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Review: Dead to Me (Season 1) 

By Spencer Coile 

In recent years, Netflix has held the honor and burden of bringing to life countless TV series – giving a voice to talent previously under or unseen. While it has become impossible to keep up with everything the platform currently has to offer, it also allows its creators, writers, and directors to tell their stories on their terms. Gone are the days where television was situated comfortably in the binary of comedy and drama. Now we have space carved out for shows that subvert our expectations, make us uncomfortable, and if we’re lucky, invite us into the artist’s vision. 

Liz Feldman takes complete advantage of this genre fluidity. Her Netflix creation, Dead to Me (streaming now)is a darkly comic meditation on grief and the ways it manifests within our interpersonal relationships. Featuring especially remarkable turns from two typically underutilized actresses, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, Dead to Me is a prickly, but surprisingly personal examination into how we process trauma... 

Jen (Applegate), a recently widowed real estate agent, has some anger issues. Her husband died abruptly three months prior in a hit-and-run, and without someone to blame for this crime, Jen listens to heavy metal in her car and takes her short-temper out on those around her. She is searching for catharsis, an outlet to express her grief, or at the very least, someone she can commiserate with. She finds herself at Friends of Heaven, a support group for those who are mourning, and meets Judy (Cardellini), a beguiling woman who is grieving the loss of her fiancé. 

Immediately, Dead to Me negotiates a tone that is equal parts biting and resonant. Jen and Judy’s relationship develops quickly, but with no one else to turn to, they cling on to one another in a way that feels realistic. Jen’s anger, as righteous as it may be, slowly begins to crumble upon meeting Judy. They complement one another in ways they didn’t think imaginable, and for once, their individual losses forge together through collective healing. However, the closer they get, the deeper and more layered the series becomes. After all, much like grief itself, Jen and Judy’s friendshipis multifaceted and messy. There is more lurking beneath the surface than we care to confront or even admit.  

Because at least one of them is always on screen throughout its first season, Dead to Me relies on Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini to pull off the show’s tricky tone. Fortunately, both are up for a challenge. Jen, chastised for her anger issues, is a woman who cannot seem to let go of the past. She harbors resentments, lashes out at people who wish her the best, and still finds time to search her sunny California town for the person who may have killed her husband.  

In some ways she's an off-putting character, having built a wall around herself that few can pierce. Not even her two sons are close with their mother (in fact, they are usually relegated to the background of the series). Applegate sinks her teeth into this meatier than usual role. She allows herself to be cantankerous with no initial hint of warmth. But as the series develops, so too does Jen, and we slowly begin to see the softer shades to her anger. After all, it’s not just anger that’s built up – it’s melancholy, frustration, and denial. It is only after Judy enters her life that she begins to cope properly. 

Meanwhile, Cardellini’s Judy is by no means a resentful person. She is filled with kindness and energy – a quality that rubs off on Jen’s family after Jen asks her to move in. Whereas Jen channels her grief through lashing out at other people, Judy harbors a deep sadness that she cannot quite shake. Her character is shrouded in mystery, with each episode peeling away at another layer to her troubled unreliable narrator. It helps that Cardellini is so damn likeable as Judy, that it is easy to go on this journey with her. Jen may listen to heavy metal in search for catharsis, but Judy doesn’t even know how to begin searching. It’s a marvelous performance and one worthy of Cardellini’s unique capabilities.  

Make no mistake: Dead to Me is far more than a series about women overcoming their grief. The central premise is deceptively simple and then unravels into a tangled web of secrets and lies. And while there are plenty of twists to keep you guessing, for the most part, they are easy to see coming and not easily sustainable as mysteries for a ten-episode run. The pilot, for example, unfolds so quickly and gives away many of the season’s thrills right off the bat, that some subsequent episodes find the characters in a strange lull with no room for the plot of develop. Given the topic this was probably intentional, but it makes the first season a somewhat jerky viewing experience.  

Dead to Me is a comedic series. It’s a dramatic series. And it's everything in between. It is unsettling and awkward, it is rushed but it still takes its time. In the end, it’s about capturing the feeling of loss, and the confusion and anguish it brings. By the season’s end, Jen and Judy are no closer to healing properly from their grief. And perhaps that is because there is no way to completely heal from our grief. That's an idea that is heartbreakingly, yet profoundly human. 

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Reader Comments (12)

we have watched only the first episode and have liked the premise. I also have always

loved Applegate and wished she could have another hit show.

May 6, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterref

at end of first episode, I am like WTF did I just see in her storage shed, oh no, this isn't going to go well. yeah I will watch the rest. good acting, Applegate, and kudos to the rest, kids, Judy.

May 6, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterdave

Saw the pilot and found it painfully overwritten yet still likeable. It's like the show is underlining everything it's trying to do. But while subtlety isn't its forte, I found Cardellini endearing. She's always so likeable and she's been deserving of good roles since Freaks and Geeks (no, Green Book doesn't count).

May 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

I binge watched all ten episodes today! I want the season 2 to get the heck made and onto Netflix as soon as possible. I really enjoyed this series and I wasn't prepared to really even like it. I just couldn't seem to find anything that I was interested in today so I thought I'd just give it a try. I don't usually watch this type of show, but I'm glad I did. It's very entertaining and keeps you wanting the next episode.

May 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDolly Wilson

Loved every minute of it. Have never seen Applegate in such a demanding role (course she's a brilliant comedian but here she's a whole other level of complexity). Plus t's gorgeously written and de Applegate-Cardellini chemestry is deliciously cunning and cleverly built; the end gave me a "Les Diaboliques" feeling.

May 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

I've watched 7 episodes so far--Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini ARE the series. It falls flat to me in the pockets of the plot. It's mysterious, but the exploration of the unknown seems trite. Maybe I want more drama, less comedy, but I definitely DON'T want less Applegate or Cardellini. Maybe Season 2 can redeem...

May 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJess K.

With the exception of Barry and Atlanta, it's the female-centric shows that are killing it in dark comedy, regular comedy, comedy/drama, dark drama, crime drama, period drama, period comedy, etc , etc. etc.. See also: Good Girls, Fleabag, Killing Eve, PEN15, Better Things, The Bold Type, The Good Fight, Insecure, Back to Life, No Offence, Gentleman Jack, One Day at a Time, Big Little Lies, Younger, Call the Midwife.


May 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Pam, you are so right! Good Girls, The Bold Type and Call the Midwife are appointment tv for me; they are really unappreciated.

May 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I have always felt that Applegate was criminally undervalued, so I am beyond thrilled that she is getting this wonderful showcase. I cannot wait to watch this!

May 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Tonally the show is odd -- but as Pam and Suzanne point out, this is the direction of TV right now. The lines aren't just blurred in morality but also in genre.

Having only finished episode 3, can we actressexuals discuss Valerie Mahaffey? She is absolutely TERRIFYING as Lorna!

Agreed on Christina Applegate -- Samamtha Who? was an amazing show and ABC went and messed with it.

May 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Jakey--OMG, loved LOVED Samantha Who?! You're right, ABC messed with a good thing, like they usually did--Ugly Betty, Eli Stone--and of course screwed everything up. Christina really deserved an Emmy for that role--talk about a range of emotions, playing a character who undergoes a complete personality change. She was quite brilliant, and a genius with a joke line. And that supporting cast--Emmy winner Jean Smart, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Dunn, Barry Watson and the glorious Jennifer Esposito. Gone before its time. Sigh.

May 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

WE LOVED DEAD TO ME. The beginning of the season started a little slow, but it jut gets better and better. Check out the web series, they talk about the show in detail! Its great@

July 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterWatch With Us Maybe

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