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TV Review: 'Dead Like Me' comes to life on Showtime

Friday, June 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Tv Editor

Showtime's "Dead Like Me" sounds like a brazen, edgier "Touched by an Angel," but it's surprisingly more ambitious and more character-driven than its premise suggests.


WHEN: 10 tonight on Showtime.

STARRING: Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin


Sullen teenager Georgia "George" Lass (Ellen Muth) dropped out of college, has little motivation and finds the only jobs a potential employer will consider her for involve "redundant duties" such as filing.

This sad sack realizes how lucky she has it only after the Mir space station re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, goes off course and a toilet seat somehow survives the fiery descent to come plunging down on George, killing her instantly.

But George's "death" is short-lived. She's selected to act as a grim reaper, whose job is to remove a person's soul prior to their death, which is instigated by computer-generated goblins called gravelings.

As a reaper, George once again takes corporeal form, but she appears different to those around her. So when she encounters her brittle, unhappy mother (Cynthia Stevenson, nicely cast against type), George goes unrecognized.

The head reaper, Rube (Mandy Patinkin), tries to guide George, whom he calls "Peanut," and introduces her to her fellow reapers, including the British Mason (Callum Blue) and Roxy (Jasmine Guy), who works as a meter maid because reapers have to pay rent and buy food, too.

Created by Bryan Fuller, who wrote tonight's 75-minute premiere, "Dead Like Me" is more interested in exploring George's new life than it is in concentrating on her victims, whose deaths are sometimes darkly comic.

Some may see "Dead Like Me" as an attempt to ape HBO's popular "Six Feet Under," but "Dead Like Me" is not a soap opera. It's less rooted in reality and yet its depiction of teenage ennui and, later, regret, are palpable.

With her depressive gaze, Muth, who looks like a young Leah Remini ("The King of Queens"), sometimes makes George difficult to embrace, and yet your heart can't help but go out to her and her family, whose reactions to her death are chronicled throughout the first season.

For a show that dabbles in serious matters, "Dead Like Me" has a disappointing, but predictably hateful, Hollywood attitude toward religion.

"I was born again, but not in a creepy, religious way," George says.

"I hope it's not all God-y like in the Bible," reaper Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) says when discussing the afterlife.

When George discovers the first person she must shepherd to the other side is a kindergartner, she lists all the things she'd rather be doing, "like having a root canal or a pap smear or going to church."

Perhaps that disdain will disappear in future episodes when John Masius ("Providence") takes over as show runner.

Regardless, "Dead Like Me" is an imaginative, thought-provoking program, easily the best Showtime series since "Beggars & Choosers." George's journey takes precedence over the show's high concept, investing "Dead Like Me" with characters and absurd situations that make it easier to forgive the gratuitous we're-on-Showtime! profanity.

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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