The early demise of Showtime’s morbid dramedy Dead Like Me was mourned by a small but loyal cult following, but even devoted fans could see that the promising show was sputtering through its second and final season. The drop-off is likely attributable to the departure of series creator Bryan Fuller (who headed up the similarly short-lived cult favorites Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) midway through the first season, over conflicts with MGM. Fans were long promised a movie follow-up, but when it finally came, the lack of involvement from Fuller and a couple of principal cast members was an ominous sign.
Dead Like Me: Life After Death picks up a few years after the series left off, with perpetual 18-year-old Ellen Muth settled into her post-death, pre-afterlife career of ushering recently departed souls into the next life. However, she and her three fellow reapers (Callum Blue, Jasmine Guy, and Sarah Wynter, who takes an oddly slapsticky approach to the role originated by Laura Harris) are thrown for a loop when their boss and father figure “gets his lights” and moves on to the afterlife, a workaround necessitated when Mandy Patinkin declined to return to the role for the film. A new head reaper, played with halfhearted callousness by Henry Ian Cusick, quickly throws their weird little family into disarray with his businesslike approach to reaping.
In spite of the switcheroo, Life After Death mostly sticks to reprising Dead Like Me’s favorite plot points. Although she has several years of reaping under her belt at this point, Muth continues to struggle with the repercussions of death, the tedium of her day job at the Happy Time temp agency, and the temptation to reach out to her mourning family. There are a couple of major twists thrown in to pad the story out to feature-length—including an eyebrow-raising breach of one of the major laws of reaping, and a late-stage development that sets things up for a sequel—but overall, Life After Death feels like the bloated, reanimated corpse of the short-lived series. Muth’s endearingly mumbly performance is as idiosyncratic as ever, but she and the rest of the cast are burdened with a script that bounces carelessly between cynicism and softly lit drama, with little of the nuance of Dead Like Me’s sardonic-yet-heartwarming take on life and death. (Not coincidentally, Patinkin’s character usually provided that.) Sadly, the welcome familiarities of the Dead Like Me universe, including Christine Willes as Muth’s lovably weird boss at Happy Time, can’t overcome the same sort of weak plotting and characterization choices that led to the show’s demise.
Key features: An amiable commentary from Muth and director Stephen Herek, and a short featurette heavy on the “It’s so great to be back” narrative.