TELEVISION: ‘Not Dead Yet’ combines comedy and drama

Martin Mull (left) and Gina Rodriguez are shown at a bar in a scene from ABC’s “Not Dead Yet.” (ABC via AP/Eric McCandless)
Martin Mull (left) and Gina Rodriguez are shown at a bar in a scene from ABC’s “Not Dead Yet.” (ABC via AP/Eric McCandless)


NEW YORK — While TV writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor were winding down the emotional roller coaster series "This Is Us," they had another project waiting to soar — one with ghosts.

Their new "Not Dead Yet," about a newspaper obituary writer haunted by the subjects she is writing about, landed on ABC Wednesday, less than a year after viewers bid goodbye to "This Is Us" characters Randall, Kate and Kevin.

"With the end of that show, it was a lot about death. And here we were at the same time giving birth to this other baby," Windsor says. "It was sort of a nice cycle of life."

In "Not Dead Yet," Gina Rodriguez plays Nell, a newly single reporter who returns to her California newspaper 10 years after she quit to follow a love interest to London. Things have changed for everyone.

She lands on the obituary desk — "Everyone has a story. It's your job to find it," she is told — and in the pilot is soon visited by the ghost of her first story. It does not go well.

"No, uh-uh, I do not see dead people," she tells the spirit. "This has just got to be the chili cheese fries and the cake and the five cocktails and maybe the half gummy I ate." To which the ghost deadpans: "Go easy there, Keith Richards."

The use of a new ghost each week allows Nell to explore other lives and experiences, and they, in turn, help advise a woman who admits she's a mess, someone who drinks a little too much and wears bathing suit bottoms when she runs out of clean underwear.

"There's two things about the people who've passed away," Johnson says. "What can they bring up in Nell's life that she can explore and what can she learn from this person's life that's specific to them. So it's just kind of this rich territory."

Some of the ghosts Nell meets include a jingle writer who teaches Nell about one-hit wonders, a hard-charging success coach who reveals not all advice is useful and a social media influencer who brings up hurt memories of high school. It airs while another spirit-filled comedy — CBS' "Ghosts" — has begun its second season.

"Not Dead Yet" co-stars Hannah Simone from "New Girl" as Nell's best friend, "Superstore" alumna Lauren Ash as her chilly boss, "Cleopatra Jones" star Angela Elayne Gibbs as a new friend and "As We See It" star Rick Glassman as her roommate.

Guest star ghosts over the first series include Martin Mull, Ed Begley Jr., Mo Collins, Deborah S. Craig, Telma Hopkins, Don Lake, Rhea Perlman, Paula Pell, Tony Plana and Julia Sweeney.

Johnson and Windsor, who created and executive produced "The Real O'Neals," were coming off a three-year run as co-executive producers of "This Is Us" and based their new series on a book by Alexandra Potter. They managed to get the series filmed before Rodriguez gave birth.

Both writers had mourned the recent passing of a parent and found themselves missing their loved ones and wishing they still had their guidance.

"It was almost wish fulfillment thinking like, 'Wow, what would happen if we could talk to them? What would happen if we could seek them out and and get their advice?'" Windsor says.

Johnson and Windsor had primarily done comedies before "This Is Us" but they always tried to give their shows a dramatic, emotional heart. "Not Dead Yet" has elements of both.

"We were wondering if there was a way to kind of meld the two worlds," Johnson says. "Can we do a comedy that has hard jokes and is a lot of fun, but then also goes for these really emotional, real moments? To us as writers, that was a really exciting experiment and we were really thrilled that ABC was on board."

"Not Dead Yet" is also a workplace show, one that makes fun of co-workers who bring large salads to work and the cliques that form, like the adult jocks and the nerds.

Johnson notes that leading a TV show mirrors a lot of office culture and offers plenty to mine: "We're in a writers' room with bad fluorescent lights and dried up Sharpies and lunches out of plastic containers," she says, laughing.

They say that when writing episodes there were times when the notion of the ghost came first and other times the idea for Nell to explore something in her life dictated the arrival of a certain ghost.

For the episode when Nell confronts a nemesis from high school — guest actor Brittany Snow plays her perfectly as a conceited adult social influencer — the writers started with a past bully.

"We knew we wanted to tell that story because we thought that was so unique and potentially funny," Johnson says. "We didn't yet know what story we wanted to tell for Nell. So the ghost came first. And then we found the story that we wanted to do. But I think in other instances, it's come a different way."

The writing duo have many more ghosts on tap. Windsor says the writers room has about 100 cards of potential dead people. "We just can't wait to tell them all. Hopefully we get the second, third, fourth season to do it."