ABC’s new sitcom has a decent enough premise and a winsome lead performance. But it seems to struggle to get out of its own way, exhibiting a fundamental clumsiness that’s off-putting — as if the show itself needed another pass before making it to the air.
To wit: We’re told in blurts of exposition that Gina Rodriguez’s Nell has started work at a Southern California newspaper after a crushing breakup left her alone and broke. Ambitious and not without a healthy sense of pride, Nell is at first disappointed to have been placed on the obituaries desk; she comes to be outright destabilized, as the ghosts of those about whom she’s writing haunt her, at least until she sends in her copy.
Notionally, these hauntings are meant to give Nell a greater perspective on her life, and the ways in which she ought to pull herself together. However, this series exists at the opposite end of a spectrum from, say, “Six Feet Under” as regards the gravity and seriousness of purpose with which it treats the concept of death: OK, it’s just a network sitcom, but an episode involving a dead influencer deserved a rethink. Mordant, pitch-black wit requires a real sense of humor to pull off.
Indeed, when it isn’t attempting to shock for shock’s sake, “Not Dead Yet” is surprisingly sentimental, even a touch maudlin. (Nell forms a friendship with the widow of one of her subjects, played by Angela Gibbs, and later falls in love with a ghost; all of this is treated in a somewhat treacly manner.) There seems never to be the tone one might expect from a show about a sharp-minded, mildly depressed journalist intended for an audience who knew and loved Rodriguez on the witty “Jane the Virgin”: We oscillate between extremes of cynicism and of syrup.
All of which is a shame, as Rodriguez is a star who can anchor a smart, edgy comedy. If “Not Dead Yet” is to remain alive past its first several episodes, it needs to find a tone that works — and that might mean homing in on who Nell is. We’re constantly told that she’s a mess and an interpersonal disaster, and her interactions with her ghosts emphasize this side of her. What, though, does she do well? In what circumstances can she be a good friend to her best pal (Hannah Simone)? And — crucially — does she take any pride in the work she does honoring the dead, or is it just killing time? Finding a way toward helping us know Nell as more than just the charmingly portrayed object of ghostly interest might begin to kick-start this vaguely promising but poorly executed sitcom.
“Not Dead Yet” premieres on Wednesday, February 8 at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. CT on ABC.