[20 July 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
If you can set it up so you’re not frightened to die, what’s left? Living.
—Mandy Patinkin, “Dead Like Me... Again”
I ain’t got nothing but wrong jobs.
—Roxy (Jasmine Guy), “Send in the Clown”
I loved Halloween because I loved looking into other people’s houses.
—George (Ellen Muth), “Haunted”
“Last year, she was very angry that her life was taken from her at such a young age,” Ellen Muth says, describing her character in Dead Like Me. “This year, she’s become a lot more confident in her death.” And yes, during the series’ second season, now available on DVD, George Lass does seem more at ease with her death and her gig as a Reaper, picking up souls from the newly departed and leading them off to a great beyond that neither she nor the other Reapers has seen or quite understands. But they know it must be there, otherwise, why are they?
Muth’s comments for the flimsy behind-the-scenes extra, “Dead Like Me... Again” (the only extra included on the second season DVD set, aside from some deleted scenes) do underline the show’s primary thematic shift. Still, her experience as dead remains the focus, even with some added attention to supporting characters non-George-related stories. The Reaper crew still hangs out at Der Waffle Haus, where waitress Kiffany (Patricia Idlette) offers bits of human-connections wisdom “I don’t think you understand the meaning of the word ‘house.’ It’s a place where you can feel safe”). Here as well, each morning, Rube (Mandy Patinkin) hands out their soul-gathering assignments on post-its. And each maintains a second job, in order to inhabit a human form and pay rent.
George still works at Happy Times, filing and smiling for Dolores (Christine Willes), who now sees in her young mentee a polished “young woman,” not nearly so surly and resentful as last year “I would never ‘shitcan’ you,” Dolores reassures George, stumbling a bit over this particular term for it, “You’re very special to me”). George does appear to be learning to make choice—to withhold information or express herself (she tells Rube not to call her “Peanut” anymore, a couple of times) with some deliberation. She’s also gotten better at visiting her sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), and worrying less about her currently separated parents, ferocious Joy (Cynthia Stevenson) and cowardly Clancy (Greg Kean).
While cast members note the second season’s “lighter” tone, it’s not until the second half that the comedy turns consistently sharp. Early episodes, for instance, the first, “Send in the Clown,” teeter between antic and too-bright, as if searching for a hook. (This suggests some network or producer anxiety concerning the previous season’s darkness, which was, for many viewers, exactly what was appealing about it.) Still, George’s voiceover—used to introduce and close each episode—is again mostly excellent, both fierce and vulnerable. “Send in the Clown” begins with typical sarcasm: “When I was alive, I never looked at the obituaries, I never looked at them once. Now that I’m dead, I read them first. The Reapers’ sports pages.” While her interest in death might be understood as a result of her daily business, it’s also indicative of her philosophical, even her spiritual bent. Each episode offers a little lesson in the connections between life and death.
“Send in the Clown,” for instance, has Mason (Callum Blue) posing as a children’s party clown in order to complete his day’s mission, the grabbing of birthday boy’s father’s soul (that Mason cannot see the utter ugliness of his insert-disguise is only the start of this non-development for the season). The episode also showcases a mass death scene—an accidental explosion under the street (initiated by those nasty CGI-ed gravelings, described by the newly confident George as “fucking troublemakers”). The scene is bloody and alarming, though brief, and George observes it with an apt, if disturbing, comprehension of ritual: “Bodies everywhere,” she sighs, walking among the corpses. “And a dead flower girl in the middle. It was like a really fucked up wedding.”
This idea comes back to George throughout the season, as she grapples with the fact that she was a virgin when she was hit by that lethal space station toilet (“I’m a virgin with a death certificate,” she says, “What the fuck am I waiting for?”). In a couple of episodes, she pursues sex, first with a Happy Times intern, and then, in “The Escape Artist” (2.08) and “Be Still My Heart” (2.09), with Trip (Robin Dunne), the wealthy, country-clubber son of one of her post-it assignments.
On one level, George’s desire for intimacy—even of a physical sort—inversely matches her parents’ increasing mutual rejection and distrust. They visit with a counselor who suggests, “For a marriage to work, the partners have to be in cahoots. Marriage is a silent conspiracy between two people to not confess everything, to let sleeping dogs lie.” For the Lasses, the conspiracy is an apt metaphor but also precisely what they can’t do anymore. Clancy moves out, Joy becomes even more brittle, and Reggie finds herself a goth friend, Raven (Nicole Potvin), who kohls up Reggie’s eyes, renames her “Spider,” and helps her hold a séance for George.
Again, the trajectory for Roxy (Jasmine Guy) remains one of the series’ most compelling. Deciding at last that meter-maiding is just tedious (though metaphorically resonant, and offering a short moment of allusion to Hill Street Blues: “Be careful out there”). And so she makes a change, signing up for the police academy, which means she’s soon carrying a gun, and eventually responsible for a death that’s not her Reaper duty. She’s unnerved by her capacity for killing, as part of her “rage” for order, but also part of her own desire for connection. Though Mason sees her as “a classic withholder, she inspires fear through restraint,” she reveals repeatedly that she has almost too much to give. “Nobody likes the cops anyway,” she says, “but they’re sure happy to see us when the shit hits the fan.”
Daisy (Laura Harris), who died in a fire on the set of 1939’s Gone with the Wind, continues to pursue an acting career, leading to an especially stressful relationship in the episode “Forget Me Not” (2.12), with director/acting coach/pimp Ray (a very creepy Eric McCormack). During this episode, George is dealing with the idea that some people are forgotten—in life as they will be in death, when she’s assigned to take the soul of homeless man. When she tries to give him a burial, as opposed to the city’s anonymous disposal, she’s got to come up with $400 just to get possession of the man’s ashes. “Some people,” she observes, “you just never forget, it’s like they get burned into your brain. Other people make no impression at all, it’s like they’re there, and then they’re not.” As much as George wants to honor memories, though, Roxy is acutely practical: “Everybody can’t get a monument, otherwise the world’d be one big-ass graveyard.”
In the season’s third episode, “Ghost Story,” George and the gang come to terms with another lifelong (and apparently deathlong) concern, the related fears of conformity and isolation. When she picks out a fake couple picture to serve as “parents” for her Happy Times cubicle, Roxy is mad that they are so painfully white bread, that they look like they wouldn’t associate with people “like me” (“I don’t understand why she wants that frosty tennis bitch to be her mom”). George explains her choice seemingly simply: “I just want to fit in. I just don’t want to stand out.” But even here, the options are complex, as she recalls her childhood, “Whatever everyone else was doing, I always went the other way. I just wasn’t a joiner.”
The season closes with a stunning meditation on order, meaning, and cultural mayhem, as, on Halloween, a serial killer shuffles anonymously from house to house, brutally killing all the souls on the crew’s post-its. “Haunted” (2.12) is structured by the holiday. “Now that I’m older and deader,” George derisively introduces the episode. “I see that Halloween is amateur night for death: ‘Oh look at me, I’m bleeding,’ ‘Oh look at me, someone hit me with an axe.’”
As she and the other Reapers seek out their assignments, they also look forward to their reward—enough chocolates and candy corn for days. “In a way, death was kind of like a door to door salesman,” says George. “Most people weren’t too interested in what we were selling. Or they just didn’t want to make that kind of long-term commitment. So we tricked them.” While George recalls her childhood affection for Halloween (“I wouldn’t have loved it so much if there was nothing to be afraid of, if some of the houses that I peered into weren’t haunted”), she also takes some bizarre pleasure in her own power, specifically, her vengeance on the serial killer, the guy who has haunted her own childhood nightmares of Halloween (he was working her neighborhood).
Fear and trust, love and survival. Such choices are never either or, but always shifty and simultaneous, best guesses. As George comes to grasp her death—as well as Reggie’s life, her mother’s anger, and her father’s failures—she also comes to think there might be no need for assurances. They’re never coming anyway. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to watch over them or just haunt them,” she says of Joy and Reggie, whom she finds asleep on her grave on the morning after Halloween. Probably both.