San Francisco Chronicle June 2003   Ultimate DVD July 2004    UGO     Newday

She may play the Grim Reaper, but Ellen Muth is far from what you'd expect. Ultimate DVD discovers how hit US TV series Dead Like Me is changing the way we look at death...

The topic of death is no longer the great taboo on television. Just as Six Feet Under offers a refreshing exposé on the death industry, so the Showtime series Dead Like Me brings a quirky and poignant view of human grieving.

The series stars Ellen Muth as George Lass, a disconnected 18-year-old who feels estranged from her family, hates her job and cannot embrace her life. Until, that is, a toilet seat from the disintegrating Mir space station plummets from the sky and extinguishes her from human existence. Now a member of the undead. George is recruited as a Grim Reaper, charged with collecting the souls of accident victims before tragedy befalls them.

In the course of its 14-episode first season, we follow how George and her family learn to come to terms with mourning and move on, although the series's capacity to move is more than matched by the biting wit of its scripts.

An inspired choice for the lead role, Muth makes deadpan humour into an art form with apparent effortlessness. One might be forgiven for assuming that the producers found her on the comedy circuit, but a took through her CV reveals that the 23-year-old has a history in dramatic roles: the movie Dolores Claiborne, the TV series Normal, Ohio and guest spots on Law and Order.

"This is really the first comedy I've done," she tells Ultimate DVD. "In the past I've always had really depressing, dramatic roles and when I've shown people my work they cry. Now to have people watch me and laugh is quite enlightening."

"In the past I've always had really depressing, dramatic roles... Now to have people watch me and laugh is quite enlightening"

Dead Like Me has an ensemble cast of nine characters, which are ingeniously compartmentalized into George's family, her work (even Grim Reapers have to earn a living) and her undead colleagues - and these groups rarely collide. With a line-up that includes actor/singer Mandy Patinkin (Chicago Hope. The Princess Bride) and rising British talent Callum Blue (The Princess Diaries 2) the show speaks to many demographics.

"Everyone gets along great." says Muth of the on-set camaraderie "It's very rare that you got a cast and crew as close and tight as we are. We're all of different age brackets, so it's not like there's any competition, there's no jealousy or rivalry. You see a lot of TV shows where the whole ensemble is basically the same age, so there might be competilion about who has more to do. or who's the popular one. We're all pretty much equal on Dead Like Me, and our characters are completely different from one another."

Created by Bryan Fuller (Star Trek: Voyager, Wonderfalls). Dead Like Me proved to be the cable channel's big hit of 2003, and a new series begins airing in the summer. As a perfectly-timed lead in, the show makes its Region 1 DVD debut on June 15, with a splendid box set that includes all 14 episodes and extras like Commentary and Deleted Scenes.

It's a chance for those unfamiliar with this superb programme to catch up, and Muth claims that if she were to recommend just one episode from the DVD to now viewers, it would be the first.

"The pilot definitely. It pretty much explains everything and sets the rules about Reaper-dom"

Dead Like Me's future certainly looks rosy: the TV critics adore it and the fan base is growing, a phenomenon that Muth Is witnessing first hand by the size of her mail bag.

"The fan mail that I get is pretty positive: they like my character a lot, and a lot of the girls seem to have crushes on Callum Blue", who plays Mason.

"I've had some from people who have been inspired by it because they've lost a mother or father. They say Its refreshing and good to see that there can be life outside of life, it's so inspiring and touching, and I write them a personal letter to thank them for letting me know I've affected their lives. I would never have thought I could do that."

David Richardson