An alternate title for the ABC comedy “Not Dead Yet” could have been “I See Dead People.” Such is the case for Nell (Gina Rodriguez), a young obit writer at a Los Angeles newspaper who is visited — tailed might be more accurate, and frequently annoyed — by the very people about whom she is writing. They are forever commenting on her sad state of affairs, giving her a nudge here and there to improve things. But once the obit is filed, poof, they’re on their way to the next dimension and Nell is on her way to the next episode.
As tropes go, a character interacting with apparitions who are invisible to everyone else is a solid enough premise that never really seems to die (sorry), and over on CBS “Ghosts” has proved that there is life in this idea yet (listen, the puns are right there ).
The issue for “Not Dead Yet,” from creators David Windsor and Casey Johnson (whose credits include “This is Us”), is that it also wants to be a hangout workplace comedy. In the end, it’s neither fish nor fowl. You can see the glimmers of potential here — Rodriguez is amusingly frazzled as she bumbles through the strangeness of her new normal — but there’s an inherent challenge the series cannot seem to solve: Relaxing into the rhythms of hangout comedy when the main character has a secret life that’s anything but relaxed.
Likable as the cast may be — including “Superstore’s” Lauren Ash as Nell’s absurdly out-of-touch boss and “New Girl’s” Hannah Simone as an editor at the paper who is also Nell’s best friend — the B-stories feel like they’re just filling time before we get back to the main event: Nell juggling her latest ghost.
“Not Dead Yet” isn’t funny so much as it has the light, feel-good architecture of a comedy, but there’s one halfway decent exchange between Nell and her boss, the latter of whom insults her with “You still work in newspapers” to which Nell pauses and replies: “ You work in newspapers.”
Considering the newspaper business has been ensnared in an existential crisis for the last decade or so, the show doesn’t seem all that interested in the reality (and potential comedy) of what it’s even like to work at a newspaper in the 2020s.
Nell originally quit her reporting job to follow a boyfriend to London. Now she’s back in Los Angeles because the relationship went belly up and somehow there’s still a job open at her old paper, albeit one on the obits desk. This is pretty unlikely! I’m not even sure reporters are staffed anymore to write obituaries about non-public figures. But that’s not even the weirdest detail.
Nell thinks she’s slumming it on the obit beat, so at one point she goes rogue and assigns herself an investigative story without conferring with any of her editors. Then she gets it posted on the paper’s website behind everyone’s back by convincing the “internet upload engineer” to make it happen. This is a plainly fireable offense! OK, look: Most shows get the details wrong of pretty much any profession, and you either suspend your disbelief or complain to the nearest person in the room. But there is no such thing as an “internet upload engineer” — nor am I convinced this elaborately pointless job title works as an intentional joke. (It’s probably too inside baseball to expect most people to know that publishing stories online is as complicated as making a blog post live; you hit a button.)
There’s more but I won’t belabor the point because it’s possible the show’s creators and a large segment of the audience don’t care about these details (fair enough). But none of it makes sense, let alone makes comedy . And let me tell you, there is plenty of absurdist workplace comedy in the world of modern newspapers.
Journalists in the 21st century are laboring under all kinds of pressure to generate web traffic or convince readers to buy subscriptions. It’s hard to do that when you’re writing about the average deaths of average people. But everyone has a story, even if they’re not famous. A solid idea that would benefit from a narrower focus in the early going.
“Not Dead Yet” — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC (and streaming on Hulu)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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