Attention, obituary readers: ABC’s new sitcom captures the spirit(s) behind them
In “Not Yet Dead,” a perfectly pleasant, somewhat nonsensical, attractively peopled supernatural sitcom premiering Wednesday on ABC, Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) plays Nell, who after five years in London and a bad breakup returns to Southern California and a new job at her old newspaper, the fictional SoCal Independent. Once an investigative reporter, she’s put in charge of obituaries, to her initial chagrin.
As Nell is preparing her first assignment, Monty (played by Martin Mull) appears next to her on a bar stool, and before long it transpires that he is the dead person she is set to write about — famous as a writer of jingles but disappointed as an artist.
Thus begins a pattern: Each week there will be a guest star, or ghost star, with whom Nell will interact more or less normally (with the requisite “talking to someone no one else can see” jokes) as she learns a lesson and/or the guest does; once the story is filed, the ghost goes on to wherever dead people go in this scenario.
Why any of this should be the case is impossible and pointless to explain, and, happily, “Not Yet Dead” doesn’t bother to. All that matters is that in some way writer and subject help one another — Nell is most definitely a work in progress, emotionally and sometimes physically disheveled — and in television, that is enough to build a cosmology on.
Created by Casey Johnson and David Windsor (“The Real O’Neals”), the series is nominally based on the 2020 novel “Confessions of a Forty-Something F##k Up” by Alexandra Potter, a big-selling British writer of comic romances. What it has in common with that source is a main character who finds herself alone and frustrated in early middle age while her friends have turned into mothers, finds a job writing obituaries and bonds with a much older woman (Angela E. Gibbs as wine bar owner Cricket, also the widow of Mull’s character).
Evidently, it was decided in some executive suite or writers room that something sparkier was needed to turn the property into a TV series — and so, in the second network comedy currently to feature them (after the CBS series “Ghosts”), we have dead people.
Reheating old series for modern tastes is common practice. But new revivals from NBC and Netflix seek to honor the TV of an earlier age.
In the episodes I’ve seen, guest ghosts include Mo Collins as a motivational speaker and Brittany Snow as Nell’s former high-school bully, an influencer who died taking a selfie; among others set to appear are sitcom stalwarts Ed Begley Jr., Rhea Perlman, Telma Hopkins, Tony Plana, Julia Sweeney and Paula Pell. One nice thing about a show about the deceased is that it naturally gives opportunities to older actors.
The not-dead people in Nell’s life, who pop in and out of the A stories and the B stories, include Hannah Simone (“New Girl”) as her old friend Sam, who edits the paper’s lifestyle section; and Dennis, played by Josh Banday, who runs metro. Their boss is Lexi (Lauren Ash, “Superstore”), an imperious ditz who has taken over running the paper from her rich father. Formerly a subject of derision on the part of Nell and Sam — they called her Scotch Tape because she was stuck up — Lexi has become friends with Sam in Nell’s long absence.
Outside of the office is Edward (Rick Glassman), Nell’s fastidious roommate, an environmental lawyer on the spectrum, who leaves a Post-It note in their refrigerator: “If you’re reading this then the fridge has been open too long.” You could put these same actors in another series entirely and have a pretty good time with them. But you can have a pretty good time with them here.
As in most comedy workplaces, the work hardly matters. Still, this department is always happy to see newspapers represented in popular culture, however little they get right about us, and “Not Yet Dead” gets very little right. (Though the SoCal Independent is at least portrayed as struggling, which is the case most everywhere.)
There’s nothing much to suggest that Nell is a journalist, other than that we occasionally see her at a keyboard; her pieces, delivered on a deadline more accommodating to the needs of the ghosts than that of the paper, just fall out of her. (Well, perhaps she’s that good, and I’m just jealous.) And to be fair, watching writers write is dramatic molasses — it’s why they’re always made to type furiously fast, perhaps to the accompaniment of dramatic music, maybe drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes as they go. This show is not that, though Nell does like a drink.
I’ve written often about the recently departed, but I’ve never had any of my subjects literally looking over my shoulder while I did it — metaphorically, sure. (You want to do them justice.) An obituary is a sort of a ghost story, a paradoxically happy one, in which a person lives on among friends and strangers. And a sitcom ghost story, with the implication that the departed, including our eventual selves, might go on, like guests taking their time at the door leaving the party, can be oddly cheering. With a mix of sentiment and snark, tending toward sentiment, typical of network comedy, “Not Dead Yet” makes for a decent half-hour hang this side of eternity.
‘Not Dead Yet ’
When: 8:30 and 9:30 Wednesday
Streaming: Hulu, anytime, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)
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