted to be damaged beyond repair, incapacitated. If I couldn’t do it, they couldn’t make me do it, could they?” But she can do it—that’s who she is now. Or what she does now. (Rube intimates there is a distinction.) When George decides, in protest, not to take a soul from one assignment, whereupon she learns that leftover souls remain in dead bodies, trapped and panicky as autopsies and other atrocities are performed upon it. The lesson is effectively gruesome (the soul cries out from inside a morgue slab, its point of view recalling for George’s benefit the doctor coming at it with a chest-opening buzz saw).
As bad as taking souls may be, George soon learns that everyday existence is worse: cramped up in her cubicle, lit up in the Xerox room, jostled in the city bus (“Commuting is a prison sentence,” she observes, “Freedoms are being systematically stripped away” [“The Bicycle Thief”]), she frets over her lack of options. More ordinarily and also more strangely, George begins visiting her home, watching her sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), who has taken to collecting toilet seats she hangs on a tree, a shrine to her dead sister and the tremendous loss she feels but cannot say. Rube warns her not to visit (or, he says, a “torrent” will come down upon her), but George keeps on. In “Curious George,” Joy has already boxed and labeled her belongings by the time she musters the nerve to sneak inside her old room: “God bless my mom,” she says on encountering neat stacks of boxes. If she ever put a bullet through her head, it would probably be labeled.”
Still, George tries to make contact with Reggie, her dad (who’s having an affair with one of her ex-classmates [“The universe was cocking the fuck-with-me gun”]), even Joy, who chases off the stranger on her doorstep (Millie), calling her a “skanky bitch” and accusing her of harassment. Though George doesn’t quite appreciate it, Roxy’s approach to such grand-scaled dilemmas is improbably elegant. Seeing George’s inability to stay away from the home that so tested her as a brusque teenager, Roxy picks her up in her meter maid’s truck, and carts her back to Rube, with advice that she confess or else (Roxy’s employment as a meter maid reflects and also expands on her wonderfully surly sensibility: “You’re an ornery bitch, and you eat puppy dogs for breakfast,” says Mason).
George’s lesson is trite but also useful. She realizes, “It’s cruel and simple: the more I tried to hang onto my life, the less there was to hang onto.” This becomes clear for each character in turn (Betty whisks herself off into a white blast of nowheresville, whereupon she’s replaced by daisy Adair [Laura Harris], a classic Hollywood starlet, who likes to boast about blowing Clark Gable and Babe Ruth). Roxy’s own snipey frustration comes to a head as Rube catches her filing her nails in Der Waffle Haus, where the Reapers meet each day to receive Post-Its from Rube, with names and ETDs assigned.
This time, in “Business Unfinished,” he sits beside her, warns her not to “try to bullshit [her] way of an existential crisis.” Roxy insists she’s not mourning her own death (21 years later), but invites him home to share one of her Bundt cakes. “Being undead gave you a lot of time to think about your life and its end,” says George in voiceover as Roxy tosses old Jennifer Beals videotapes into a blazing fireplace. “Revisiting the hour of your passing, its details, the injustice of it all.” At which point, we see Roxy the young dancer invent the toeless sock (that is, legwarmer) that would drive Flashdance fashion and be murdered by a girlfriend, who then steals the patent. In her momentarily fretful flashback, Roxy’s left throttled on her bed.
But Roxy—brilliant, feisty, sardonic—doesn’t have it in her to fret for long. Rather, as George notes, she’ll break rules to make the rules make sense. When, in “Sunday Mornings,” a large young man with too many parking tickets gives her a hard time, Roxy, so seemingly slight, fights back, earnestly. Grabbing his soul right out of his chest, she holds that soul up in her fists, just long enough to change his life forever. “Let me tell you something,’ she proclaims. “I am trying to do my job. If you keep fucking with me, I assure you there are other skills I can employ that will give your life a turn for the strange and the painful.” He’s changed, of course, forever. “Nothing happened,” she insists. His eyes go wide. “Everything happened,” he sighs. His enlightenment will be brief (Rube insisting she take it back, turn him back into a “prick”), but he’s all too right. As bright and appealing as George is, and as wise as Rube seems, Roxy is the vibrant, dead-on center of Dead Like Me.