Showtime scores a hat trick in “Dead Like Me.” It’s frisky, freaky and funny in the writing; boasts a fiercely credible performance from Mandy Patinkin; and introduces the splendid Ellen Muth in her first starring role. Concerning itself with the undead — grim reapers who roam the Earth snatching souls — “Dead Like Me” has the potential to be Showtime’s finest series.
Muth plays Georgia Lass, a directionless and unmotivated college dropout whose favorite word is “whatever.” She gets a horrendous file clerk job via a temp agency and, while on her lunch break, is struck by a flaming toilet seat dropped from the Mir space station. It kills her and she joins the folks who have partially crossed over, such as Rube (Patinkin). Her perspective — existential, melancholic, godless — drives the show through a captivating and well-read voiceover.
Odd as it sounds, death enlivens Georgia, exposing emotional conflicts and a moral compass that rarely surfaced during her 18 years of life. “For me,” Georgia says near the end of the 75-minute pilot, “death was a wakeup call.”
These “undead” are hardly the angels depicted in pics such as “Wings of Desire” and the Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan starrer “City of Angels.” “Dead Like Me” has none of “Angels’ ” cloying pathos, nor its love-story angle. These folks are dead; their assignments concern gathering souls from people about to die and nothing can change that. As Patinkin’s Rube explains a concept that is pretty much absurd, it all sounds logical and convincing.
Georgia has been assigned to the team that deals with murders, suicides and accidental deaths, which ups the gruesome visuals factor. While we see her as cute and girlish as she was in life, Georgia’s appearance to the living is changed to a look she likens to a drug-addled prostitute. The change allows her to haunt her old neighborhood and her 10-year-old sister. Georgia even interrogates her mother about what she thought of her departed daughter.
These grim reapers need to fulfill their quota of souls before moving on to the next stage of the afterlife. Each is given the initials of the person about to die, a location and an estimated time of death. Eventually, it appears, everyone grows accustomed to the task at hand.
Muth executes Georgia’s transitions with explicit care, her perf consistently detailed as she goes from sullen to bewildered to frightened. Meanwhile, her world goes from amorphous to well-defined. Her responses to the gore and even the potential mayhem are spot-on and convincing at every turn.
Her role has considerable room for growth and it is fascinating to see her positioned between her two undead female colleagues, no-nonsense meter maid Roxy (Jasmine Guy) and the glowing, endlessly optimistic Betty (Rebecca Gayheart). They are fine foils, just as Patinkin’s Rube is a benevolent uncle with a flair for directness. Twentysomething Mason (Callum Blue) is the hunky eye candy; one assumes a romantic angle emerges down the road.
Beyond a nicely placed reference to a classic “Twilight Zone” episode, Bryan Fuller’s script is sharp, original and thorough — viewers will have an understanding of these characters as quickly as anyone got to know “The Sopranos.” Scott Winant’s direction is keenly aligned with the script’s idiosyncrasies, especially during a scene set in the lobby of a bank that gets Georgia exposed to the sort of work she’ll be doing.
Unidentified location appears to be a blend of Seattle and Manhattan.