July 2007 Update!!!!!! There is going to be a movie! So the first sentence in my original review below turns out to be inaccurate. Star Ellen Muth goes so far as to hint that that a renewal of the series might be possible. Details are still forthcoming and apart from the movie (and I'm sorry, I don't know if this is a TV, a direct-to-DVD, or theatrical release) nothing definite is known about the chances of the series being revived, but this is definitely good news. There is some recasting. Mandy Patinkin, unfortunately, will not be back as Rube nor will Laura Harris as Daisy. It appears Rube's character is being replaced by a new head reaper, while a new actress will be playing Daisy. Otherwise all the other actors will be back.
Tragically, this will be the final season of DEAD LIKE ME that we will get. Although there is currently a campaign being waged to rescue the show, these campaigns inevitably and unfortunately result in failure. The cancellation of the show is hard to explain. It isn't as if Showtime has such a great string of hit shows that their valuable time slots had to be freed up for new critical and popular hit series. The fact is that DEAD LIKE ME was the finest show the network ever hosted, and its cancellation is both a blow to quality television on Showtime in particular but also television as a whole. The past few years have seen a host of the very best shows on television get cancelled. The list is long and contains some very impressive shows: FIREFLY, ANGEL, WONDERFALLS, KAREN SISCO, FARSCAPE, and many others. My lone cause for hope for the short term future of quality television is that LOST enjoyed such tremendous success in its first season that networks are currently scrambling for long story arc shows with well written, deeply interconnected scripts that typified all of the shows I mentioned above. Maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned. Unfortunately, not soon enough to save DEAD LIKE ME.
In its first season, DEAD LIKE ME quickly established itself as one of the quirkiest and finest shows on television. As any watcher of the show will know, Georgia Lass was a young girl who became a grim reaper after dying in a bizarre accident. The show explored what it means to be alive through the struggles of one who was no longer alive, but who nonetheless still was confronted with the need to persist in a world in which in many ways she no longer belonged. Issues of friendship, work, belonging, responsibility were all dealt with in clever, intelligent, and funny ways. The great news for those who haven't seen this series (and there are many who don't have Showtime and therefore rely on DVDs for their experience with the show) is that Season Two is a much, much better season than the first. Without exception, the writers manage to develop and expand all of the major characters, with the exception of George's father, who plays a lessened role. George becomes a far richer character, finally at ease with being a reaper and acknowledging that she has responsibilities. Her challenge in Season Two is deciding what she wants with the unlife that she has. She struggles with issues of love, and grows considerably as a human being. Even more than George, Rube (Mandy Patinkin) becomes a more complex, interesting character. In a slowly developed story arc, we learn more about Rube's life, we get glimpses of his family (he learns that a daughter he fathered in real life is still living, and he visits her in a nursing home immediately before her death), and are given some hints as to his death (the results of a bank robbery, the details of which might have been explored in Season Three). Mason, without ceasing to be a bit of a clown (in one episode, "Send in the Clown," literally), is revealed in far more complex and interesting person than he did in Season One, while Daisy Adair becomes vastly more than the mere self-obsessed sexpot she was earlier. In fact, Daisy becomes a many layered, sympathetic, impossible-to-predict individual. In particular, her relationship with Mason, who is completely smitten with her, is developed in great detail. George discovers that her parents are divorcing and that they are selling the house she grew up in, and we see her mother exploring new romance, and we watch her relationship with her daughter Reggie gain some depth as George's sister gradually comes out of the shellshock that gripped her in the first season following George's death.
What is remarkable to me is that the show managed to become richer and more complex on virtually every level, all while generating a string of great individual episodes. The frustrating thing about the show not being renewed is that there were a host of unexplored possibilities, so many unanswered questions. Would George manage to find love? Would her parents reconcile or find new relationships? Would her mother find a buyer for the house? Just how did Rube die, and was it related to the bank robbery? Would anything ever happen between Daisy and Mason? And there were a host of life experiences that had not yet been explored. There was unquestionably a large amount of room for many more stories.
DEAD LIKE ME is a great example of a show that doesn't fit traditional entertainment economic categories. It was produced by MGM television, but shown on Showtime. The latter at least in part declined to renew the show because its rating were not strong, while MGM wanted it to be renewed in part because of the strong DVD sales. We have seen a number of shows that have enjoyed weak ratings on TV experience huge DVD sales. FIREFLY, FAMILY GUY, and WONDERFALLS are three examples. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is one of the best selling TV series ever on DVD, but never enjoyed especially large ratings on TV. My guess is that at some point the television production companies are going to have to work something out with the broadcast and cable networks to make it more attractive for the networks to keep shows that are highly successful on DVD but that do not get great ratings on the air. At present, most of the benefit of keeping DEAD LIKE ME on would have primarily benefited MGM, but not Showtime. Last year Twentieth Century Fox (not to be confused with FOX TV; though both have the same parent company, they are separate companies) very much wanted to keep ANGEL going because of its strong DVD sales, but the WB wanted to go in new directions (bad directions, it turned out, since none of its shows this year have gathered the ratings that ANGEL did, nor have any enjoyed the critical acclaim that it did). More and more overall viewership of TV series is declining, while DVD sales and rentals of TV shows is increasing. This is good for production companies, but bad for networks, and some formula needs to be found to make it good for both. ANGEL was cancelled in part because Twentieth Century Fox refused to reduce the amount it charged the WB to show the series. Until the production companies agree to help close the loss of income the networks are experiencing, I think we are going to see a lot of shows that have a small but dedicated audience fail to be renewed. Everyone loses. The production company loses the opportunity to sell their product to the networks and the potential DVD sales. The networks lose because they are getting cheaper but more mediocre product. And the fans of shows lose because they find high quality shows like DEAD LIKE ME pushed aside for blander and less interesting programming.
At least we have two very fine seasons to watch of this very, very good series. We can only hope that the television industry can find the right alchemy to make it possible for superb series like this survive in the future.