For Bryan Fuller, death has always been a source of morbid aesthetic delight. In Hannibal, serial killings served as a canvas for culinary extravagance and beautifully grotesque tableaux. Prior to Hannibal, there was Pushing Daisies, a “forensic fairy tale” which couched its sweetly macabre story of a corpse-reanimating pie-maker in blindingly bright, candy-coloured art direction.
And you can definitely trace this thread all the way back to 2003’s short-lived Dead Like Me, his first outing as a showrunner following writing stints on Star Trek: Voyager and Deep Space Nine. In this comic fantasy about soul collectors roaming the earth, you can almost sense Fuller’s grin as he cooked up its scenes of death with Rube Goldberg-like relish.
Lasting two seasons – though Fuller jumped ship early during season one – Dead Like Me was perhaps overshadowed by that other death-obsessed show of the early noughts, Six Feet Under. Its central conceit could be pitched as Touched by an Angel meets Final Destination, or better still – “My So-Called After-Life”, as its 18-year-old protagonist Georgie Lass (the feisty, winsomely stroppy Ellen Muth) deadpans, finding herself among the undead after being struck by a stray space station toilet seat hurtling from space.
The 75-minute pilot makes for a brisk, vibrant set-up of the show’s rules and mythology. Freed from her life as a teenager sulking though temp jobs, Georgie is now a teenager sulking through her role as a newbie Grim Reaper. Recruited into the External Influence Division of deaths (stuff like suicides and accidents), she’s being trained by her cardigan-wearing boss, the fittingly named Rube (Mandy Patinkin), to pick up souls, preferably before they perish to minimise suffering. Also in her division are Brit druggie Mason (Callum Blue), the glamorous Betty (Rebecca Gayheart) and sassy parking warden Roxy (Jasmine Guy).
The operation is endearingly droll in its thanklessness. The names of the soon-to-be-deceased arrive on post-it notes with an ETD (estimated time of death). The Reapers don’t get paid so have to filch from the dead and make do with squatting in their homes. They’re able to interact with the living but given bodies which are physically lesser versions of their former selves. Georgie, upon seeing her reflection: “It looked like my inner child’s road to adulthood was paved with crack cocaine, ten-dollar blowjobs, and maybe even a trick baby or two”.
If you’re rolling your eyes at any of this, and generally find Fuller’s magic-realist style too preciously offbeat, Dead Like Me probably won’t change your mind about his work. The first episode can be occasionally exhausting to take in, what with its CGI toads, bugs and spiky goblin creatures known as “gravelings”, battery of whip pans/split screens/freeze frames, Muth’s snarky, non-stop voice-over, and the rapid-fire offloading of exposition.
But it does provide a pretty good indication of the show’s tone and approach. The dialogue is full of quotable, darkly hilarious bon mots (“I didn’t know what was more disturbing: being dead or the fact that the first man to touch my naked body was a coroner”), the deaths absurd and cheerfully grisly in a Looney Tunes kind of way. The best of these strings together a bungled bank robbery, a banana peel and a revolving door for a particularly nasty punchline.
All in all, a fine, charming entry point into the “Fullerverse”, where Death isn’t a hooded, scythe-carrying ghoul but a bunch of chirpy people eating waffles and pancakes at a diner.