- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Since the beginning of her career, showrunner Liz Feldman has been laser-focused on making people laugh. A teenage stand-up, she joined The Groundlings after college and worked for mentor Ellen DeGeneres before writing on a string of traditional broadcast sitcoms. But with Dead to Me, her Netflix comedy-mystery with a high character mortality rate, Feldman’s aware that the third and final season might make some viewers cry when it drops Nov. 17.
“I want people to feel things,” Feldman says of her homage to grief, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. (Both actresses have received Emmy noms for their roles.) “If anything, the pandemic only made me want to tell this story more. What we all went through was not just grief, it was a very weird and ambiguous grief.”
Feldman is primarily focused on celebrating these days. She and her wife, musician Rachael Cantu, welcomed their first child in October. And with the conclusion of Dead to Me, she’s got an overall deal at Netflix and a new series already greenlit and ready to start production in 2023. So, when she caught up with THR from her Los Angeles home in early November, her spirits were naturally high.
Dead to Me is very plot-heavy for a comedy. Are you a three-season-plan writer or did you wing it?
Oh no, no plan. Some writers do go in knowing the whole thing, but for me, a show only benefits from being organic and iterative. I knew how I wanted to start and had some flagpole moments along the way, but even the first season ended in a totally different way than I planned — because somebody, Abe Sylvia, had a better idea than mine. This thing happens in a writers room when a good idea is pitched. It’s like a wave of excitement, and you can’t deny it.
Was it your call to end after three?
I always knew that it was going to be a short-lived show. I wanted three or four seasons, but I’m realistic in terms of where the show lives. It lives on a platform that doesn’t traditionally give more than three or four, or sometimes even one or two, seasons. I wanted the ending to feel important and not just, like, “Oh shit, we’re going to get canceled!” (Laughs.) It’s like I almost wanted to beat them to the punch —decide our own destiny.
That platform is Netflix, where you signed an overall deal in 2020. Does that mean you’re not really interested in making five-season shows right now?
You just never know if something wants to be five seasons. Five or six seasons of Dead to Me was going to get old. And Netflix feels like a platform for short-lived shows, but then you’ll get something like The Crown, where multiple seasons makes sense. Still, at any given time, I have three or four shows percolating in my brain — almost against my own will. So I figured I would get to explore that at a place like Netflix. Each might be two or three seasons, and then I can move on to the next one.
You’re a comedy writer, and Dead to Me is technically a comedy — but it goes very dark. How much did you talk about tone? Did you have to establish guardrails?
It’s a question I asked myself over and over again throughout the writing of the show. I needed to talk about loss, but I’m a comedy writer. How do you do that when you’ve been this broad joke writer for years? It was really Christina who landed the tone. Before we started shooting, she kept asking, “What is the tone? How do I do this?” After two days of shooting the pilot, I looked at her and realized that she’s the tone of the show. Christina is the person who landed that balance between drama and comedy, between pathos and absurdity.
Christina’s MS diagnosis prompted a five-month production stoppage. Did you go back and play with finished scripts during that gap?
Well, my hands were tied because we had shot 50 percent of the season — and we shot it completely out of order. And when I say “completely out of order,” I mean we only shot with James Marsden for that first month. Hopefully, one of the great achievements of this season is the fact that you can’t tell … because there are certain episodes, I won’t say which, where 10 months have gone by. If you look closely at Luke Roessler, who’s fantastic and adorable as Henry, he very much grew up in the course of one episode.
You were a kid when you started writing comedy. How old were you when you did All That in 1995?
I was 18 years old and about a month out of high school. I was a teenage stand-up and had this manager who represented other kid comedians. Obviously, 8- and 9-year-olds could not write their own jokes. I think I was 16 when I started, so he asked if I’d punch up their material. I started writing jokes for other kids. Then, Nickelodeon [execs] saw my set and thought I maybe had something.
How was the experience?
That’s complicated. They are the ones who turned me into a writer. It definitely unfolded this path for me. But it was not a positive experience. I was the only female writer, and it was not a healthy environment for a young woman. It turned me off to writing because of how unsavory the situation was. So, I went to college and moved out to L.A. and did the Groundlings thing for many years. I didn’t start writing again until I was 26 because I had such a negative experience [on All That].
What was the writers room that turned things around for you?
My first job back was Blue Collar TV, which is not exactly where you’d think a gay Jew from Brooklyn would end up — but, for some reason, I thrived there and received a lot of encouragement from the head writers. Meanwhile, I had always dreamed of working for Ellen. She was my idol as a young stand-up. It was probably working on her talk show and her taking me under her wing where I found the chutzpah to really dive into this career.
You’re very politically engaged online, and our conversation is going to run after the midterms. How do the things that rile you up intersect with what you want to write moving forward?
I don’t feel like I have a choice not to be politically active — as a Jewish gay woman in 2022. I would have to be unconscious to not want to fight for my rights and the rights of every human being in this country. I’m a poster child of who the right is afraid of on some level — yet in my work, I tend to be pretty subtle. In my next show, I’m introducing themes that feel more relevant to what’s going on. But my job is to entertain, first and foremost. And sometimes subtlety is the strongest form of suggestion.
There’s a lot of talk about next year’s WGA contract negotiations. What writerly issues keep you up?
There are dozens of writers who could speak to this better than I can. But I can tell you, as somebody who came from the network sitcom world and moved into streaming, there’s a feeling of our passive income disappearing. And that is something that keeps me up at night a bit.
What’s the last show you watched that made you a little jealous?
The Dropout was fantastic. Liz Meriwether has a deep well of talent. And I really loved High School, on Amazon, which was based on Tegan and Sara’s memoir. It feels like a queer My So-Called Life. Can you believe My So-Called Life only ran for one season? (Laughs.) It’s crazy because of the incredible indelible mark it left — especially on women of my generation.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
Thomas Brodie Sangster