“Dead Like Me” is the first television show Bryan Fuller – who’d later showrun “Hannibal” and “American Gods”, among other shows – showran. I’m so taken by his very specific and unique style in “Hannibal” and “American Gods”, and I’ve heard there are running themes throughout most of his work, that I’m watching his earlier work to try and get a better handle on him as a sort of television auteur. Fuller had written on various “Star Trek” shows before “Dead Like Me”, but “Dead Like Me” was the first show that was properly his, something he created and ran.
[This review won’t spoil any story specifics beyond the pilot episode.]
He created and ran the show…for a while at least. Because before the season was even halfway done, he left the show because of “creative differences”. He’s described in interviews over the years how running the show was a constant battle, an endless series of compromises, something eternally diverging from his vision. In a 2015 interview with Esquire, he said “We simply did not have the ability to make the show in the way that I had imagined. So it was a little bit of bait and switch where it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s do this great show,’ and then actually, ‘No, we’re not going to do this show that you pitched and that you wanted to do. We are going to do a radically different version of the show.’”.
Fuller’s spoken quite a bit about some of the specific elements he lost the fight on portraying as he envisioned – the sexuality of certain characters, the budget, the amount and scale of the series’ mythology and lore, specific philosophies on death he wanted to explore. But even those aspects of the series aside, there’s so much of the show that just didn’t work for me at all. The smug twee style, the excessive sarcasm of the protagonist, the endless pseudo-philosophical voiceovers, the repetitive procedural structure…I found it all so grating and unlikable. The show’s mythology is trite and undercooked, and the fact they don’t play with any death-related aesthetics anywhere besides the opening titles is ridiculous, such a waste.
There’s interesting ideas at play here that shore up with Fuller’s pet themes in later works, chiefly the relentless obsession with death. Fuller has said “I had gone to a lot of funerals as a child, so I was more than just a little death-obsessed”. The rudderless protagonist, “very in touch with the post-college malaise of the twentysomething who didn’t know where to go or what to do” also ties into Fuller’s own life (”I was temping before I got the job at “Star Trek”, and I really wanted to relate my experiences as a temp through a character…who was avoiding being alive and engaging in life”) and parallels with similar characters of Fuller’s in later shows (Shadow in “American Gods”, Jaye in “Wonderfalls”). It’s certainly interesting to mine the show for what it reveals about Fuller and the way he thinks and works. But on its own terms, it’s not something I particularly enjoyed.
After Fuller departed the show (around episode four), there were changes. Some were gradual (the show doubling down on the twee comedy, moralising voiceovers, procedural structure), some were fast (making homosexual characters suddenly inexplicably hetrosexual, cast shake-ups). To my mind, the show was diluted but not improved. The only post-Fuller aspect of season one that really interested me was the surprisingly measured approach the eleventh episode had on suicide – it wasn’t flat-out condemned, and the show attempted something of a thoughtful exploration of the issue. It wasn’t brilliantly handled, but I was surprised and intrigued to see the show even attempt what it did.
There are some interesting indicators for Fuller’s later works here, but for the most part it’s a mess I did not enjoy. I give it one and a half post-it notes, and a banana bonanza.