Gina Rodriguez is back on your small screen after ending the wonderful and under-watched “Jane the Virgin” in 2019. In ABC’s “Not Dead Yet,” premiering February 8th, Rodriguez plays another charming writer at a personal crossroads.
But Nell is not the hyper-organized, overly romantic Jane. No, Nell declares herself a mess from the get-go, and “Not Dead Yet” does its best to prove that’s the case. The show opens with Nell back in Los Angeles after a failed engagement, living with a roommate (Rick Glassman) despite being nearly 40. She’s back at her old job at the local paper. There, she’s no longer a rising star but rather demoted to the seemingly dead-end obituary column (get it?).
But she’s also Gina Rodriguez so she brims with warmth and charm, only occasionally displaying an edge. And this is her show, where the principal conflict is the relationship that she has with herself. In each episode, a guest star, playing the ghost of whomever she’s writing an obit about, helps her heal her bruised psyche.
The setup—Nell sees and hears the ghosts but no one else does—allows Rodriguez to use her talent for physical humor. I was practically guffawing at one flashback sequence retold from an outsider’s perspective without the ghosts’ presence.
Part of the fun of a show like this is seeing who they get to appear and “Not Dead Yet” doesn’t disappoint on that front. Martin Mull is the first to haunt Nell and he gives a warm performance as a man whose professional success was the footnote, rather than the full story of his life. In the five episodes made available to critics, each of the ghosts is played with fervor by actors of various amounts of clout, all imparting an important lesson to Nell, whether they mean to or not.
“Not Dead Yet” also features a delightful cast of recurring characters, including “New Girl” alum Hannah Simone as Sam, who matches Rodriguez’s internal glow as Nell’s best friend. Lauren Ash has a lot of fun as the imperious and out-of-touch boss while Jimmy Bellinger also seems to be having a great time as the unpaid intern and Nell’s presumptuous rival.
Most of the workplace drama reads like a writer’s fantasy of what it is to work at a paper—there are the occasional lobster lunches for inspiration for one. The good people putting together the SoCal Independent may worry about numbers, but no one gets laid off, everyone makes a living wage, and Nell appears to write just one column a week.
Adding to the fantasy of it all, the characters inhabit a cheerful Los Angeles where Nell walks around her neighborhood, everyone she meets lives close by in a city famous for its spaced-out neighborhoods, and the general vibe is bright and airy.
And if that sounds saccharine—well, it is sweet. “Not Dead Yet” is not striving for realism, but rather thoughtful escapism. We are talking about a friendly ghost show here after all.
Thankfully, the lesson-of-the-week format doesn’t venture into after-school-special because the show takes its characters’ problems seriously, never condescending but rather approaching each person with empathy. It also helps that Nell’s issues are consequential but not insurmountable, existing on a relatable human scale. Yes, she’s recovering from a broken heart but it’s more than that. She’s struggling with a trauma I won’t give away, dealing with how her friends’ lives went on without her, and generally trying to find purpose after her life took a turn she didn’t account for. It’s all stuff any of us might go through, the regular drama of being alive. And that’s why the ghosts can help Nell—she just needs some more wisdom to figure out how to love herself better.
This focus on the human condition is also why it’s so nice to visit the cheerful, accepting world of “Not Dead Yet.” Who wouldn’t want to spend half an hour a week in a place where newspapers are thriving, ghosts are here to help, and everyone’s life has a purpose?