To Have and Have not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me
George: Well, I want my life back!
Betty: It’s not like you were doing anything with it.

Mondays, 7.30pm: everyone in Australia knows that’s the time for Desperate Housewives. At my house we’ve been trying to give ourselves to this hot new series, and it certainly does have bright sets, a polished ensemble cast who show the right balance of allure and repellence, the promise of secrets to be revealed, cruelties lurking beneath. And a dead leading character.

But it’s slow, and that polished look sometimes just says “look at the money on the screen,” which flatters the production system, not the viewer. In fact Desperate Housewives feels more like another episode in the long slow death-wish of American TV.

So while my partner is out of the room, and the three girls are watching it on the other telly upstairs, I find my attention drifting and hit the “booper” (the remote). In Australia Desperate Housewives is on free-to-air Channel Seven, currently resurgent in its ratings battle with arch rival Nine, not least because of this very show, together with some other high-profile buys from the US like Lost and 24.

Unlike the majority of Australians we subscribe to Foxtel (cable TV). The channel that sits between Seven and Nine is Fox8. Fox8 has its moments — early America’s Next Top Model being one of them. So it didn’t take much commitment to “boop” from Seven to Eight, but that’s as far as I got.

What is this? That delicious TV rarity, something that you can’t “place” in a millisecond. Coming to it cold, Dead Like Me did not make a bit of sense, to such an extent that we decided — partner was back now and not missing the Desperates — that it must be Canadian. So we watched it, just long enough we thought to figure it out before going back to our Housewives duty. But we never made it back.

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

Our family (two parents, three teenage girls) generally doesn’t eat or watch TV together. But Dead Like Me achieved that minor miracle. Week by week, the girls drifted in while it was on, and we ended up in a row like the Simpsons on the big yellow sofa, sometimes — it being what passes for winter in Australia — all snuggled under the one doona (quilt). We began to look forward to Mondays. So now, here’s another rarity; family communion, celebrated at the altar of “George” (Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth) — a teenager who’s dead, killed unglamorously by a toilet seat crashing to earth from Russian space-junk Mir. How useless was that, seems to be the story of her life, now that it’s over.

We all agree that Ellen Muth is “drop dead gorgeous.” But it isn’t just that. Her expressive face catches perfectly the bemusement and frustration of her character’s situation. Then there’s the deadpan humour, the fact that she says “fuck” a lot, and the inexplicable scenario and plotlines. We like her blue coat too.

It took a while to learn the internal logic of the series — how being dead worked, especially as the five main characters (all dead) interact at will with the living, even to the extent of Our Heroine losing her virginity to one of them. We had to understand George’s two workplaces: the diner where she picks up her post-it assignments from taciturn boss-reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and the Happy Times temp agency, presided over by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), who suffers from terminal perkiness.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast of really strange characters, each of whom requires attention before you “get” them. At first all this seems united by little more than Ellen Muth’s really terrific voice — her character is narrator as well; somewhere between dead Desperate Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), and Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart), who once “explained it all.” The timbre is a gravelly contralto, somewhere between teenage “fuck-you” and Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

Over the weeks Dead Like Me slowly resolved into sense, revealing itself not to be Canadian at all, even though it was shot in British Columbia. Part of the attraction is that it is not like American TV as we’ve come to expect/dread it, even though it’s playing around with a very familiar genre (teen-angst sitcom) in a very familiar bit of the zeitgeist — have you noticed how many dead people there are on TV these days?

Its textual pleasures are to do with freshness and unexpectedness within a format that audiences want to see disrupted a little; “jaded” humour (as my daughter puts it); script-led drama; taking the piss out of sacred cows (death, mothers, spirituality). It has insights into both family and work situations (sitcoms usually choose between these). Georgia’s mother is far from being a sympathetic character (teen sitcoms usually delete/idealise these). Creator Bryan Fuller knows his craft but is also audacious.

There’s quite a bit to say about it, but it is well covered in the review, fan and feedback sites, so why not browse them directly:

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site
Showtime

Anyway we like it and we’re currently watching it through to the end of the second series, which has been playing on Foxtel in Australia (and also on Sky in the UK) over the past few months. For us it’s new.

But in fact, Dead Like Me is already dead. It was made in 2003 and 2004; two series on Showtime and then cancelled. In the American market, almost the most interesting thing about it was that it was not on HBO, nor was it Six Feet Under.

Which raises another issue; the question of life after death not for characters but for TV shows, for TV itself. Once upon a time you watched broadcast shows when they were on in your country and then they died. But that’s no longer the case. There are ways to keep in touch with them, dead or alive.

First, we had to go through our “toilet seat moment” — the one where we discovered that this show we’d just fallen for was already dead in the USA. The experience of watching it changed right away — knowing that there was a finite number of episodes meant that the characters could only develop so far. Now there was no chance that Dead Like Me would be recognized for what it is and enjoy a shift to free-to-air prominence, ratings glory and umpteen seasons. It would never become Desperate.

On the other hand, it did enjoy plenty of post-broadcast action. The web yielded many interesting sites on which one can follow its afterlife, as well as those of its creators, cast, consumers and competition. We soon learnt that creator Bryan Fuller went on to do Wonderfalls. That was cancelled after only four episodes, despite 13 having been made. It went on to posthumous glory on DVD and global pay-TV channels.

Links:
Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

Not surprisingly, both seasons of Dead Like Me have also been released on DVD. Lots of folk think as highly of it as we do. You can read their comments on many sites, from Amazon to IMDb, and you can even sign a petition to MGM (who own it) to get it back. Last time I checked there were 47863 signatures.

Links:
Amazon
Petition
SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

Following this show has been like modeling what it means to “watch TV” these days. It is not an of-the-moment experience in real time, not live, not even broadcast. You have to “sit up” not “sit back” — enjoyment becomes less snuggling under the doona, more like working on the computer. It just goes to show how far TV has evolved from the broadcast era.

But some things have not changed, among them American corporations. We tried to order the DVDs, feeling mildly pleased that they cost only US$75 (down from $99) for both seasons. But we found they’re encoded for DVD Region 1, and we live in Region 4 so there’s no point ordering them. Then we tried to get them locally, but the suppliers don’t yet stock this DVD. Just to rub it in, when we went to the Showtime website to find out more stuff about the show, we were greeted with this message: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. You have requested data that the server has decided not to provide to you. Your request was understood and denied.” No wonder all the posts on the US websites are so rude about Showtime.

So — perforce — just until the final season ends, we can still enjoy sitting back and watching the show like a real TV family watching a real Brady sitcom. It won’t last. The DVDs will arrive, something else will come on Fox8, and everyone will drift away. It’ll be the end of TV as we knew it. You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

Please feel free to comment.

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36 comments

  • American death cultures abroad

    There are a couple of things about this column that intrigue me. One has to do with the odd spectre of the televisual afterlife of American TV internationally. Permeated as we are in the US by reruns and DVD’s that allow popular (and often not-so-popular) shows to linger, we are rarely left unaware that these shows have had their moment in the sun and have since become moldy. We recognize the rerun as a rerun even if we’ve never seen it before. How different that feels from the sudden realization Hartley describes of being informed that Dead Like Me has been put to rest while he and his family gather to watch the on-going saga. How eerie and siappointing. Like being told that the novel you are reading will end badly and then made to wait while J.K. Rawlings collects her royalty cheques. I wonder how that affects global perspectives on American popular culture? As something already over before others have gotten a chance to offer their insights and, therefore, always incondidrate of what the world might think of these stories sold on their “universal” appeals?

    The other thing that struck me about the column was Hartley’s general reading of the series Dead Like Me. While I agree that it certainly fits in with a current wave of death-obsessed series on TV, DLM struck me as the least facinated with death (this is, in fact, what made the series facinating in my opinion). Being a reaper was like being middle management with a minimum wage salary. I was always struck by how the show made the afterlife seem as mundane as the lives the dead characters had to assume in order to make ends meet. There were no great lessons, big bads or philosophical meditations, just unrewarding temp work. The series’ rendering of the unknown as unremarkable struck me as quintessentially engaged with current American anxieties over their status as “special” and fit more with the budding series of superhero media that seem to have erupted recently that also seek to make the heroic seem pretty uninspired. Again, I wonder how a series like DLM translates thematically outside of the US and why such alternative receptions always seem an afterthought to media producers even as the international market provides their products with an afterlife?

  • why did you not make any more series

    when are you going to make series 3

  • dead like me

    love the show.was the last episode the one on halloween or is there more.it finished last night on fox in adelaide 19/9/05thanks

  • I want it back!!!

    only fools would destroy like that good story, shame on you.The show is fabulous, you have in your arms very good hit don’t loose that.

  • Exactly

    I am in Canada and I have juts found out that this show is not not new, that its already been canceled. The article here totally describes my frustrations with TV series from the US that do not play in my country in realtime.

  • It sucks….

    Just finished watching season 2 and I was hooked since I first heard about it. Show Time cancelled it for Fat actress (Does anyone really care about rich celebs crying about how fat she was?) and Weed (What the heck is that?) What these two shows bomb and and watch the guy who canned it try to explain to the CEO why their ratings are down.My 2 cent.

  • Dead Like Me

    Showtime made a bad decision when they decided to cancel Dead Like Me. This show is so good that I bought both seasons after renting one DVD (we don’t get cable). It is so good that we were thinking about signing up for cable just to follow along. This show really deserves at least a wrap-up, but preferably 1-2 more seasons. If you are a network executive (any network), please pick up this show and run with it!! MGM, please put out a DVD with any taped but unaired episodes.

  • Dead Like me

    Why would you cancel a brillant show? I was hooked the first time I watched it. The premise was unique, You had a great group of veteran and new actors that brought their characters to life. The story line was not only funny but made me re evaluate the promise my life holds! Showtime you made a terrible decision and I hope mabey some other channel comes to pick up where you screwed up!!

  • Dead Like Me

    Stumbled cross a great show by accident and was hooked only to find out it had been canceled which left me bewildered. I thought at first that the show had been on for a few seasons so I rented the DVD’s only to find out that it only ran two seasons. I think in this day and age with so many channels and so many games (x-box, netendo, etc…) You can’t really count on the ratings anymore because shows like this tend to travel word of mouth. Too bad they cut this show off short. It was different, funny, sad, and entertaining, a true treasure. My family couldn’t wait until the next show. Now we searching the internet for any word on if another network or if showtime is going to resurrect this show because if they do we will be there watching until the bitter end.

  • Gone one year this Halloween

    It was the greatest. I miss it I can’t believe its been a year

  • The stupidity and demise of Showtime

    On the eve of Halloween suddenly and inexplicably my mind wanders to a better time,when life was made special by the wisdom and comfort of five reapers shuddering off of the flourescent glow of “Dur Wafle Hous”. My life is darker without the soul-searching ingenuity of this gut-wrenching show of emotion. Showtime, please bring it back. Give them a little bit of dignity for being a part of the most magnificint show in the history of television.

  • CAROL TRAVAGLIONE

    PLEASE,PLEASE, BRING IT BACK!

    THE ONLY REASON WE SIGNED UP FOR SHOWTIME WAS TO WATCH DEAD LIKE ME. THE CHARACTERSARE ALL FANTASTIC. YOU FEELLIKE YOU REALLY KNOW THEM.IT’S THE FIRST TIME MY 18 YROLD GRANDSON ACTUALLY WATCHEDA SHOW WITH US AND ENJOYED ITAS MUCH AS WE DID.IF MANDY PATIKIN HAS MOVED ONREPLACE HIM….SURELY YOUCAN FIND ANOTHER GRUMPY OLDGUY.

  • And the choice’s are…?

    Yes, I have been hooked on D.L.M. since the 1st season and was crushed when they axed it. And what are we given? A show about weed? What does that say about what they think of people watching T.V.? That we are empty-headed-morons that will never hold any expectations for quality. And we wonder why actors go out of the country for script’s. And to the actor’s that made these characters so great…I hope that all the praise for your work on the many sites comes back to you. Great job. And to the writers and creators..the same.

  • Kill Me…too,if Dead Like Me is off the air…and replaced by a crappy dim-witted reality show….Reality SUCKS!

  • A truly unique show

    I was staggered to learn that the show had been cancelled after such a short run. This was the first show that the whole family watched and enjoyed together, a rare thing in TV viewing these days. In fact I am sure this has been the only show to have managed this with my family. Words cannot begin to express the mind numbing short sightedness of the people that failed to see this shows cult potential. Here was a show that had it all and on an international level, we were able to identify with its characters and its situations, it made you laugh, it made you cry and it touched a lot of places in-between. There was no preaching or other propaganda just a down to earth story involving ordinary people placed in a not so ordinary situation. The whole effort of all involved from writers to actors made this a rare gem in a sea of forgettable shows. I salute the efforts of all for producing such a wonder and may this show go on to become truly undead.

  • More Canadian financed stupidy.

    Trust the Canadians to make a choice to finance a worthless piece of programming like Kenny vs Spenny and yet discontinue financing this little gem. Though it is not a blockbuster it somehow lures you back week after week to see if it can live up to its premice at least. I mean it almost has a lot of things going for it until you are forced to watch a Kenny Stupid show and realize how good the Dead Like Me really is. Give me a whole sason of Dead and still not watch another Kenny/Spennny piece of garbabe.

  • Somebody outta be SHOT!

    After receiving the 1st and 2nd season of Dead Like Me for Christmas….. my entire family is HOOKED!!!! I just watched the last episode of Season 2 ~ jumped online to see what info there was on the new seasons…. and discover THIS SCHITE!

    There has never been an offering that appealed to EVERYONE in my family…. It is so witty, so moving, so darkly funny and apparently now – so dead.

    What ignoramous is responsible for this brain child? The demise of a Quality and Thought Provoking show????

    I hope somebody’s ass gets canned BIG TIME for this blunder…. and I will say novenas that SOME OTHER vehicle picks up this group and gives us MORE Dead Like Me asap (and I don’t even go to church!!!!)

    I signed the petition…. like over 53,000 folks are PISSED…. I hope they all fight with their pocketbooks :grrrrrr:

  • “Canadian financed stupidity?”

    Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I think you need to do a little more research. As a huge fan of DLM, I’m probably among the fans that have done the most to bring Dead Like Me back, and I’m also a Canadian citizen.

    Where as I agree with you that Kenny vs. Spenny is a ridiculous show, and I truly dislike it, your statement is quite incorrect. Dead Like Me is not a Canadian show. It was filmed in Vancouver, primarily, but it’s done by an American production company (MGM Television), and was originally aired by an American television network (Showtime). Showtime cancelled DLM, and MGM is trying to find a new home for it.

    Dead Like Me is NOT financed by Canadian companies or networks, it never was. Showcase shows DLM now on Monday nights, but they picked it up AFTER the show was cancelled.

    I am insulted by your comments about Canadians, and highly reccomend you do your research before trying to criticize an entire country for a mistake made by ONE American (Robert Greenblatt, new President of Showtime). Dead Like Me is a truly amazing show, and I’ve worked very hard, among with thousands of other fans, to bring it back, but DO NOT think this is OUR fault. Kenny vs. Spenny is indeed an original Showcase series, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Dead Like Me whatsoever. Kenny vs. Spenny got it’s own time slot AFTER Dead Like Me was brought to showcase.

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  • dead like me!!

    I like the rest here, ordered this on dvd, am almost finished with season two and started searching for season three?? where is it and why is it not? This show is as brilliant if not more so than Lost, Desperate Housewives and the lot. It sure beats a ton of the copycat crap they tried to shove down our throats this season. Any network that picks this up and runs with it will have a loyal fan base for sure!!Lynn

  • Why Why Why!?! WHY! why would you destroy such a great show, god, i HATE t.v., i have not watched tv in years and years, in my opinion there is NOThing good on it, good eneugh to sit threw comercials, that was my thinking untill i senn this beutifull show, And then i find out it gets shelved after only two seasons? this is probley the best show i have EVER seen, and would gladly love to sit tossing and yturning waiting for the certain day of the week ewhen it comes on at what ever hour. how they could be so stupid to cancle this gem is … mind boggling, i finally find a show i like and it is dead before i know it.

  • Stupid People

    Dead Like Me was the most intelligent well acted show on TV. How stupid are those that cancelled it? VERY……

  • It’s no surprise that whoever made the decision to cancel DLM is some moronic executive and has no idea what constitutes a great show. “Dead Like Me” was dark, funny, entertaining and kept you coming back week after week. Just look at the consumer ratings of the DVD Series. Season one is rated 4.5 stars out of 5, and season two gets 5 out of 5. Dumb, Dumb, Dumb. Do something right for a change. Bring “Dead Like Me” back.

  • Grimly hanging on to hope

    I refuse to let go of this show. Yes. I am that stubborn. While it’s not everyone’s cuppa-tea, the fact that soooo many of us (& more to come, thankyouverymuch) love and appreciate it should hit the studio exec’s (like a well aimed toilet seat) that this show should continue! WAKE UP. STOP TOYING WITH US.

    To the Power(s)-That-Be at ShowTime: You may have made Dead Like Me go away, but you won’t make us Fans go away. We are a very persistant, noisy, loud, frustrated & increasingly angry lot.

    Please remove your head(s) from behind your left kidney and give us what we want – and WE WANT DEAD LIKE ME BACK !!!!!

    Thank you.

  • Never give up hope

    I feel the same way and went through the same things as the correspondent. But I will never give up hope. The forums he mentioned are well worth looking at.

    One can only assume that someone will realise the possibilities of this show and give it another go. After all if you can have numerous series of Alias, which is just JG in different wigs stealing / putting back various things while trying to not get killed then I’m sure there is room for a brilliantly written, filmed and produced piece of television like Dead Like Me…

  • why couldnt it have a couple more seasons!

    Im not from canada or anything but omg! i love that show why would they cancel it they should ask the people what they want not what they think is best. becasue who ever did that is wrong!!! Dead Like Me is the best show ever at least let it live for another season even if its on WB PLEASE!!!!!1

  • to be expected :(

    Dead like me was great, but it just didn’t have a broad enough appeal. It is more profitable to make a show that everyone can tolerate instead of one that a smaller group will just love. Dead Like Me was daring and it’s dark humor can be offensive to some people (aka idiots). The great unwashed would rather watch American Idol and the OC. I am currently enjoying House, nothing like DLM, but maybe since I like both of them and you all like DLM, you’ll also like House. Maybe not, but just think, we both also like to wander onto forums about TV shows we like. We probably have a lot in common. Do you play tennis?

  • Missing DLM

    My husband & I are huge fans of the show. We watched the final episode of Season 2 last Sunday on Showcase here in Canada. They are now rerunning it from the very beginning again. We will miss it. The writing, characters, plots were great!This is an American show filmed in British Columbia and I found it fun looking for Canadian actors who had minor roles in the series like Fred Ewanuick from Corner Gas (he was the guy selling the vegie chopper that killed him) and Eric McCormick (from Will&Grace) who had a bigger role as Daisy’s psycho boyfriend in Season 2. From here, I will go and sign the petition!

  • DVD Codes

    First I’d like to say that I absolutely love Dead Like Me. I started watching it after the series was cancelled and I am so disappointed. I bought the dvds that hopefully the producers make enough money to release another series on DVD.

    Also, there are international coded DVD players you can buy that should be able to DVDs (and sometimes VCDs!) from everywhere. Also, you can play these dvd in your computer if you have the right software :) I would try what you have with your computer then try some freeware after that. I hope that helps :D

  • that fucken pisses me off. i want a season three. no re-run bullshit.

  • Dead Like Me DVD

    I only recently got hooked on this show because it was shown on Sci-Fi in the U.S., with just one episode, it had me ordering the dvds the next day online. I spent two days watching it day and night and I absolutely adore this show. Why do station cancel good shows like Dead Like Me and Wonderfall or Tru Calling??? The original shows are always the first to go, while they keep these pathetic reality show and dimwitted comedy on t.v! I’m very disappointed, and can only hope that Sci-Fi will get enough good rating so that it can be picked up by them…

  • Pooh on you Showtime

    What stupid moronic boob canceled this show?Showtime, now you know why your ratings are so low. you make the same ignorant mistakes that the WB did with their shows. and now they have to merge with UPN. i will never again pay for or watch the Showtime channel. And whats that poop you have now? WEEDS? what a waste of perfectly good video tape.

  • drug addled producers

    Typical, a good show where the characters are just getting interesting and you flush it for what? Hey Showtime, I get your crummy cable channels and I don’t watch ANYTHING!!! People pay for your trash? Now this I would pay for if only I had known about it. I guess your coked out minds didn’t think of selling season 1 someplace free while season 2 was still on. Too complicated?

  • Dead Like Me

    Best show to come along in a decade! Who’s the idot who canceled it?

  • This is a quality show I use to watch religeously with friends. Quite frankly I dont watch weeds because I think it’s borderline stupid. There are other shows in showtime that clearly deserve the axe. If showtime cant see the following, then they deserve to lose their audience.

  • Hi Kim Phan

    Just like you kim. I never heard of the show till sci-fi. And like you I got the dvd’s and watched the hole thing both seasons in two days. I couldn’t stop. I wish they would do some more. But if I have learned anything from this show. Death is inconvient. Even if it is a show that is killed. The last scene in the grave yard. Was great in so many ways. Just maybe, it is a good place to end.,,,,,,,,,,,mikey

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