'Dead to Me': TV Review

Tries to do too much, but does some of those things very well.
5/3/2019

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are a perfect match in a Netflix mystery-melodramedy that's more coy about its twists and turns than it should be.

In less genre-cluttered times, it was virtually impossible to "spoil" the plot of a TV comedy. It wasn't like the twist of Parks & Recreation was that they also had jurisdiction over Pawnee's power and water, or the main character in Veep was struggling with her job because she was actually a Russian sleeper agent, or the secret of Veronica's Closet was that she was hiding a body in there. The basis of a situation comedy was that the situation could be explained in a brief sentence and weekly hijinks flowed from that.

Today, with the triumphant return of half-hour dramas and the demands of binge-viewing encouraging shows to be more serialized, even comedies harbor secrets.

I'm not going to spoil Netflix's new comedy-mystery-melodrama Dead to Me for you, though it's going to take a fair amount of evasion. Probably simply knowing that Dead to Me is spoilable will be enough to allow you to guess at least one major twist within five minutes of the start of the pilot. Whether or not that bothers you is one of the big issues driving the show. It's a complicated and occasionally fascinating depiction of female friendship boasting a pair of fantastic performances from Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. It's a decent and sometimes perceptive examination of grief. And it's a very thin and rushed murder mystery that isn't exactly perfectly suited to 10 half-hour episodes. And yet the clockwork cliffhangers will probably propel audience interest more consistently than the things the show is far better at.

Created by Liz Feldman, Dead to Me begins as the story of Jen (Applegate), a high-strung Orange County real estate agent mourning the death of her husband. Even before her life got tragic, Jen had anger issues, and an inability to find closure on the unsolved hit-and-run death is only making her worse. Attending a lovely seaside grief counseling group, Jen meets Judy (Cardellini), a more flighty free spirit struggling with the loss of her fiancé. In very little time, Jen and Judy have bonded, each woman offering something that the other lacks. Even if Jen and Judy make a swift journey into co-dependence, it feels like a therapeutic relationship. Oh, and James Marsden is on the show, too, though I can't go into detail there.

Of course, Judy's fiancé isn't actually dead. And other twists are about to send the narrative spiraling.

The twists that propel Dead to Me are rarely all that surprising, and I'd say that's because it's hard to do a comedy and a mystery in less than 30 minutes and keep the plot mechanics feeling organic. I'd say that, except that the first season of Search Party would be an example of a show which did exactly that. It was a good mystery that also happened to be a comedy. Big Little Lies, in its first season, was an hourlong mystery that was also a dark comedy and managed to keep viewers guessing and involved in the serialized elements. Dead to Me is a mediocre mystery (really more of a thriller, I guess) that wants you to give it extra credit because it's giving you surprises as almost a bonus gift. It's gravy.

But it's gravy on an ice cream sundae.

The ice cream sundae was pretty good already.

Applegate and Cardellini are, in fact, quite wonderful. Together they're fairly funny, and you'll go back and forth in your estimation of which of the two actresses (and producers) is walking off with the show. One minute you'll think it's Applegate, whose Jen takes every personal affront or reminder of her deceased husband and absorbs the pain, absorbs the pain and absorbs the pain only to erupt in sudden violence or a minimally provoked tirade. Then you'll reconsider and think Cardellini has the tougher job, because Judy is messed up in several genuine ways, pretending to be messed up in others and is generally loopy on her own terms. The Freaks and Geeks veteran's performance is seamless, but Judy is fraying at the edges. And then there's a late episode in which, for no justifiable textual reason, Jen is attending a never previously mentioned jazz dance class and you're like, "Wait, she can play a grief-stricken widow, rage-a-holic and she still hoofs like the Tony-nominated Broadway veteran she is? Get out of town!" So Applegate wins, and Emmy voters might take notice.

But why do I do that? Why would I make any situation featuring two women into a competition? That's the sort of question Dead to Me is actually very good at asking. It digs deep to explore how female eccentricity is often pigeonholed as "crazy" or "hysterical," words with gendered roots. The series brings up these questions early enough that when, in the second half of the season, both women have moments that push their characters beyond mere "eccentricity," you feel guilty if you want to judge, much less armchair-diagnose, either character. It tricks you into empathy in an increasingly extreme situation.

Dead to Me is also a sturdy entry in the recent subgenre of half-hour shows that use a modicum of humor as an on-ramp to a discussion of grief and the way the world looks when suddenly everything around you, positive and negative, becomes a reminder of loss. With its bleak, strychnine sensibility, the show avoids the saccharine message-sending of Netflix's After Life, which isn't necessarily a good thing because nearly every non-TV-critic person I know who saw that Ricky Gervais series loved it. And nobody I know has actually watched Facebook's superb Sorry for Your Loss, so it does little good for me to say that that series carried its "Grief and mystery go hand-in-hand" undercurrent with a lot less insistence.

Dead to Me uses Keong Sim as amusing omnipresent grief counselor Pastor Wayne to convey helpful words of wisdom and occasional platitudes — Max Jenkins' Christopher contributes the Christian perspective, with the series clearly thinking itself edgy for crafting a character who's gay and ultrareligious — but its most accessible and thoughtful coping mechanisms are revealed when Jen and Judy converse, usually over wine. Oh, and if it seems like every show about grief these days features a grief retreat in Palm Springs … apparently that's a thing?

Probably I've already said too much. Merely knowing that Palm Springs exists in the world of Dead to Me may be a bigger spoiler than Netflix wants getting out. Check out the show for Cardellini and Applegate. They're worth it. As for the rest? Well, it depends on how much you enjoy gravy on your ice cream sundae.

Cast: Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Max Jenkins, Luke Roessler, Sam McCarthy, Ed Asner
Creator: Liz Feldman
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)