Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”

Original Airdate: July 25, 2004 on Showtime

This case study marks the first episode I’ve covered that’s part of a series with an overarching plot as opposed to the more episodic hijinks of a sitcom in the vein of So Little Time. Though Dead Like Me isn’t the sort of intricate mosaic where every episode leads into the next and the smallest of details is crucial to understanding the larger picture (I’m thinking of critical darlings like The Wire, Mad Men or The Sopranos) it did appear in the early stages of the “Golden Age” of TV and it aired on a laissez-faire pay cable network, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have high hopes for the series. This is a good time to note that all my reviews which pertain to scripted TV with story arcs will contain spoilers both for the individual episode and the show at large, so beware.

Unfortunately, the show ran into trouble early on when the show’s creator, executive producer and head writer Bryan Fuller, left the show five episodes into its run. This is instructive and shaped my perspective as I viewed this episode, so let’s dig in a bit. My main source on the issue is this interview with Fuller from 2005 that chronicled his exodus. (The interview has been salvaged from the Internet’s bottomless memory hole by the good people at the Internet Archive.) Fuller lays the problems with his brief tenure on the show entirely at the feet of the show’s production company, MGM. He says that dealing with them was a “traumatic experience.” He accuses them of lacking professionalism and savvy. It does sound like there was also some homophobia there–Fuller characterizes the execs as part of a “gross old boy studio” and recounts being told that he didn’t know “what a pretty woman looks like” because of his sexual orientation. Honestly, that sounds more misogynist than homophobic to me–I don’t feel qualified to identify a “pretty woman,” but the bigger question that raises is why a woman has to be pretty to be on TV in the first place. Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) gives an indelible performance as Rube on Dead, but pretty he ain’t.

In my mind the interview makes Fuller look worse than MGM. Here’s a guy whose only previous project was the first of two thoroughly unnecessary remakes of Carrie, which appeared as a TV movie on NBC in 2002. (Fuller cut his teeth in the writer’s room for Star Trek: Voyager, a show I have a soft spot for but which nonetheless did not exactly take the world by storm.) So for the studio I’m sure it was an open question about whether or not he could successfully steward a show in addition to having the great creative ideas necessary to bring it to life. Make no mistake–Dead is crackling with energy and brilliance. Its premise is immediately compelling–a young woman on the verge of adulthood is killed in a freak accident. Instead of going to her universe’s version of an afterlife, she learns that her fate is to be a part of a gang of Grim Reapers who must harvest the souls of those about to die. The execution of this idea is also excellent, as we’ll talk about shortly. But it takes a lot more than a good idea to run a television show.

By storming off the show after a mere five episodes, Fuller proved his doubters at MGM right about his inability to run a show. The fact is, dealing with a difficult studio is simply part of the business. Any creative project that requires any kind of substantial overhead and working with a team of people requires compromise and learning to shine within the constraints you’ve been given. I’m reminded of the great scene in Louie where Joan Rivers tells Louis CK that she can’t tell him that showbiz “gets better,” because it never does and it’s characterized by ups and downs, victories and failures. She also tells him that the cardinal rule of their business is “never quit.” Despite the vagaries of the business, she says, “you do it because we love it more than anything else…what we do is not a job…what we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy.” The conversation is about comedy, but the deeper truth is about art. I’ve loved all of Fuller’s projects (except Carrie, I suppose) but each and every one has died on the table. Now, I’m sure there’s a variety of things going on there, but Fuller’s stance on Dead in the above interview is…not a good look. It reminds me of the old canard about how if you keep finding yourself in toxic situations again and again, it may be that the common factor is you. It’s also cheap to chalk it all up to homophobia. Tiresome Hollywood power-queer Ryan Murphy makes shitty TV show after shitty TV show, and yet they’re all long-running hits. Murphy pushes the boundaries (past the point of good taste.) He does things on television that haven’t been attempted before (usually for a good reason.) He frequently includes queer characters and lurid tales of their sexual exploits. So I don’t think the deal-breaker for Fuller is that he’s queer and has new ideas, though I suppose I could see the case for an argument that the difference between the two is Murphy’s enthusiastic embrace of pandering to the lowest common denominator. I don’t want Fuller to do that. But in the case of Dead, it wouldn’t have hurt to play ball with the studio. Hell, even a gaping asshole like Dan Harmon managed to hang on with Community for three full seasons.

Two more things on Fuller and then we’ll get to the episode I’m allegedly reviewing here. Another key to being a successful showrunner is the ability to take notes, and Fuller offers up a case study in the interview. For context, George Lass (Ellen Muth) is the show’s protagonist and Fuller refers to a scene that transpires at her funeral involving her father Clancy (Greg Kean.) He says, “In the pilot episode, George’s father hugged a guy, setting up a future storyline in which George realizes her dad was gay and that her life actually wasn’t supposed to be. It was central to the theme that we don’t know the value of a life until it’s too late. But MGM cut the scene and storyline out.” Clancy is an English professor and the fellow he’s hugging is meant to be one of his students; in the shows that aired in Fuller’s absence the student he’s having an affair with is a young woman. Admittedly, the gender swap is a (slight) twist on the hoary cliche of professors fucking their students and causing personal ruin (Examples that float to the top of my mind include Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Accidental by Ali Smith, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…) but the hard truth is that Fuller’s idea sounds rather stupid. Gay people have kids all the time, with partners of all genders. Why would this mean George “wasn’t supposed to be?” Not knowing “the value of a life until it’s too late” is hardly a profound observation, nor is it particularly well demonstrated by this proposed storyline. This sounds like a note well worth taking, but Fuller Took It Personally as a slight to his identity as a fragile gay creative genius. The sad thing is that he IS something of a creative genius! But not all his ideas are gold, and when there’s money on the table, you need people to give you notes.

This may go against the conventional wisdom of Dead fandom, but another strike against Fuller is that many of the show’s best moments came after he left! The first few episodes definitely show some growing pains, which I suppose is not unexpected in the beginning of a deeply creative program run by a rookie producer. But several of my favorite episodes aired after Fuller’s departure: “Reaper Madness,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and “The Shallow End” are some of the series’ high points, and the latter two even both include compassionate, non-sensationalizing portrayals of queer characters, which makes me a bit skeptical about the raw homophobia alleged to be on display in the offices of MGM.

Amusingly, Season 1 also includes a clip show with even less material to go off of than So Little Time’s “Look Who’s Talking.” (By the way, why the hell was the episode called that? No one ever says that and it bears no relationship whatsoever to the events of the show.) Anyway, Dead’s “Nighthawks” is surprisingly good for a clip show. Still, that’s not exactly saying much.

On to the good stuff!

Strengths

  • Strong characterization. One of the beautiful things about television is that characters who might come off as one-note in a movie have time to deepen, grow and blossom into fully-fledged, three-dimensional figures who feel like they might be people you actually know. This in particular is a great episode for character work with all the major players getting interesting material to play with. The show is also very well cast and the characters have a dynamic together that feels genuine, so it’s more the pity that for the most part the members of this great ensemble haven’t had much luck getting more work since Dead. I guess the TV industry works on the mentality that you’re only as good as your last project, and while Dead is very good, it did get cancelled after two seasons. One salient example of how a one-note character can evolve is on display here. When Daisy (Laura Harris, 1998’s The Faculty) first appeared on the show, she replaced the excellent Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend,) who left with Fuller in what I assume was a show of solidarity. Gayheart portrayed the very well written character Betty, and at first Daisy was a major let down. As Rube says in this episode, her conversation mostly consisted of “witless stories about star-fucking.” She would frequently toss off childishly provocative lines like “I once gave Errol Flynn a handjob in a convertible.” But as the show went on, the writers took this and built on it, and this episode is a great showcase for both Daisy and Harris. Daisy has excellent–and revealing–conversations with George and Roxy (Jasmine Guy, A Different World.) This episode also lays the groundwork for more stories about Rube and Daisy. In Daisy’s case, she collects a cross on a necklace from the effects of one of her reaping targets. This in itself isn’t taboo–reapers aren’t salaried and can only earn money by stealing from the dead or working in menial jobs–but it sets us up for an intriguing storyline a few episodes later where the family of the deceased wants the cross back and accuses the police of stealing it. This causes Daisy to do some soul-searching in a way that sheds new light on the character. Here she casually explains the cross as a flirtation with Catholicism, but ultimately this explanation winds up having more truth to it than we’re first led to believe.
  • Wit. This show is a “dramedy,” and while there are definitely poignant moments, the snappy dialogue and cutting remarks are a big hook along with the creative premise and thoughtful worldbuilding. The best examples are when the characters are given a chance to bounce off of one another. In one scene when Mason (Callum Blue, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) steals Roxy’s hash browns off her plate, she attempts to stab him and then storms off in a huff. Mason says he doesn’t see the point in getting so worked up over “small potatoes,” and Rube dryly comments that Mason’s remark was “almost clever.” Of course, Mason has no idea what Rube is talking about. One of the neat things this show manages to pull off is that even though all the reapers (except Betty–perhaps Fuller hadn’t twigged to this way of conceptualizing the main cast) are hard-edged people who are to varying degrees mean and callous on the outside–presumably this is what qualifies them for the job–we still end up enjoying the time we spend with them regardless. They engage in repartee, they’re quirky and as an added bonus, the more we get to know them the more we see their humanity and they become even more appealing. It’s hard to write a cast of angry, belligerent, sarcastic and otherwise cranky characters and have them not be off-puttingly obnoxious, but instead these people are actually likeable! Compare this with the characters on the much more widely beloved Mad Men. Don Draper is another in a long line of detestable television anti-heroes, and while he is interesting I never found him likeable at all. Even though he’s the center of the show and the character we spend the most time with, I can’t think of a single moment where I felt any affection for him or that anything he did was endearing. Often as a viewer of Men I got the sense that the show is high on Draper’s supply, that it sees him with a certain amount of awe and love that it didn’t successfully convey to the viewer. Admittedly, I did feel stirrings of compassion for him at various moments–but never affection. If the show were just about Don I never would have made it past the first season. Pete Campbell is equally odious, but fares slightly better because he is at least fun to laugh at and the show enjoys taking the piss out of him and clearly sees him as the prissy, pretentious little man that he is. Roger Sterling is also a jackass, but he’s easily the most likable of the three because he’s funny, not to laugh at but to laugh with. Every episode where Roger features in any substantial way is guaranteed to have at least one hilarious line from him, if not more.
  • A cohesive theme. The best episodes of television aren’t just a bunch of interesting or entertaining things happening, though you could definitely do worse–many excellent sitcoms don’t feel the need to embrace a theme and are still highly enjoyable and well worth watching. I suppose the standards are somewhat higher for a drama like Dead, and this episode nails its theme, which is the loss of innocence going hand in hand with missed opportunities for growth. It happens in many different ways–George was a virgin when she died, and when she is assigned the task of training a young man named Brennan (Steven Grayhm, House of Dust) at the temp agency where she works, she makes a move on him, despite the wishes of both Rube and her employer Delores (consistent scene-stealer Christine Willes.) She backs off of Brennan when Delores bribes her with a promotion, but Rube strongly advises her to turn down the promotion, since he doesn’t think she’s ready to take on the job and her duties as a reaper at the same time. Part of this is on Rube–he sees George as a surrogate for the daughter he abandoned when he became a bank robber to get money for his impoverished family, and her growing up and wanting to be independent is clearly painful for him. He gives George the same pet name he gave to his daughter, and when she snottily tells him not to call her that you can see in his eyes how hurt he is, along with his reluctance to betray those emotions to George. It’s a really fabulous moment from Patinkin that not many actors would be able to pull off. Rube is right, though–not necessarily about the promotion but George in general. She’s having a very hard time growing up, much as she has a very hard time accepting her new role in (after)life for the duration of Season 1. Daisy nails it when she tells George “You think you know everything; look how unhappy you are.” The episode ends with George laying a flower on her own grave to commemorate the sexual and emotional maturation she didn’t get to enjoy in life and isn’t enjoying now. We see Rube exploring this theme when he and Mason go to 6 year old Emily Sondheim’s (Jacklyn Kelly) birthday party to collect the soul of one Lloyd Sondheim, Emily’s father (David MacKay.) As a cover story, Mason accepts the role of the absent birthday clown. Emily asks Rube if he’s “the clown’s daddy” and he tells her no. Emily follows up with a question the viewer might be asking: “Then why are you here?” Rube: “I am somebody’s daddy…she’s just not at this party.” He then looks her right in the eye and says, “I want you to remember how funny [Mason] was, okay?” Rube’s daughter lost her innocence the night he left her, and Rube lost the opportunity to grow with her. Of course, the same fate befalls Emily and Lloyd. The newly departed Lloyd upbraids Mason for his typically crass behavior at the party–making penis shaped balloon animals, expressing his desire to ejaculate on the lower back tattoo of a party guest, etc.–and he wonders why Mason would try so hard to ruin the last happy day Emily is likely to enjoy for quite some time. The freshly sober Mason realizes that all his problems aren’t tied to his substance abuse–even when he’s not strung out, he’s still a crude, vulgar jerk who grabs food off people’s plates and teases effeminate little boys. He falls off the wagon, swiping the last of an unconscious bum’s booze to kill his shame and self-hatred with drugs, just like he always has (though at least he has the decency to reimburse the bum for his troubles.) Mason lost his innocence long ago, but here he’s also lost an opportunity for growth.

Weaknesses

  • The Lasses. I really can’t think of a reason we need to spend time with what’s left of George’s family every episode. People watched this show because it’s about Grim Reapers and one possible version of the afterlife. That’s unique! There’s nothing else on television like it (until Reaper, anyway, which had the twist of being about reapers who work for the devil.) There’s nothing interesting about spending two seasons watching George’s family cope with her death, even if their stories contribute to the overall theme. It’s great that the Lasses all share a family resemblance in terms of their personality and Joy (Cynthia Stevenson, Happiness) in particular is well-drawn and well-acted–another example of an uptight, angry character who still comes across as fully human and sympathetic. (Though only very briefly in this episode–she spends much of it attacking everyone around her, fairly and unfairly.) Despite that, though, the Lasses add nothing compelling and I found my attention wandering every time they appeared. If you want to watch a much more interesting take on how families deal with death, there’s always Six Feet Under.
  • Wildly inconsistent tone. It can be hard to invest in a show which attempts the unreservedly wacky alongside the poignant tugging of heartstrings. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do. Bojack Horseman manages nicely, and Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark” is the brutal apex of this sort of thing. Just thinking about it makes me want to go hug my own dog. Dead doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling this off. On the one hand, we have an endless litany of ludicrous death sequences, enabled by the fact that the show specifically focuses on a squad of Reapers who only deal in accidental and violent deaths. On the other hand, we have late Lloyd going over to his daughter, wanting to touch her one last time–and his hands pass through her since he’s no longer corporeal. You could excuse the wacky deaths as essential to the show’s premise, and also note the fact that Six was hardly immune to the impulse to disproportionately portray cinematic death by misadventure, but Dead’s comedic style is broader and goofier in general, stretching the plausibility of the world building. Consider the bit where George is trying to teach Brennan the phones and what seems like 40 different lines start ringing at once as he fumbles about, or the scene where George cuts herself on the paper shredder. Some context is needed there–the Reapers can feel pain from an injury, but their bodies heal and regenerate quickly. When George cuts herself, it severs the entire top half of her middle finger. Usually, paper shredders have safety mechanisms that prevent you from cutting yourself at all, but even if you managed to do it the shredder would hardly be able to saw through bone and tendon. This would be fine if the show were consistently this silly, but mostly it’s matter of fact and emphasizes the mundanity of its supernatural reality. It’s got a unique style to be sure, but when it takes things too far like this it’s jarring. I think this would work better if this tonal inconsistency happened on an episode by episode basis–if we got some episodes that were fairly serious and realistic and some episodes that were cheerfully absurd–but switching gears so often in one episode leads to a bit of grinding.
  • Unnecessary narration. Anyone working in television, please listen. If you are considering adding narration, don’t. It very seldom works, and usually it’s just irritating. Desperate Housewives is a great example of how it can drag down a show, and unfortunately Dead is as well. (Thankfully it’s not as ever present here as it is on Desperate.) I get that George is our viewpoint character and that she has a fairly flat affect and can be hard to read (when she’s not losing her temper, that is.) This may be why Muth hasn’t gotten much work since–she’s perfect as George but I also don’t get the sense that she has immense range. But there are a huge number of ways you can get across whatever you want to say by showing and not telling, even with George’s mostly closed outward personality.

Something new for this installment–if I’ve seen an entire show or a substantial chunk of it, I’ll offer a rating for the series as a whole as well as the individual episode. I was enamored of this show when it aired. This was back in the day where if you missed a show when it aired you were flat out of luck, though, so I didn’t see much of the second season. I was finally able to catch the whole thing in 2009 when it showed up on Netflix. Yes, even the wretched straight-to-DVD movie which Patinkin and Harris didn’t return for. Daisy was badly recast. Sarah Wynter (The 6th Day) took on the role abdicated by Harris and Wynter was not up to the task. Interestingly, Harris and Wynter played sisters on 24.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. While it’s not Dead’s best outing, it’s certainly well-done. With a show this good, you don’t want to skip an episode unless it’s really dreadful, and I don’t think even “Nighthawks” or the diminishing returns of Season 2’s back nine qualify for that status. That awful movie does, though.

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. Definitely worth your time, and it’s short and sweet. Fuller’s departure gives you the sense of missed potential and there are some rocky spots here and there, but as I’m sure we’ll see, there are many worse things you could be watching.

NEXT TIME: Lupin III gives this project its first look at anime!

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”