Not Dead Yet has been pitched as Gina Rodriguez’s return to network television, but as star vehicles go, it’s as feeble as its protagonist. Rodriguez toyed with viewers’s expectations in Jane the Virgin, bringing new layers to a character rooted in familiar genre tropes. But her latest character, Nell Serano, an obituary writer who begins seeing the ghosts of her subjects, is stuck, unable to shake her malaise about life not going her way. While Nell does show small signs of momentum in later episodes, it feels as if co-creators David Windsor and Casey Johnson don’t know what to do with her — as if they, like Nell, are fumbling around, waiting for someone to point them in the right direction.
The ABC comedy owes much of its structure to Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up by Alexandra Potter, a novel about a newly single woman who hopes to restart the life and career she left behind five years ago for a man in London. (Did she learn nothing from Lauren Conrad?) Nell assumes she’ll be able to pick up right where she left off, but she gets a reality check when she realizes how much has changed at the small newspaper where she was once an up-and-coming journalist. Not only have Nell’s friends Sam (Hannah Simone, best known for her seven-season run on New Girl) and Dennis (Joshua Banday) been promoted to editor roles, but also her one-time nemesis Lexi (Lauren Ash), the daughter of the paper’s publisher, is the new editor-in-chief — and she’s weaseled her way into Sam’s life after bonding over the shared experience of being working mothers.
But the harshest blow to Nell’s ego comes when she learns she’ll be writing obituaries. Despite earning her job back with seemingly little effort — a staff role, no less, one of Not Dead Yet’s many media-world inaccuracies — Nell thinks the gig is beneath her. However, after a visit from her first subject, a musician named Monty (Martin Mull) who wrote a famous bubblegum commercial decades prior, her perspective shifts. As she gets to know each of her subjects, Nell comes to see the value in her work, and she begins to accept their wisdom about moving forward after her breakup and living life to the fullest while she still can.
It’s a lovely sentiment, but Not Dead Yet makes it hard for Rodriguez to convey it well. The actress does what she can with the character, but Nell mostly comes across as a sad sack who would rather blame the world for her problems than look inward. In each episode, the ghosts help Nell learn an important life lesson — for instance, through Brittany Snow’s influencer (who was also a high school bully), she realizes everyone is battling insecurities of their own and deserves grace, which is probably worth discovering before the age of 38 — but when the next episode rolls around, she’s back to her judgmental, floundering self.
This frustrating cycle repeats until the end of Episode 5, “Not Moving on Yet,” when viewers finally get some insight into what’s keeping Nell tethered to the past, but there’s no reason the reveal couldn’t have come sooner. “Not Moving on Yet” — the final episode made available for review — feels like the real starting point for Rodriguez’s character, and Not Dead Yet does itself no favors burying her moment of growth halfway through the season, at which point curious viewers may have already checked out.
Nell’s stagnancy becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the vibrancy of Not Dead Yet’s supporting characters, a crew that arrives fully formed, each with specific quirks and goals of their own. Ash, who previously starred in NBC sitcom Superstore, brings her impeccable comedic timing to the role of Lexi, who is at once terribly privileged and self-involved — “You are only as strong as the horse you’re riding,” she tells her subordinates, “And you are my horse” — and a genuine friend to Sam. It’s explained that while Lexi is in a new leadership role, she’s still under the thumb of her father and desperate to forge her own identity. (The key, she believes, is generating “that clickity-clickity-buzz-buzz,” also known as “topical stories that are socially relevant.”) Even if it is an idealistic and over-simplified version of journalism, Lexi’s storyline creates real stakes for the other characters whose livelihoods depend on the success of the paper.
Sam isn’t utilized quite as much, but she serves as a necessary foil for Nell, often bringing her back down to earth with her straight-shooting advice. Still, Simone makes the most of her screen time, and in Sam’s desire to support everyone around her — she even helps Dennis ditch his trauma-induced phobia of sports — one can see hints of sadness and confusion in a woman struggling to reconcile her past self with her new identity as a mother.
Rick Glassman, who plays Nell’s roommate Edward, and Angela Gibbs, as the wife of an obituary subject who becomes a mother figure for Nell, are similarly skilled at finding complexities in their characters. Edward has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and his brutal honesty is depicted as a strength, as when he offers Cricket (Gibbs) a brief respite from the endless “We’re sorry for your loss” platitudes by telling her she’s “still fit” enough to find a new partner. Cricket’s arc also embodies the show’s uplifting message: Even as she grieves the loss of her husband, she looks to the future, knowing that finding new happiness is what he would have wanted for her.
If Windsor and Johnson are looking for an indication of where to go next, the strength of Not Dead Yet’s ensemble is as good a signpost as any. Rodriguez may be the star, but with a supporting cast this compelling (and a protagonist so static) it makes sense to de-emphasize her character and give the talented actors around her more to chew on. Doing so limits the amount of time spent wallowing in Nell’s self-pity, which would both up the fun quotient — who wouldn’t want to spend more time with Lauren Ash? — and expand the world of the show beyond Nell’s “I see dead people” bit. Because as it stands, there’s a void at the center of Not Dead Yet preventing it from communicating its feel-good message. Filling it with these eccentric, distinct characters would go a long way towards making the comedy feel truly alive.
Not Dead Yet premieres Wednesday, February 8 at 8:30 PM ET on ABC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Not Dead Yet, ABC, Casey Johnson, David Windsor, Gina Rodriguez, Hannah Simone, Lauren Ash