By Lynn Elber
Los Angeles (AP) -- "Angels don't like getting their hands dirty. You know, upper management types," declares Rube, one of the grim reapers who populate Showtime's new drama "Dead Like Me."
A little background: The series' executive producer, John Masius, created and was then ousted from "Touched by An Angel" because CBS thought his vision of the show overly dark.
So does the dialogue represent a bit of payback? No, says Masius. What about the wisecrack from Rube, "Hey, you don't see Della Reese sitting here"?
"That still didn't feel like a shot," insists Masius. But, he adds, "This is not your mother's 'Touched by An Angel.'"
That's for sure. While the CBS series was earnestly uplifting, "Dead Like Me," debuting 10 p.m. EDT Friday, specializes in black comedy, accented by adolescent surliness.
That's because the focus is on Georgia, known as George, an 18-year-old college dropout who we meet in the dwindling hours of her aimless, unhappy life -- just before a space station's plummeting toilet ends it.
But George remains reluctantly earthbound, tapped to work for an indefinite period as one of the reapers who pluck out souls from the dead and send them on to their next destination.
Ellen Muth, an intriguing young actress who appeared in the TV movie "The Truth About Jane" and the film "Dolores Claiborne," plays George. Her fellow reapers are team leader Rube (Mandy Patinkin), Roxy (Jasmine Guy), Mason (Callum Blue) and Betty (Rebecca Gayheart). (Gayheart leaves the drama after four episodes, with Laura Harris of "24" coming on board.)
"Dead Like Me" focuses as well on George's bereaved family, including the mother (Cynthia Stevenson) whom she bickered with and the younger sister (Britt McKillip) she ignored. Greg Kean plays dad Clancy.
Death is in the forefront but Masius wants to focus on the show's humor and its capacity to be life-affirming, in a non-saccharine way.
"In our culture, death is looked on as a negative. Part of the show says, 'It's a part of the life process,' which is not a bad lesson," Masius said. As for the conceit that souls are released by caring reapers, that's "a very sweet thought."
Patinkin, the stage, film and TV ("Chicago Hope," "Alien Nation") veteran, said he's looking on the bright side, too.
"What appealed to me most about the show was that it was indeed about life, not about death, and about how to have fun and embrace it," Patinkin said. "If there's one umbrella the show lives under it's 'Have fun.' Don't waste a minute of this life -- or this death, because it's the only death you're gonna get."
The hereafter seems to be a professional obsession for Masius. Besides "Touched by an Angel," he created and for four years was executive producer of "Providence," in which the lead character was visited regularly by her departed mother.
"I don't know what this afterlife thing is with me," Masius said, with good humor.
Perhaps it's a subject for a counseling session?
"Believe me, I've talked about it with my therapist," he said. The delicate connection between the living and dead is an irresistible dramatic subject, Masius noted, quoting a former colleague.
"As Tom Fontana wrote in 'St. Elsewhere,' death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship.' Closure doesn't come easy," Masius said.
It took time for him reconcile the loss of "Touched by An Angel" to Martha Williamson, who was brought in as executive producer and gave the 1994-2003 drama her own stamp.
"I have two disabled kids, and when I wrote the pilot for 'Touched by An Angel' and cast Roma (Downey) and Della, I was very angry. What kind of God does terrible things to little kids?"
CBS executives rejected his approach. "I got into 'My way or the highway' with the network and they said, 'Goodbye,'" he recalled.
Williamson "turned it into something that was a little too fundamentalist for my taste." But the show was a success for CBS, and Masius benefited financially.
Now the tables are turned and he's trying to make a go of another writer's concept. "Dead Like Me" was created by Bryan Fuller, who left to work on a broadcast network series.
Ironically, Masius said, he's been given the job of easing the tale's darkness and cynicism. The passage of years has allowed him the perspective needed, the 52-year-old writer observed.
"Without taking shots at Bryan, because he's incredibly talented, he definitely reminds me of me when I was around 30."
Masius cites the best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones," about a murdered girl observing how her family tries to cope, as one inspiration for his approach to the show. A far different work comes to mind when Masius observes scenes in which the reapers gather at a diner for food and conversation.
"It feels at times like 'Seinfeld' on acid to me. It's so surreal."
On the Net: www.sho.com/deadlikeme
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