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MGM Studios DVD presents
Dead Like Me: The Complete First Season (2003)

"You, little dead girl, are going to be a Grim Reaper."
- Rube (Mandy Patinkin)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: June 13, 2004

Stars: Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin
Other Stars: Callum Blue, Jasmine Guy, Cynthia Stevenson, Laura Harris, Rebecca Gayheart, Christine Willes, Britt McKillip, Greg Kean
Director: Scott Winant, Peter Lauer, James Marshall, David Grossman, Robert Duncan McNeill, Kevin Dowling, David Straiton, John Whitmore Jr., Helen Shaver

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language)
Run Time: approx. 11h:00m:00s
Release Date: June 15, 2004
UPC: 027616903150
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+AA- B

DVD Review

I've never really been a big fan of traditional network television, whether in drama or comedy form, because it always felt too constrained, and the few shining moments that have made my day in recent years (The X-Files, The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Wonderfalls) all seem to have existed in some rare vacuum where storylines, characters and dialogue boldly and smartly go against the norm to some weird new degree. Things really changed for the better when HBO and Showtime noticeably stepped up the quality level of their original series, and the flexibility in latitude with regard to language and content have made things like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Band of Brothers and Sex and the City the new benchmarks for series television.

Dead Like Me, a Showtime series that debuted in 2003, has never seemed to reach the same kind of panting public fervor to match the likes of The Sopranos, but as this season one set will attest, it is certainly as equally remarkable and inventive as any other highly-touted series on television, cable or otherwise. The show follows Georgia 'George' Lass (Ellen Muth), a sullen, disaffected 18-year-old who dies fifteen minutes into the pilot episode when a flaming toilet seat from the MIR space station re-enters the earth's atmosphere, striking and killing her in a fiery explosion during her lunch break.

In the seconds following her death, George is met by Rube (Mandy Patinkin), who informs her that she is now part of the after-life, and her new job title is Grim Reaper, one whose task it is to take the souls of those about to die accidental deaths. Aside from all-knowing leader Rube, who hands out assignments on yellow Post-It notes from a booth at Der Waffle Haus, George's reaper team consists of an odd mix of characters, including occasional drug-smuggling Brit Mason (Callum Blue); bitter meter maid Roxie (Jasmine Guy); beautiful, free-spirited Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) as well as the arrival midway through Season One of superficial dynamo Daisy (Laura Harris).

The show was created by Bryan Fuller, and from the strange camera angles to the hip music (like the recurring use of Metisse's Boom Boom Ba or the haunting rendition of Que Sera, Sera in the pilot) to the CG 'gravelings'—they're the little evil gremlins who actually cause the deaths that George and her group reap—to darkly comic dialogue filled with well-placed obscenities, one can immediately see some quirky similarities to the slightly tamer Wonderfalls, a Fox series he developed that also featured a moody, sarcastic, anti-social female as its lead character.

Like Wonderfalls, this is a show about the offbeat, and driving it is Lass' George, a keenly morose, deadpan slacker with little in the way of ambition (pre-or post-death), and sometimes even less in the way of acceptable social skills. As Lass, Ellen Muth has the tough gig of being a lead character who isn't especially pleasant, and she uses her bad attitude, augmented by the ol' furrowed brow and pouty lips, to nice effect. While Wonderfalls was clever, its secondary characters were never as broadly memorable as its lead Caroline Dhavernas, and in Dead Like Me Patinkin makes the most of the curmudgeonly mentor role, and easily contributes one of the series most endearing and likeable characters, neck-and-neck with Cynthia Stevenson, who superbly nails a multi-textured role as George's grieving mother, who while not always fully likeable, is one of the most complex and fascinating on the show. Another supporting player that nearly steals every scene is the wickedly funny Christine Willes, playing ever cheerful Happy Time Employment Agency office manager Delores Herbig.

This four-disc set includes the pilot episode (01h:23m:24s), as well as the remaining 13 episodes, which run approximately 44 minutes each. As each of the fourteen episodes unfurl, George continually struggles with her new found duties and learns the ground rules for reaperdom, she periodically violates Rube's unwritten policy and returns home, where she lurks in the shadows to check in on her family. This is where some of the strongest subplots of the series are played out, as thin layers are torn away to reveal the crumbling lives of her mother (Stevenson), father (Greg Kean) and brooding 11-year-old sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), who each are dealing with George's death in a dramatically different manner. I really liked Britt McKillip's Reggie, and the way that her grief manifests itself in a variety of perversely dark ways, and her quietly embattled scenes with Cynthia Stevenson are just terrific bits of emotional turmoil, even more so as the season progresses.

Like the first season of Six Feet Under, one of the signatures of Dead Like Me is the death scene, where some poor sap (or in some cases, saps) meet a nasty end, and viewers are teased with the potential modus operandi, and as the season continues, it becomes something of a game to try and guess how it is going to happen. All the reapers have is first initial, last name, address and ETD (estimated time of death) of the nearly departed to go on, so when a soon-to-die character starts playing with a butcher knife, a kayak, a tank of nitrous oxide, or bends over to retrieve something from behind a truck, it is time to start cringing and wait for the inevitable, which doesn't always play out as one might expect.

While there are some minor questions left unanswered (specifically concerning a couple of secondary characters), there are really no major cliffhangers left dangling by the time the credits roll on the last episode of the first season, so in a way this set is nicely self-contained collection. I consider that a nice plus, and if the series were to suddenly die on the vine (hello, Wonderfalls) this set could still stand up on its own reaper legs.

Que sera, sera.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: All episodes are issued in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the presentation is excellent and nearly flawless; MGM has done a singular job with this set, and image quality is razor sharp, besting most feature film releases. I was really blown away at how well-defined the picture quality was for this set, with colors rendered in bright, vivid swatches, with black levels looking spot-on. It is really hard to be picky and try to find anything detrimental to say about MGM's treatment of Dead Like Me; no major compression issues to be found here, with just some minor ringing and haloing related to episode credits.

Outstanding.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and while this isn't a terribly aggressive mix on the surface, the rear channels get used for appropriate ambient sound cues (from barking dogs to clacking typewriters), enough so that it provides a location for the kind of barely perceptible elements that contribute almost subconsciously to creating a full, enveloping soundstage. Dialogue is clear and discernible, sweetened by some distinct directional pans. Subs get a moderate workout (witness George's explosive toilet seat encounter), but sequences like the big train crash (also from the pilot) doesn't seem to rumble with the same level of intensity. Subsequent episodes seem to feature a more pronounced sub track, though far less frequently.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 70 cues and remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Fargo, Jeremiah
1 TV Spots/Teasers
32 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Jasmine Guy, Callum Blue, Cynthia Stevenson
Packaging: Nexpak
Picture Disc
4 Discs
4-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: All of the extras are stacked onto Disc 1, and start off with a full-length commentary track on the 70-minute pilot episode from stars Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Jasmine Guy, Callum Blue, and Cynthia Stevenson. It's a very relaxed track, with much laughter and joking, and much like the show, Patinkin seems to be the unofficial leader. Muth and Patinkin mull over the unexplored plot vagaries of a mysterious hug during George's wake scene, and the others chime in with their takes on various minor plot points that may or may not get developed further. Patinkin brings his hatred of sweaters to light, and has the other participants speculate on what their characters might be doing if the show makes it to a fifth season. No major revelations, and kind of lightweight, but it was interesting to hear the cast perspective and interpretation of the storyline, and as usual Patinkin is one cool dude.

Maybe it is because I like Dead Like Me so much, but the Deleted Scenes (30m:44s) clock in with a batch of 32 excised clips that if nothing else, just give me another half-hour of the sardonic wit to wallow in. The print quality of these clips is a little hinky, and a few are slight variations on final versions, but a lot of the material is revealing and indicative of some restructuring that was done to the characters, their backstories and the general rules of reaperdom. There are some hints at the roots behind George's alter-identity Millie, which leads back to the mysterious Rube, as well as a great scene between Mason and George where we get a glimpse of some aging reapers who are out of work because they only handle The Plague.

Behind the Scenes (06m:50s) and The Music of Dead Like Me (04m:30s) are fluffy promo pieces, featuring the cast and crew making happy talk, intermingled with clips from the show. The funniest part is composer and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland commenting on how he was instructed to make "happy/sad music," not "sad/happy music.".

Lastly, there are three trailers (Dead Like Me, Fargo, Jeremiah), a Photo Gallery of 30 images, and the Dead Like Us Weekly, a tabloid parody featuring brief profiles of eight characters who died, as well as a top ten list of the best deaths.

Each episode, including the pilot, is cut into five chapters. No subtitles, but it is Closed Captioned compatible.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

This is just about as close as one can get to a completely perfect television series, full of imaginative writing, offbeat scenarios and the ability to work dramatically and comedically on a number of different levels. It manages to evenly balance deeper philosophical issues with dark humor and moving drama, and neatly avoids becoming too schmaltzy or preachy.

To further make this an easy recommendation, MGM has done an exceptional job on the image and audio transfers for this release, as well.

I don't know how else to say it—Dead Like Me is simply extraordinary.

Highly recommended.

 


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