TV, Interrupted: The Anti-Work Existentialism Of Dead Like Me Was An Omen

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

At 18 years old, "Dead Like Me" protagonist George Lass doesn't know who she wants to be, or even if she wants to be. But she's told in no uncertain terms by her mother what she's supposed to do: 

"You will get up, and go to work. You will collect a paycheck, and move out of this house."

A few hours of sucky temp work in an office basement later, George is dead — struck by a falling toilet seat from the deorbiting Mir space station and obliterated into a smattering of tiny burned chunks. But if she thought that would free her from all responsibility, she has another thing coming. Lingering on Earth in the wake of her death, George is told by her new boss, Rube (Mandy Patinkin), what she's supposed to do next: collect the souls of the dead, and usher them on to the afterlife.

Yep, it's another crappy job that she has no enthusiasm for. And to make matters worse, it's unpaid. Which means that if George wants to eat food and pay rent, she has to go back to her other job and make nice with her other boss, Delores Herbig (Christine Willes). As George puts it: "Life sucks, and then you die. And then it still sucks."

Why Dead Like Me was great

It's an over-simplification to say that the pandemic is the only cause of the recent phenomenon as the Great Resignation: workers quitting their jobs en masse, leaving a critical labor shortage behind them. As much as the past few years have sucked, the decade that preceded them wasn't that great either. In the wake of the financial crash of 2007-2008, there was a pervasive sense that you were lucky to have a job, any job, and you'd better not complain about the pay or conditions because everyone is replaceable.

But as George Lass can attest, nothing shakes you out of an apathy coma quite like a brush (or a head-on collision) with mortality. The massive status quo shake-up of the pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to a generation of workers pondering what exactly they're getting out of their job, and daring to ask if things could be better. That's the conflict at the heart of "Dead Like Me" (which was created by frequent TV, Interrupted guest star Bryan Fuller). The series ran on Showtime for just two seasons in 2003-2004, yet it feels more relevant now than ever. 

George's youthful defiance and her burning need to always be asking "why?" are an irritant to her apathetic coworkers and her irascible, set-in-his-ways boss, but with death behind her she now has very little to fear from trying to find the meaning of life. George pushes and prods at the system she's found herself in — trying to use her newfound "power" to spare the life of a little girl, or to change the fate of a CEO, or even to ignore her grim reaper duties entirely. And every attempt ends with an exasperated Rube showing her the damage she's done, and telling her she needs to stop thinking so much and just do what he tells her to do.

"Dead Like Me" strikes a delicate balance of never making it quite clear who is right and who is wrong. Is George petulant and immature for wanting to rock the boat, or is her desire to do so proof that she's still (sort of) alive? Is Rube a rube for obediently following the rules, or does he have some secret wisdom that George isn't privy to? 

Through George's coworkers (in one episode she comes to the depressing realization that she has no friends, only coworkers) "Dead Like Me" explores other ways of dealing with the relentless grind of the 9-to-5. Designated "f***-up" Mason (Callum Blue) chooses hedonism and anarchy — doing the absolute bare minimum required to keep his job, freely looting the corpses of his clients, and spending his ill-gotten gains on drugs and booze. Tough, stony-faced Roxy (Jasmine Guy) takes her cues from Rube, focuses on working her two jobs (she's also a meter maid because, again, reaping doesn't pay the bills) to the best of her ability, and plays by the rules ... mostly. The daring Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) makes a leap of faith that leaves George looking after her longingly. And Betty's replacement, Daisy (Laura Harris), is a former actress who still wears a theater mask at all times in her new life as a reaper.

Why Dead Like Me was canceled

As beloved as "Dead Like Me" still is by its diehard fans, Bryan Fuller told Media Village in 2005 that he had "mixed feelings" about the experience of making the series — not because of Showtime ("The Showtime people could not have been sweeter to me"), but because of his "traumatic" clashes with the production company, MGM Television:

"It was like being at war. I lost weight. I had arguments where they would tell me I didn't know what a pretty woman looks like because I'm a gay man. It was the worst type of gross old boy studio experience you could imagine. They were constantly trying to strong arm me. It was the worst experience of my life."

Fuller left the show partway during the first season, and said in retrospect that "when Showtime canceled the series, it was actually a bit of a relief."

The actual reasons for the cancelation of "Dead Like Me" remain unclear. A Variety report from 2005 offers one theory that "its days became numbered when Robert Greenblatt replaced the man who greenlit the show, Jerry Offsay, as president of entertainment for Showtime," while noting that the official line from Showtime was that ratings for "Dead Like Me" season 2 weren't strong enough to support a third season. Full ratings for the show aren't available, but the "Dead Like Me" premiere scored a then-record 1.11 million viewers for Showtime, and one report from prior to its cancelation claimed that it was "generating ratings three times the network's primetime average." Fuller himself suggested that a conflict between the network and the studio may have been to blame, saying that "[Showtime] weren't satisfied with the storytelling on the show, and we were all frustrated with MGM."

MGM, at least, was keen to keep "Dead Like Me" going. The studio pitched to numerous other networks after the cancelation, hoping to find a new home for a third season. But these efforts proved fruitless, and in the end the show's last gasp came years later in the form of the direct-to-DVD movie "Dead Like Me: Life After Death." (It was pretty bad.)

Unfinished business

Part of the beauty and appeal of "Dead Like Me" was that it didn't really have a serialized storyline or much in the way of overall plot progression. The heart of the show, after all, was the fact that the characters were stuck in limbo: not yet ready to move towards the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Some shows have a monster of the week or a case of the week, but "Dead Like Me" had deaths of the week, with the grim reapers forced to search for their latest clients with nothing more than a few scant clues on a Post-It note: first initial, last name, place of death, and time of death. Fail to "pop the soul" in time, and the unlucky victim would experience the pain of their death rather than a smooth transition. The deaths themselves were often hilarious and convoluted (Rube's name may very well have been a tribute to Rube Goldberg).

Despite this vibe of unhurried wandering, "Dead Like Me" has a lot in common with another afterlife show that was far more plot-driven: NBC's "The Good Place," which saw four kind-of-okay-but-kind-of-crappy souls embarking on a journey to become better people after their lives on Earth had ended. Rube and his crew of grim reapers may not be looking for redemption, but each of them has fears, neuroses, and unfinished business anchoring them to their mundane existence.

So, while there may not have been any particular plot threads left lingering at the end of "Dead Like Me" season 2, there was still plenty of mileage in the characters themselves: Mason's substance abuse as a manifestation of his self-loathing; Daisy's self-aggrandizement as a shield for her loneliness; Roxy's anger over the life that was stolen from her when she was murdered; Rube's regret over leaving behind his 6-year-old daughter when he died, and his subconscious efforts to compensate by being a father figure to George. Like the never-ending piles of paperwork at George's day job, there was meaning to be found in the monotony of their undead duties.

Will Dead Like Me ever return?

As mentioned above, "Dead Like Me" did receive a brief attempt to shock it back to life in the form of the feature-length sequel "Dead Like Me: Life After Death," but what we got was more of a postmortem spasm. It suffered greatly from the absence of Mandy Patinkin's Rube, whose world-weary paternal presence within the group acted as a much-needed rock amid the swirl of chaos and occasional cartoonishness. Meanwhile, the role of Daisy was recast with Sarah Wynter taking over from Laura Harris — an unenviable task after Harris had so thoroughly made the character her own, and a change that fans didn't respond well to. 

You could say that "Life After Death" was the final nail in the coffin ... but perhaps it was a sign that "Dead Like Me" is better left to rest in peace, and that it would benefit more from rediscovery than from revival. The series is currently available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi, so it's there waiting to be discovered by anyone looking for a show about the vast mysteries of our own mortality, the search for the true meaning of life, and the tediousness of making photocopies.