As if premium cable were a region of the End Times—a Tibetan Buddhist Bardo or the Badlands of the Egyptian hereafter—Dead Like Me (Fridays, starting June 27; 10 to 11:15 p.m.; Showtime) picks up on Showtime almost exactly where Six Feet Under left off on HBO. This is what getting your subscription canceled looks like from the point of view of the recently deceased. Who wouldn’t be dismayed when the first person you meet after you are no longer alive (but apparently not altogether dead) is Mandy Patinkin? Even worse is when Mandy explains that for the foreseeable future you’ll be hanging out with him, Rebecca Gayheart, Callum Blue, and Jasmine Guy, eating every meal in the same diner and playing touchie-feelie at gruesome scenes of murder, suicide, and catastrophe.
Ellen Muth, a smart-mouth revelation, plays Georgia Lass, an 18-year-old college dropout and sullen file clerk who hadn’t much enjoyed the life she led but certainly never planned to lose it on her 35-minute lunch hour, when a toilet seat from a disintegrating Russian space station fell down on her head. And not even Mandy can explain why George, as she prefers to be known, is stuck in his gang of grim reapers, whose job is to rub up against unsuspecting soon-to-dies, pluck their souls from the sleeve of flesh, and then lead their incorporeal specters toward a constellation of bright lights that’s part jigsaw puzzle, part amusement park, part Winter Palace. For some reason, Jasmine Guy does all this dressed up as a pistol-packing meter maid.
If you thought life was unfair, just wait till you meet death: “a wakeup call,” says George, who has as many issues after as she did before. Even though the undead don’t look like themselves in the eyes of the still-living, she keeps going home to her grief-stricken mother (the wonderful Cynthia Stevenson) and a baby sister (Britt McKillip) who is acting out big-time. Nor can George simply sit there and allow a little girl to perish in a train wreck. And she really doesn’t like the apartment she squats in, which belonged of course to someone who no longer needs it because he is dearly departed. “Isn’t stealing from dead people kind of tacky?” she wants to know. But grim reapers have hardly any perks. They can’t fly, walk through walls, disappear, or have sex; and they don’t get paid.
In forthcoming episodes, Mandy will try to be profound, a caged bear will eat an animal-rights Goldilocks, and George will find out that soul food doesn’t come from Korea. Although different hands write and direct different hours, Dead Like Me is pretty much what we’d expect to be surprised by from veterans like Scott Winant (The West Wing and My So-Called Life) and John Masius (Touched by an Angel and Providence). What we had no right to expect was a Patinkin under control but having a ball, a Gayheart born to comic-vamp, and a Muth who seems to have decided to be a Holden Caulfield for our transgendered times.
As for the grim reapers as a kind of escort service to Disney World or the Grand Ole Opry, I’m reminded of the ghostly Thanatoids in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland—stuck between life and death in Shade Creek, refugees from history, residues of memory, resentful and nostalgic victims of karmic imbalances (unanswered blows, unredeemed suffering, guilty escapes) who were forever singing such sad songs as “Who’s Sorry Now?,” “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Why hasn’t anyone already made a TV movie out of Vineland, with its Big Brother narcs, RICOS, tree killers, urine sniffers, and sex-hating, death-loving Wasteland thought police out to “disappear” all the gentle people—the pot-smoking punks, bikers, Wobblies, filmmakers, and guitarists—of the People’s Republic of Rock ’n’ Roll? Not only has the time come for such a movie, but it may already be too late.
This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys (June 24, 25, and 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), from the meticulous producers who brought us Eyes on the Prize, follows the religious experience of black Americans from slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Depression, the civil-rights era, and Nation of Islam. We meet Denmark Vesey, Sojourner Truth, Henry McNeal Turner, Thomas Dorsey, Prathia Hall, and Elijah Muhammad.
Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House (June 25; 7 to 8 p.m.; Cinemax) is the remarkable story of two Brooklyn housewives who fell in love in the sixties, quit their husbands for each other, and then, in 1988, sued the New York City Board of Education for domestic-partner benefits.
Caesar (June 29 and 30; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT), while it wasn’t written by either Shakespeare or Gibbon, is still reasonably absorbing, with Jeremy Sisto as the young hothead who annoys Sulla (Richard Harris, just barely hanging in there), sells his daughter Julia (Nicole Grimaudo) to his patron Pompey (Chris Noth) for 50,000 soldiers, has more Gaul than any other Roman general, but should never have forsaken a grown woman like Calpurnia (Valeria Golino) for a sex kitten like Cleopatra (Samuela Sardo). If Christopher Walken, whose toga loves him, isn’t more than enough as Cato, then just wait for Mr. Big to show up as a sort of chicken in a basket.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife (June 29; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) is the very same documentary that just opened in theaters, in which Edith Hahn Beer tells her own story—a young Jewish woman getting her law degree in Vienna as World War II arrives, dodging Auschwitz by going underground, appropriating the identity papers of a proper “Aryan,” escaping to Germany, marrying a Nazi, having a child, and surviving to talk to us on camera.
Maggie (June 29; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is what they call an “intimate” portrait of the three-term prime minister, the Mad Thatcher, who seems never to have had any intimacy issues at all but who looks more and more interesting the less there is to Tony Blair than meets the eye.
Lost Highway: The History of American Country (July 5 and 6; 8 to 10 p.m.; Trio), with Lyle Lovett talking to everybody who is anybody in the business, covers 100 years of bluegrass, cowboy, honky-tonk, Nashville, and so on. Originally a BBC production, it’s been slightly Americanized.