Dead to Me Is Back For Its Final Season
Jen and Judy are Back and Their Lives Are More Complicated, Darker — And Funnier -Then Ever
One of the streaming series that helped get me through 2020 was when I basically binged (read: saw two episodes per week) the first two seasons of Netflix’s remarkable Dead to Me. To try and describe the story of the series to this point would read somewhere on the level of the most twisted soap opera, the darkest of dramas and a French farce, and its remarkable that no matter how many plates showrunners Liz Feldman and her fellow writers keep spinning, they never seem to drop any.
To give the briefest of synopsis: Jen is a forty-ish widow of two children whose husband died in a hit and run who goes to a grief support group and meets Judy, who starts out by claiming she’s lost her son which is a lie. She’s actually had a messy life, she’s suffered four miscarriages — and actually goes through a fifth in Season 1 — and even though they’re incredibly different — Jen is absolutely dark and pessimistic, Judy relentlessly optimistic — they end up becoming friends and Judy ends up moving in with Jen and her children. What Jen doesn’t know is that Judy was the driver in the hit-and-run that killed her husband and that Judy’s ex, Steve has been helping her cover it up. In Season 1, Steve confronted Judy at Jen’s, attacked her and Jen killed him in self-defense.
Things actually got simultaneously darker and more farcical in Season 2. Steve’s identical twin brother, Ben showed up when Steve ‘disappeared’. Ben then began an affair with Jen, Judy began a lesbian relationship with the ex-girlfriend of the cop investigating Steve’s disappearance, we learned of the involvement of Ben’s involvement with the Greek Mafia and how he had used them to finance Judy’s art career and Season 2 ended with Jen’s oldest son Charlie reading a letter where Judy’s confessed (in a way) to his father’s murder, the cops discovering Steve’s body, Ben learning about his death, getting drunk and in the last minute of the finale, Jen and Judy being involved in a hit and run in which Ben was the other driver, because of course, that’s how their lives work.
Incredibly, it actually seems like Season 3 might get darker and more complicated still. Arriving at the hospital, Jen came away with extreme back pain and a concussion. At the hospital, Jen learned from the cop about the discovery of Steve’s body. Ben showed up drunk and in his wrecked car, and Charlie had to drive him to the hospital, which of course was where both Jen and Judy were in recovery and Ben connecting the dots. In the final minutes of the final, the doctor thinking Jen was Judy (clerical mix-up) told Jen that Judy might very well have cancer. The next episode only seemed to make things worse, when Charlie confronted Jen and Judy about what happened with a gun and Jen and Judy made up a cover story where Judy has had an affair with Ted before she died. In the course of this the cops showed up to investigate the hit and run, and now Jen knows that because she buried the body on government land, the FBI is going to get involved. Ben then showed up at their house (of course) with a gift basket and had to see Jen tell Sam (her youngest) that there’d been a hit and run a little more than a year after Ted died. Then Jen finally told Judy she had cancer, and that’s not even the biggest shoe that dropped this episode.
These contortions are so dark and twisted, so utterly bizarre and often leading with even more darkness that you honestly would have expected them in a 1930s melodrama. So now I need to tell those of you who have yet to watch Dead to Me (the third season finally dropped on Thursday) that this is arguably one of the funniest shows that you can find anywhere.
I have left out to this point the actresses who play the leads, and it may tell you everything you need to know that they are two of the greatest television actresses in history. Jen is played by Christina Applegate, who you fell in love with in the first five minutes of the series when you heard decompressing by listening to death metal in her car when her cars were asleep. Judy is Linda Cardellini, relentlessly cheerfully, oblivious to many things but never entirely of the chaos around them. Both Applegate and Cardellini have been acting since they were almost out of the womb: both shot the stardom in two of the most unappreciated series of all time: Applegate as Kelly on Married…With Children, a series so overt in its bathroom humor, most of us missed the subtleties of the satires; Cardellini in Freaks and Geeks, one of the brilliant one season wonders in television history, one that the NBC executive who cancelled it has been kicking himself about all the years since. Applegate has starred in some truly undervalued comedies: Up All Night and Samantha Who. Cardellini has worked more in the drama field, including the second half of ER and an Emmy-nominated stint as one of Don’s lovers on Mad Men. It’s not much of a stretch to say that both are doing their best work here; it’s certainly the one that critics have been willing to acknowledge the most (Cardellini received one Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy for; Applegate two.)
I didn’t have to wait quite as long for the third and final season of this show as I did for the second season of Russian Doll (it’s been more than two years between the second season and the third) but I was waiting nearly as eagerly, if for different reasons. Russian Doll is an exercise in the fantastic and surreal; Dead to Me is simultaneously incredibly dark and pure farce. Both series would not work out without the incredibly women in the lead roles. Jen and Judy know just how complicated their lives are and they never get time to breathe before the next one hits. But you never doubt for a moment the body between them because of the exceptional performances of Applegate and Cardellini; it’s like watching a 1930s comedy team constantly reacting to the insanity around them; it’s sort of like watching the Marx Brothers acting in a Eugene O’Neill play. And the reason you believe it is that they never act inappropriately: the house of cards they’re building keeps getting shakier but they’re determined to keep it from collapsing.
It doesn’t hurt that the bond between Jen and Judy is one of the strongest between two female characters I’ve seen in any series in Peak TV. It is so rare to see two women at the center of any series on television and even rarer to not see them always in competition but trying to keep a friendship together. And it is because of this darkness that they went through before and keep determined to come out of that makes you believe it no matter how unrealistic the bonds are.
I should add, by the way, this series is far from a two women show. James Marsden has been putting on a master class for two seasons, first as the initially charming and loving, and then cold and cruel Steve, now as his warm and open Ben. I am reminded of the work that Yael Gregorias did on the similarly convoluted and delightful Jane the Virgin as twin sisters: this time you can tell the two of them are the same person in appearance, but they also both have demons that they are dealing with — Ben was just better burying his than Steve was. We’ve seen that Ben is already haunted by both his actions in the second season finale as well as the death of his brother, and we know he has (by accident) a piece of evidence that could bring the house of cards crashing down on Jen and Judy.
There’s also the wonderful Valerie Mahaffey, bringing us with yet another mother figure you can’t help but hate, determined to rub Jen’s face in it in every way. When she arrives at Jen’s house (unannounced) and sees her daughter-in-law in a neck brace her reaction is: “You finally had your neck done?” (I won’t reveal was she says when Jen’s tell her why she’s in a brace. Ed Asner is to be missed of course, but we will soon be granted the presence of another of television’s great talents Garret Dillahunt as the FBI agent assigned to investigate Steve’s death. (Another great call back: Dillahunt played Cardellini’s ne’er do well ex-boyfriend who eventually went to prison, kidnapped her and her son, and her character ended up killing him. Knowing this show, I think it could play out the same way, though I haven’t read all the spoilers.)
Dead to Me is another one of Netflix’s minor masterpieces, another brilliant comedy series with the same brilliance as The Kominsky Method or Russian Doll. This is the last season of the show and I’ll be sad to see it end — and I imagine many more will. As we all know, Applegate was diagnosed with MS last year. Feldman offered to end the series putting her well-being before the series, Applegate refused but has made it clear this is very likely to be her final project.
Which gets me to one more point. Applegate has been nominated for five Emmys and won one for Guest Actress in a Comedy but she has never won Best Actress in a Comedy. She lost in 2019 to Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Fleabag and to Catherine O’Hara for Schitt’s Creek in 2020 and it’s hard to argue that either was an unworthy choice.
I don’t know if Applegate (or indeed, Cardellini) will be nominated for their work in the final season of Dead to Me. It’s possible, even likely, it will happen. It’s not just that several previous members of the category from the last two years — Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross being the most obvious — are ineligible and it remains to be seen if some of last year’s — Kaley Cuoco and Elle Fanning — will get a third season for their series by this year. And its not like institutional memory for the Emmys works the way it used to; it certainly didn’t work for Natasha Lyonne this year.
I know it’s early and there are no doubt going to be a lot of contenders for Best Actress in a Comedy, many of whom in new shows and returning ones that haven’t debuted yet. And even if Applegate were to get nominated, it’s not like she would be the best or funniest lead in the series — we all know how extraordinary Quinta Brunson and Jean Smart are. But just speaking for myself, I really hope that next fall Applegate ends up on the dais. It would do my heart good, for both the character she plays, the performer she is, and the person she is. It really would.
My score: 4.75 stars.