DEAD LIKE ME (2003-2004)
Image B+ Sound B Extras D
"Pilot," "Dead Girl Walking," "Curious George," "Reapercussions," "Reaping Havoc," "My Room," "Reaper Madness," "A Cook," "Sunday Mornings," "Business Unfinished," "The Bicycle Thief," "Nighthawks," "Vacation," "Rest in Peace," "Send in the Clown," "The Ledger," "Ghost Story," "The Shallow End," "Hurry," "In Escrow," "Rites of Passage," "The Escape Artist," "Be Still My Heart," "Death Defying," "Ashes to Ashes," "Forget Me Not," "Last Call," "Always," "Haunted"
DEAD LIKE ME: LIFE AFTER DEATH
½*/**** Image C+ Sound C+ Extras D
starring Ellen Muth, Callum Blue, Sarah Wynter, Henry Ian Cusick
screenplay by John Masius and Stephen Godchaux
directed by Stephen Herek
PUSHING DAISIES: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
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"Pie-lette," "Dummy," "The Fun in Funeral," "Pigeon," "Girth," "Bitches," "Smell of Success," "Bitter Sweets," "Corpsicle"
by Walter Chaw Diagnosing the ills of Showtime original productions is a tricky deal, but whatever's wrong with them seems consistent across the board. Compared against HBO's output, there's nothing that can hold a candle to "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under" or "Big Love"; there aren't any masterpieces like "Deadwood", much less fascinating failures like "Carnivàle" or "Rome". To be brutally honest, it doesn't matter if we lower the bar, since not a single Showtime series could be called good on network TV terms, either. Flagships "Dexter" and "Weeds" are both overwritten and under-thought, jumping sharks regularly beginning somewhere around the middle of their first seasons and betraying their unsustainability faster than "Heroes". It's not for lack of star power or high concept that Showtime shows suck--not a surfeit of budgets or production values, no. I'd argue that the reason they're awful is because Showtime is incapable of hiring writers who aren't twee asswipes molding themselves to pop morality and rote, conventional character sketches and plot outcomes. Those hailing "Dexter" as an antiheroic crime thriller need to consider the storyline about the tough-talking Latina cop who has her heart softened by an Elian Gonzalez clone, or the revelation that Dexter might not be a serial killer after all, but a teddy bear with issues. And just as "Dexter" wastes the wonderful Michael C. Hall in its title role (ditto "Weeds"/Mary-Louise Parker), so, too, does another bit of Showtime dreck, "Dead Like Me", boast the excellent Ellen Muth and Mandy Patinkin in the pursuit of decidedly modest returns.
Place the blame for "Dead Like Me" squarely in the back pocket of creator Bryan Fuller, so fond of his own cleverness that his characters are forced in thrall of his ventriloquism. Singular vs. single: It's one thing when Terrence Malick's creations all speak in his voice, something else entirely when Fuller's or Diablo Cody's do. Only the adorable Muth and the irascible Patinkin make the series watchable in the slightest, succeeding for at least three episodes in distracting us from the fact that they've been handed incredibly feeble material. It's a great, torturous shame, then, that the show goes on for another twenty-six episodes before this error is remedied with cancellation.
Muth portrays one of Fuller's man-named girls, George, killed by debris from the Mir Space Station (specifically, a piece of the crapper) and matriculated into the world of grim-reaping by handler Rube (Patinkin). Her wry voiceover--and while voiceover is sometimes an effective tool, it's typically an expositional crutch--characterizes her as cynical, world-weary, and precocious, not to mention irritating and precious. Muth saves George, though, by betraying real vulnerability. After being forced to say that she's disappointed the first man to touch her naked body is the coroner, she's allowed to register a human emotion when she sees what she thought was her remote, uncaring mother (Cynthia Stevenson) react to her death at George's wake. The remainder of the first season is the establishment of rules and the introduction of quirky supporting Reapers Mason (Callum Blue), Roxy (Jasmine Guy), Daisy (Laura Harris), and the quickly-dispatched Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) as they gather with Rube in Fuller's favourite forced-intimacy location: the hallowed diner booth. Storylines follow George as she deals with the "ickiness" of her job, ferrying souls to the Great Beyond whilst learning the life lesson that one ought gather one's rosebuds as one might for time it is as old time does, still a-flyin'. Still hungry for quirk? George has to keep her day job because she refuses to, as Mason does, pillage her clients' corpses for economic sustenance--isn't that funny? Death's emissary is working at a temp agency! Worthy of a pilot by itself, that high concept! Shit, that one's good enough to merit 29 big-budget episodes (and one movie) on a subscription pay-cable service.
The pilot finds George with the trial-by-fire assignment of collecting the soul of a non-Christian little girl (Jodelle Ferland, who once had the market cornered on tragic young lasses between this, Silent Hill, Tideland, and "Kingdom Hospital"). Because this is Showtime, the little girl goes to a phantom carnival rather than Hell--and not one of those creepy carnivals with two-headed babies in mason jars, just a regular one with a ferris wheel. The near-feature-length introduction to the series also sees George's preteen sister, man-named Reggie (Britt McKillip), fetishizing her big sis's unfortunate expiration via a tree decorated with toilet seats. Even mental illness is hilariously quirky. All is well. In episode 1.2, "Dead Girl Walking," George declines to harvest a dead guy who subsequently becomes a member of the suffering undead, teaching her that for everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn. If the revelations seem pocket and trite, well, trust your instincts.
Perhaps inevitably, the first part of the first season is interested in testing the show's rule system. What happens when George doesn't do her job? What happens when she helps a client escape his death-time? What happens when a Reaper crosses over? Or gets a roomie he/she doesn't like? Or falls in love with someone from the wrong side of the tracks? "Dead Like Me" labours to have something for every tween audience: college hijinks in episodes 8 and 9, daddy-issue resolutions, grave decisions (no pun intended) on the fly... On and on the march of platitudes and glad-handing and cheap moralizing, most sprung in earthly monologues from daddy-Rube that play out like Doogie Howser's homey journal entries. Dreary would be better than patronizing, and without much in the way of overriding story arcs, the series takes on the repetitive quality of a conversation with a community church pastor. It's a bad sign that the nadir arrives before the end of the inaugural season with episodes dealing with people's last thoughts on this mortal plane and George coming to terms with her life as a ghost. Only fourteen hours in and this premise already feels tepid and exhausted.
"Dead Like Me"'s second season begins the recycling in earnest as George develops more crushes, we talk about another bike getting stolen in another sad nod to Vittorio De Sica that would be meaningless in any context but is especially so in this one, and we excavate further family drama as George's parents decide to divorce. Oh dear, how delightfully piquant, non? Too, George meets a rock star and deals with Heathers while Rube tries on the Kindergarten Cop shtick for size as wet-nurse for a day. Contrivance upon contrivance, there's the suggestion borrowed from the "Mr. Death" episode of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" that you can actually avoid dying if you refuse to ever see anybody. Bottom of the barrel scraped as the series begins to go the crime-caper route with unsolved murders and Frank Capra homeless scenarios before raping Alzheimer's in an hour that plays distressingly like elderly slapstick. And then there's a serial killer, paving the way for "Dexter", Showtime's next big thing. A shame that a second-season development of George busting her cherry didn't lead to some serious vagina dentata stuff--one of a multitude of opportunities squandered by the show's slack writing, for which Fuller, who moved on at the end of season one citing creative differences, is admittedly not to blame. Still, that the show did not improve without him speaks to the flawed foundation on which he built it.
Dead Like Me: Life After Death, a cable/dtv movie from earlier this year continuing the adventures of George in the afterlife, again came to fruition without Fuller, nursing a grudge against MGM and presumably too busy presiding over the ill-fated "Pushing Daisies" to care, anyway. With hack director Stephen Herek at the helm, we're reacquainted with our happy Reapers--suddenly sans Rube, who, in a throwaway reference, has "gotten his lights," which I heard as a euphemism for Patinkin saying, "Even though I'm not really employable anywhere else, I'm still not hard-up enough to want to do this picture." In Rube's place is Kane (Henry Ian Cusick, un-"Lost"); Laura Harris, wisely jumping ship, is replaced by Sarah Wynter (one "24" vet's as good as another, I guess); and in Muth's place is a twenty-six-year-old in pancake makeup bearing the actress's name. The whimsy now has to do with Kane not having Rube's organizational skills and with each of the characters receiving a subplot wherein they re-test all the rules that were tested over the course of almost thirty interminable, impossible-to-watch, difficult-to-differentiate episodes. It's not much of a surprise that the cliffhanger at the end of this trainwreck is that Rube might, wishfully thinking, return in some, still wishfully thinking, future instalment of this dead-as-a-doornail contraption. If only death were permanent!
Alas, Fuller returned with something even more crushingly whimsical. "Pushing Daisies" is so bad, so saccharine-sweet and invested in itself as an artifact of extreme interest, that there's naturally a cult for it. The guy-named girl this time around is Chuck (Anna Friel, gorgeous), the love interest for chief hero Ned (Lee Pace), a pie-maker who happens to possess the ability to bring the deceased back to life with a touch. Here're the rules: If he touches them again, they die for good--and if he doesn't touch them again within 60 seconds, something else has to go in their place. Rules, quirk, voiceover (here provided by objective narrator Jim Dale); an example of the series' adorable-ness is the way that folks are introduced by their years, months, days, hours, and minutes. Ned is twenty-nine years, six months, two days, three hours, and eleven minutes old at this moment and blah, blah, blah.
Hyperactively-paced, jump-edited to within an inch of epilepsy, and fond of the computer-aided trick shot that never fails to distract from any trace of humanity, "Pushing Daisies" is Babe: Pig in the City done by morons. (One of whom, Barry Sonnenfeld, adapts his signature abuse of the wide-angle lens for the small screen.) If it had the cleverness to call Ned's pie shop "The Pie Hole," why doesn't said bakery's "closed" sign read "shut" instead? Because it's only clever enough to be irritating and not nearly clever enough to be any good. Just like "Dead Like Me". And just like "Dead Like Me" again, the "pie-lette" (and huh? Shouldn't that be "pie-lot"?) establishes the rules and the rest of it explores the consequences of breaking the rules. When Chuck ends up dead, it's up to Ned to decide whether or not to keep her alive for longer than a minute. Obviously, he does. Of course, this being a Fuller production, that dreadful arbitrariness of existence is turned into marshmallows and baby chicks, as the victim of his wanting to fuck the reanimated corpse of Chuck is a slimy funeral director (Brad Grunberg) given to pocketing his clients' goods. Exactly like that hot Reaper from "Dead Like Me", right?
Ned has a sideline to his wildly successful pie-making venture solving crimes and collecting rewards with PI partner Emerson (Chi McBride): Ned will reanimate a victim, have him/her tell them whodunit, and then re-kill the dead before time's up. Stupid is as stupid watches. The show hits rock-bottom (though it didn't have far to fall) as early as 1.4, "Pigeon," when a whimsically Frankensteinian bird...oh Jesus, who gives a shit? "Pushing Daisies" is genuinely awful stuff. Wouldn't it be funny to do one where a woman dies in a scratch-and-sniff book explosion? Or how about one where it turns out that a "green" vehicle that runs on dandelions has a poor crash-test rating? Where are the show's sympathies, anyway? Since Ned can't ever touch Chuck again, lest he snuff her out for real this time, there are a few fetishistic images of the two smooching through a sheet of cellophane that would, in a more generous show, translate into the obvious gag of full-body condoms à la The Naked Gun.
Oh, there's also the comically well-endowed Olive (Kristin Chenowith), who works at the pie shop and lusts after Ned. And the eccentric aunts who used to perform as mermaids at a local water park or something and now are embarrassing footnotes on Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz's respective résumés. The cast is game because it's great to have a job, but succeeding in a questionable endeavour is the most pyrrhic of life's victories, isn't it? To call "Pushing Daisies", as some have, the best that network television can get is not only a strident condemnation of network television, it's patently wrong as well. (Almost every evening of the current primetime line-up offers a higher watermark than this.) Maybe it's a matter of semantics, this problem that many have in distinguishing something that's visually restless from something that's actually fresh. Even there, though, what "Pushing Daisies"' brief critical popularity highlights is an essential ignorance about every other relic of popular culture that Fuller & Co. have ripped off with those Oz-ian hurdles of less verve, less intelligence, and less heart.
THE DVD - DEAD LIKE ME: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
"Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection" bundles the program's two seasons in thinkpaks along with the retail DVD of Dead Like Me: Life After Death for ease of efficient, and forceful, hurling. The content appears to be the same as on the individual releases, with all of the first season's special features crammed onto Disc 1 of that set. In a commentary teaming Muth, Stevenson, Patinkin, Blue, and Guy, the actors take turns quizzing one another on when they became involved in so wonderful a production as this. Patinkin is evidently keen to talk metaphysics, but the chorus of appreciative cooing and a few instances of false modesty from Jasmine Guy that ring like genuine pomposity drown him out repeatedly. It's awful; and when Stevenson says that she cries every time she watches George get charred to a cinder by a flaming toilet seat, well, here we are watching it, too, and...nothing. A brief "Behind the Scenes" (7 mins.) sporting the standard razzmatazz was probably made as a cushion aired between other things you're not watching on Showtime, and 32 Deleted Scenes (30 mins.) compiled in a haphazard fashion run the gamut from not interesting to really not interesting. There's a 30-image photo gallery that no one will bother to step through and a "Music of" (5 mins.) piece that wheels out composer Stewart Copeland for a couple of soundbites centred around the idea that this is a show about a mouthy little bitch who's killed and remains a mouthy little bitch. Finally, there's a "Journal for the Recently Deceased," i.e., clickable classifieds with fake obits for season one's various casualties. It's cute and quirky!
Moving on to the season-two supplements, this time housed on the fourth of four platters, "Dead Like Me Again" (11 mins.) is yet more junket regurgitation and B-roll and episode clips. "Putting Life Into Death" (12 mins.) pointlessly essays the series' dreadful CGI over the course of six scenes. Nine "Deleted Scenes" (11 mins.) consist of more dialogue, more sitting in diner booths, yadda yadda yadda--endless repetition and regurgitation of the same intrigues and worries to rapidly diminishing returns. Lastly, sixty images comprise another sure-to-be-bypassed Photo Gallery sorted by publicity, production, and on and on. For what it's worth, "Dead Like Me" retains its 1.78:1 aspect ratio on DVD in 16x9-enhanced transfers; shot in filmic HD, it certainly looks vivacious compared to the syndicated reruns. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is loud if unimaginative--but then, consider the show it decorates. Bam!
Dead Like Me: Life After Death thuds home in a muddy and inconsistent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen rendering. Lots of video noise betrays a general lack of interest in controlling the quality of the project, while skin tones are peculiarly artificial: Either everyone has a tan or pains were taken to disguise Muth's de-aging make-up. The DD 5.1 audio is focused almost entirely in the front channels, with dialogue regrettably clear throughout. Herek and Muth collaborate on a full-length yakker long on self-congratulation and short on interest. They spend most of it praising the debuting cast members and patting themselves on the back for pissing all over whatever legacy the show had with something even diehards deemed inadequate. "Dead Like Me: Resurrecting the Show" (14 mins.) is more of the same over-praise of the new arrivals. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - PUSHING DAISIES: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
Meanwhile, Warner pushes "Pushing Daisies: The Complete First Season" onto Blu-ray in glorious 1.78:1, 1080p presentations more refined than their broadcast-HiDef counterparts. Colours are super-hyperactive, resulting in an eye-stabbing artificiality that is, of course, the intention of the thing. The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is relatively bland: There's no fuzz or distortion to speak of, and to be fair, the lack of dynamics might be a limitation of the medium--but except for the rumble attendant to a riff on the Headless Horseman (1.5, "Girth"), there's not a lot to get excited about. Thankfully, the only extra tacked onto the three Blu-rays that house nine episodes (the season was cut short by the writer's strike) is a "Pie Time: Time for Pie" sub-menu that offers up a different "slice" for each of the episodes covering making-of errata--a deleted scene here, a talking-head there, nothing fancy, all irritating. These segments run anywhere from one to ten minutes apiece and mostly have Pace and Fuller discussing in brief favourite scenes, the terrible F/X, and now and then the casting of McBride, Greene, et al--which is, at least, preferable to Fuller talking about the "concept" of this pile of crap. As none of the featurettes are labelled and there's no "play all" option, the effect is that you're spending a lifetime cycling through this shit in the pursuit, vain, of something of value. In the words of Anne Sexton, not there. An anti-piracy clip and a promo for the now-cancelled show round out the package. Originally published: April 13, 2009.