Better Late Than Never: Dead to Me
In a way, it seems I’ve known Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini all my life. I’ve been more familiar with Applegate as Married…With Children always seemed to be background noise throughout my formative years, so much so that I didn’t quite realize how satiric it was. Applegate has always engaged me since then, whether it was as the beleaguered new mother in the criminally undervalued Up All Night or as the attractive amnesiac in Samantha Who? Her work has always been brilliant but never recognized with the same smash as her early years.
Cardellini has always been there differently. I never watched Freaks and Geeks so I missed her breakthrough performance, but she’s always been a constant presence. She was one of the best things about the second half of ER’s run, and I was impressed by her as one of Don Draper’s more intriguing flings in Season 6 of Mad Men.
I never had time to fit Dead to Me into my schedule, but with the world on hiatus and the Emmys coming up, I figured I decided to at least look at it. I got into it so quickly that I watched the first season two episodes at a time, which as my fellow Constant Viewers know for me is the equivalent of binge-watching. I’m now into the second season, so here’s what I think.
For those of you who haven’t had the time, Dead to Me centers on two women who meet in a grief counseling session: Jen (Applegate) a woman who lost her husband six months ago in a hit and run, and is incredibly angry about it — though not just because her husband is dead, and Judy (Cardellini) a woman who shows up after her fourth miscarriage caused her to break up with her long time boyfriend Steve (James Marsden). The two of them become, after a lot of back and forth, close friends — pretty much the only one Jen has. But we learn very quickly it’s built on a lie and guilt — Jen was the driver who ran over her husband.
Much of the first seasons deals with Judy trying to help Jen move on, something that is hard for both of them, and keeps circling around Jen’s trying to mislead the investigation into the hit and run — which becomes complicated when she has a relationship with a former detective. Eventually, when Jen is at her absolute nadir, Judy finally confesses to the crime to her. She tries to put up walls both mentally and physically, but there are consequences. The biggest of which leads to Jen killing Steve in the last moments of the Season 1 finale — and then calling Judy.
Season 2 begins the day after with Jen and Judy trying to restore some level of normalcy, something which arouses suspicion among everybody, especially Jen’s children and more importantly, the police already suspicious given every story that the two women have told. It doesn’t help that they keep telling different stories; Jen filing for a restraining order, and Judy is now back in her house, and Judy having turned Steve into the authorities for money laundering, which worries everybody in Steve’s family — including the just arrived Ben, Steve’s ‘semi-identical twin’ (Marsden again), who seems a little nicer than his brother…but then, Steve seemed nice at first, and he was working for the Greek Mafia.
The scenario I’ve played out could just as easily describe that of one that could be played serious (like on Big Little Lies) or camp (like Desperate Housewives). It’s hard to imagine it being played out both seriously and for big laughs, which is something that showrunner Liz Feldman has done extremely well. Much of the outright absurdity goes to the brilliant work of the two leads. Both Applegate and Cardellini are playing their traditional TV personas against type. Applegate is known for playing nurturing characters; Jen is anything but. From the moment we meet Jen, she is pissed off at the world, and her husband being killed was just the latest in a long line of assaults. Her husband was having an affair with another woman before he died, and he hadn’t touched her because she’d had a double mastectomy as a preventative to breast cancer. She likes listening to heavy metal in her car to relax, and her children have picked up on her anger. One was busted for selling drugs in Season 1, and is now demanding to drive. The younger son is a little nicer, but lives in a slightly more delusional world. She’s hostile towards her colleagues at work, which makes things hard because she’s working for her mother-in-law Lorna (Valerie Mahaffey, in excellent form), who really loved Ted.
Cardellini, by contrast, has a history of playing characters more grounded in reality, which Judy is not. Perhaps it’s how she works to get away from all the pain in her life, but she has this constant desire to fix things, no matter how dangerous. She has a tendency to ‘shoot from the lip’ — she went to the police twice to confess, and stopped herself at the last minute. She is an artistic persona — she’s a fairly good painter — but part of her always seems to be a little deluded. Steve puts it best when he says: “Where she goes, chaos follows.”… which it makes it weird when we learn from Ben that this was originally said about Steve.
Both Applegate and Cardellini are extraordinary in their roles, more than deserving of the Emmy nominations they received a few weeks ago. The series is also very original and very funny, and it’s certainly worthy of the Emmy nomination it got for Best Comedy. If you’re looking for a Netflix comedy that isn’t as mind-bending as Russian Doll or as formulaic as Grace & Frankie can sometimes be, Dead to Me is a real tonic. Though you might want to get on the band wagon fast — like Russian Doll and The Kominsky Method, it’s scheduled to end after its third season. I really wish Feldman and company weren’t that devoted to finishing it up quickly — I wouldn’t mind watching four or five more years — but then again, maybe that’s the right number for a series with this kind of plot.
My score: 4.75 stars.