When Netflix’s Dead to Me debuted last spring, the series seemed to hinge, like so many murder mysteries before it, on a single-season premise. Starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, the comedy-thriller admittedly wasn’t a traditional murder mystery. All signs pointed — correctly — toward the inevitable reveal that boho drifter Judy (Cardellini) befriended recent widow Jen (Applegate) via their grief support group because Judy killed Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run and felt desperately guilty about it. The mystery was less about the whodunnit and more about how the lonely, explosively angry Jen would react to such a crazy-making betrayal.
Though largely shaped around its clockwork rhythm and predetermined twists, the debut season of Dead to Me was an addictive watch for its proudly raw edges. Created by Liz Feldman, the show quickly and smartly filled in all the unhappy details in Jen’s probably doomed marriage: her husband’s infidelity, their many fights and, most compellingly, the fallout from her double mastectomy (inspired by Applegate’s own history with breast cancer and the procedure).
Judy was beset by her own female troubles — five miscarriages, a diagnosis of infertility and, finally, a broken engagement to the emotionally abusive Steve (James Marsden). All this angst was the backdrop for the Molotov cocktail that was Jen’s grief-soaked rage — a still relatively rare depiction of female complexity.
Dead to Me‘s second season is meant to be a mirror image of its first. At the end of season one, Jen had “returned the favor” by killing Steve, her friend’s (ex-)partner. She tells Judy that the murder was in self-defense, that he had tried to strangle her before she shot him. But Jen is fudging the truth about the final moments of Steve’s life, and the actual circumstances might drive Judy away. Yes, yawn, you basically saw all of this last year.
Season one boasted some frisson in the role reversal between the two friends — it was woo-woo, emotionally open Judy who was deceiving cynical, hard-bitten Jen. It’s nowhere near as interesting watching the calculating Jen subtly manipulate the grateful-to-be-forgiven Judy. That lack of urgency is, unfortunately, a mainstay of the sophomore season, which also lacks its predecessor’s brutal intensity.
Dead to Me began as a showcase for Applegate, Cardellini and Marsden — three perpetually underappreciated actors eager to show off their versatility, and the actresses turn in impressive performances once again. Other than the Orange County real-estate porn and Judy’s endless parade of flowy designer dresses (that the character couldn’t afford), the performances are the only real reason to tune in to this unnecessary sequel of a season.
Set the morning after Steve’s murder, the season premiere finds Jen and Judy not yet friends again. But it’s not long before Jen asks Judy, who’s living out of a car, to move back into her Laguna Beach mansion, and the two contend, in near Breaking Bad-esque micro-detail, with the ins and outs of getting rid of Steve’s body.
Judy gets a new love interest (played by an always welcome presence), Jen gets a more contrived one based solely on the writers’ potential to exacerbate her guilt, and the two keep fumbling in their attempts to misdirect the police investigation into Steve’s disappearance. The busy machinations — and the relative dearth of character development — suggest Feldman and her team vastly misunderstood what made their first season so compelling.
The detective (Diana-Maria Riva) on the case gets some fleshing-out late in the season, but the thin plots between Jen and Judy underscore how little the series has bothered to expand its universe in this go-around. Supporting characters like Suzy Nakamura’s busybody neighbor, Max Jenkins’ Christian dance coach and Valerie Mahaffey’s ice-queen mother-in-law are hardly developed further, while Jen’s sons (Sam McCarthy and Luke Roessler) seem to have gotten over their grief over their dead father overnight.
Dead to Me‘s second season is framed around how Judy might react when she learns the true nature of her ex-boyfriend’s death. But there’s never any real suspense about whether their strangely forgiving friendship will endure — not even when Jen and Judy get drunk and start calling each other “their person.” Without their bond, there’s no redemption, and thus no show.
The climactic scene that the season builds toward is impeccably acted but, like so much that comes before it, utterly weightless, if not eye roll-inducing in its heavy-handed ironies. You can only twist the knife so many times before even a wound grows numb.
Cast: Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Max Jenkins, Sam McCarthy, Luke Roessler
Creator-showrunner: Liz Feldman
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)