Every once in a while, there’s a show that just hits you at the right time of your life. Not just a good show, a miraculously appropriate one, like a perfect breakup song. Dead Like Me is one of those shows for me. It premiered ten years ago today, just when I needed it.
The show, created by Bryan Fuller, is about a sardonic 18-year-old girl named George (Ellen Muth) who dies when she’s hit by a toilet seat falling from the Mir space station. (Fuller left after five episodes; the show eventually ran for two seasons and then came back for a direct-to-DVD movie in 2009. I cannot recommend the movie, sadly.) Instead of moving seamlessly into the afterlife, though, she becomes a grim reaper, responsible for collecting people’s souls moments before they die. She works alongside several other reapers — a dreamy actress, a brassy cop, a trouble-making British dude — but also has to work as a temp. The show bounces between George’s (after)life and her grieving family’s new normal, with her squabbling parents and detached little sister. This show is also kind of a comedy sometimes!
I have a soft spot for shows about young women that are not shows about falling in love. And Dead Like Me isn’t about George finding herself through the gentleness and thrill of romance — it’s about her finding herself through the cruelty and randomness of grief. There’s an Our Town–ish aspect to the show, that crushing feeling of not being able to go back, and that’s not totally separate from the sensation of growing up. Why was I so mean to my parents? Why did I reject so many kind gestures? Why did I say no to so many things it would have been easy to say yes to? You don’t have to be dead to wonder those things as you age out of adolescence.
George is pretty surly and sarcastic, and she had a tense relationship with her parents before she died. In her post-death existence, she winds up with a new father figure: Rube, the head of her reaper cohort. Rube is played by Mandy Patinkin, and if you like the Saul-Carrie relationship on Homeland, well, you’ll love the Rube-George one, too. Rube gives George her daily reaping assignments, but he also helps her work through her frustrations, sometimes explaining the rules of the reaping world clearly, but sometimes sort of just shrugging his shoulders and telling her that some things are the way they are. When I was 18, being told I’d understand things better when I got older felt really insulting and like a cop-out. Now that I’m older, it feels true.
In the ten years since Dead Like Me, I have loved many other shows and have had that TV synchronicity between character and life a handful of times. (It would be easier if there were more female characters on TV in general! Just putting that out there in the universe.) But I will always have a soft spot for George and for Rube and for the series in general. We kinda grew up together.