Bittersweet. Wholly bittersweet. Dead Like Me: Life After Death presents fans of the original series with a quandary. What is Dead Like Me without Rube (Mandy Patinkin)?
The new Dead Like Me feature film, reprising the plot of the ill-fated television series, answers that question but in a way that most fans will find lacking. By most accounts, getting 70% of an original cast back together 5 years after it ended (quite abruptly, I might add) would seem like a dream come true. Did we notice Laura Harris, who played Daisy Adair, was replaced by Sarah Wynter? You bet your ass we did. Did we care as much? No. What really gets at us - eats at us - is the void left by Rube's absence. Sure, they play it off decently well in the story but you can't replace the grounding character of a story and expect things to carry on all hunky dory.
George Lass (Ellen Muth) has grown since we last saw her at the end of Dead Like Me's second season. She's advanced at her job under Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), matured and has some semblance of a grip on her life-after-death. Roxy (Jasmine Harvey) has moved up in the Police Officer pecking order while still retaining her drop-dead serious sense of humor. Mason (Callum Blue) has never and will never grow up - which is perfect. And Crystal, who came from who knows where, sort of cheers from the sidelines.
The four have stayed as close-knit as ever under Rube's leadership and expect it to go on in that fashion forever. One day without warning they realize things have to change. Their Der Waffle Haus daily rendezvous burns down and Rube goes missing - the gang is left without direction. Before they know it a new authority figure steps in to take the reins: Cameron Kane (Henry Ian Cusick, Desmond of Lost). Cameron has a business-first mentality and relinquishes the quasi-moral hold that Rube kept over his reaping subordinates. With all of the rules thrown to the wind, the reapers begin indulging in the behaviors Rube had kept in check. While most of the misadventures are minor and receive only afterthought coverage, George's story hits a perfect game.
Throughout the Dead Like Me series George had issues letting go of her family. Killed by the falling toilet seat of a space station re-entering Earth's atmosphere and quickly renamed Toilet Seat Girl, George was still very much attached to the life she left behind. After numerous near-misses of revealing herself to her family as George revived, in Life After Death she takes the plunge. The plunge is very effective. While Bryan Fuller, the series' creator, wasn't around to say so, this plot point feels like the next logical step in the storyline. Having kept close tabs on her younger sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), George confronts Reggie about the boy she loves and the circumstances surrounding his impending death. At the same time, Reggie finds the void between her and her mother (Cynthia Stevenson) growing wider.
The series in its television run was one of those rare strokes of genius. It was one of Bryan Fuller's first great series (before Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) and I'm happy to see it get the movie treatment. But as I said, it's the absence of Mandy Patinkin that threw Dead Like Me: Life After Death into a funk. Was the story of the movie always meant to have Cameron Kane as a plot twist? If you trust the interviews in the extra features: no. So what would the movie have been about with Mandy present? We'll never know. But I say with woeful confidence that we received a lesser product by his absence. Couple that with Bryan Fuller's lack of involvement in the feature and I think fans will be left scratching their heads where the movie is coming from. It certainly satisfies and it feels good to see these familiar characters after such a long break - but it could've been so much more.
DVD Bonus Features
Most important of the DVD's extra features is the Behind the Scenes documentary on the DVD; it's a vital accompaniment for the fans curious as to the politics that went into making a movie with a diminished cast out of a TV show 5 years after the fact. It seems like an awfully daunting task and the cast, director Stephen Herek and writers Stephen Godchaux and John Masius discuss the hurdles faced in production. Everyone involved knew there would be high expectations when you try to raise a fan favorite television show from the dead for a direct to DVD release.
If you've never heard of Dead Like Me - don't watch this just yet. Do yourself a favor and go watch the two seasons of the television series. It's a rewarding experience and incredibly well written. For you fans, it's easily worth the time to watch it even with the shortcomings of the cast and opening plot. The fact that we got this movie at all makes me wonder if the show's soul was improperly reaped at the time of its death. Has this would-be film been screaming from inside the Dead Like Me's cooled, canceled corpse all this time? It's about time someone let it out.
"Dead Like Me: Life After Death" is on sale February 17, 2009 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Television. Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by Stephen Godchaux (writer), John Masius (writer), Bryan Fuller (creator). Starring Mandy Patinkin, Callum Blue, Ellen Muth, Sarah Wynter, Jasmine Guy, Britt McKillip, Henry Ian Cusick.