Monday, November 18, 2013

The Lighter Side of Death: The Demise of Dead Like Me

 “Life sucks, and then you die. And then it still sucks” – George Lass

Georgia “George” Lass is eighteen years old and has just died. Unlike others around her she isn’t destined quite yet to journey into the light; George is the city of Seattle’s newest Grim Reaper.
Created by Bryan Fuller, the television series Dead Like Me (2003) takes place in North America in the early 2000s. The show follows a group of the undead, called Reapers for short, that has been tasked with stewarding the souls of those who die to the afterlife.

Contrary to the typical images of blood-covered, brain-hungry zombies, the undead depicted here are quite akin to the living. In fact, their mission objective includes blending in, so as not to startle those yet to lose their lives. Each city or district has different Reaper units, specialising for example in plague, disease, or unnatural deaths, such as murder. The lack of zombie gore and the official departmental mind-set results in the entire show presenting an almost mundane view of death; the Reapers even need to fill out performance reviews. This is strongly echoed in the opening credit sequence, consisting of classic Grim Reapers (black robes and scythes) partaking in everyday activities, such as doing laundry, waiting for a bus, and struggling with an office stapler. Despite an undoubtedly interesting premise, Dead Like Me only survived for two seasons. So I ask: did the story of George Lass come to a natural ending or were alternate elements at play?

It can be noted that Dead Like Me has a somewhat inconsistent existence. During the early 2000s television sitcoms began changing their structure from single episode story lines to those which spanned entire seasons. Prior to this, each episode was clearly a stand alone story and could easily be viewed independently. As viewers began to watch the characters develop the writing teams adjusted their styles to those usually found in dramas, specifically by developing each character's story throughout the season. This trend can be clearly followed in both That ‘70s Show (1998) and Friends (1994). In both shows towards the start of their existence, the group dynamics and individual relationships always reset to the status quo at the beginning of each episode, and events in previous episodes are rarely mentioned at a later stage. However, as the show matures and the relationships change it becomes impossible to maintain such a system and the show evolves into a drama, i.e. based around the ever changing interactions between people. Both shows illustrate a change in viewer interest at the time.  Caring for individuals and their complicated lives has become the core of television series’ since the early 2000s--for example, Lost (2004), The Wire (2002), Arrested Development (2003), and Battlestar Galactica (2004). All of the above depend heavily on over-arching storylines and character development, a trend now considered commonplace and standard for series’ of today.

However, Dead Like Me initially entered the television landscape with both over-arching and semi-episodic storylines. Determined to capture the one-time viewer along with the dedicated weekly watcher, the production team includes detailed catch-up flashbacks at the start of each episode and also adds unexplained details in certain story arcs. This multi-faceted approach perhaps leaves little time to fully develop either style of storyline, leaving both viewing groups always wanting more from each episode.

As well as the structural differences, Dead Like Me initially tries to capture both the comedic aspect of the sitcom and the personable nature of a drama. Billed as a comedy-drama, the interface between the two genres can feel quite jarring at times. As the protagonist, George finds it hard to adjust to undead life. Occasionally, she travels home to spy on her now-grieving family. In order for the show to maintain its light-hearted label, the grieving is shown through the eyes of her ten year old sister, Reggie. To honour her sister’s memory, or perhaps in an effort to communicate with her, Reggie begins stealing toilet seats (trust me, this relates to the circumstances of George’s death). Surprisingly, this comedic device actually leads the viewer to sympathise with Reggie and instils a feeling of pity and a desire to help her.

Perhaps illustrating the dark side of comedy is an intentional move on the behalf of the writers. They explicitly do so in the pilot episode where the classic “slipping on a banana peel” gag is utilized as a cause of death for George’s first Reaping experience. Whether intentional or not, the strong disconnect causes a conflict in the mind of the viewer: should I laugh when someone is killed by a falling piano, or should I think of their family and those they left behind? Without ratings numbers from the network (as none were ever released), it remains impossible to determine explicit viewer sentiment. So perhaps jumping the line between comedy and tragedy on too regular a basis was influential in the cancellation of the series.

Ultimately, Death is a heavy subject no matter how boring or mundane you try to make it.  Combining it with a comedic outlet is a difficult objective and one Dead Like Me struggles to achieve. The confused existence of each episode can be considered a parallel to the emotions felt by George as she attempts to adjust to her new role. However, the interlaced storylines and conflicting emotions developed throughout the series leave the viewer unsure of the show's genre and aims. Intentional or not, internal conflict is not attractive to the average sitcom audience, and comedy does not always appeal to those searching for a drama watch. Therefore, what may be a clever narrative device actually betrays the writers and deters watching the show further.

The show's creator, Bryan Fuller, has a clear fascination with death and conflicting emotions. He is responsible for another off-the-wall, death-centric television series, Pushing Daisies (2007) and is currently working on the thriller, crime-drama, Hannibal (2013). The former also walked the line between comedy and drama, unfortunately only lasting for 22 episodes itself. However, Fuller's current project, Hannibal, is a pure thriller and crime drama. It allows Fuller to delicately deal with conflicting themes by developing a lead character who can empathize with serial killers. The detailed tensions expertly introduced are more suited to this platform than his previously attempted sitcoms. As Dead Like Me, the story of a modern-day Grim Reaper, did not survive past 29 episodes I feel its inherent conflicts were ultimately the cause of its demise. Thankfully, what I have considered flaws in a comedy-drama television series are actually heavily sought-after traits in the world of thrillers and crime-dramas, a genre Fuller has finally found and is thriving in.

By Eadaoin McClean