“You are crazy, but who isn’t?”
Many television series, especially dark comedies, have made death and the subject of grief a central focus. Shows like Dead Like Me and Six Feet Under were prime examples at start of the 2000s, but lately the taboo topic has new life, whether it’s more thoughtful, esoteric takes on death, like in Forever, After Life, and The Good Place, or quirkier approaches like recently canceled The Santa Clarita Diet or Russian Doll.
Netflix’s new series Dead to Me falls comfortably in between those two camps. During a time in TV when a show like this has to work especially hard to stand out, Dead to Me still makes a strong impression as it tells a raw story about forgiveness, acceptance, and toxic codependency.
The series follows Jen (Christina Applegate) who copes with the recent death of her husband. Jen begins the series closed off and angry, but it’s satisfying to see her slowly push herself out of her comfort zone. She finds a certain disgruntled kinship in Judy, Linda Cardellini’s character. They’re like Thelma and Louise, but if one of their husbands were dead. There’s a fun, believable chemistry between these two and they enable each other for both better and worse.
To some extent, it feels like Dead to Me wants its viewers to become as callous and desensitized to this grim information as Jen and Judy are. The series never hides that it’s going to wallow in these sad places and it’s not afraid to shove the sorrow in your face from the jump. It’s a considerably depressing show. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but for those that are expecting a black comedy here, the scale is tipped considerably more towards the dramatic side (it’s like an 80/20 split). There’s barely a sense of humor and the brief moments of levity come out of criticism of ways to deal with grief or the show’s editing rather than actual comedy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to know what you’re getting here.
Much of how Dead to Me operates involves plenty of shots of everyone living happy, shiny lives as devastating shots of Applegate’s Jen cut through the bliss like a blade. Applegate gives an incredible performance and it’s encouraging to see her play such a broken down, tired character, but none of this material exactly feels original. Jen is also left with two boys in the wake of her husband’s death, which does add more depth to this than if she were going through this alone. Jen at least still has something to stay strong for and her children help show a softer side of her that gets to peek out.
Jen and Judy are both naturally skeptical of the grief support group that they meet in, which is enough of a connection to spin them off into their own orbit. Perhaps the best aspect of the show is the growing bond between these two, and Dead to Me really lets their conversations together linger and breathe. It all feels so genuine and it’s hard not to smile as they let their guards down to each other. A lot of the show’s tension is built off of how this relationship is fundamentally toxic due to Judy’s duplicitousness, so each time the two of them get closer, Jen sinks deeper into emotional quicksand. She thinks that Judy is a safety net during her time of grief, but she might actually be a noose.
Jen may technically be positioned as the show’s lead, but Cardellini gives a very layered performance that in many ways offers her even more to work with than Applegate. Her character has a lot to carry and she’s burdened with it for the entire season. The show effectively plays with whether Judy is someone you should root for or not. Both of their work is exceptional and the show hinges on their performances, but it still feels hindered to some degree due to the constraints of the show’s premise and how it withholds its payoff.
Steve, James Marsden’s character, is serviceable, but also feels rather disposable. He’s a clear obstacle between Jen and Judy and always feels like that, even if he does do a good job at it. The same can be said for Jen’s kids, who each get their moment to shine and show their own fractures, but they never fully come into their own as complete characters. They’ll likely be the ones to benefit the most in a second season.
Dead to Me asks the typical “why me?” question and follows the expected trajectory of a story about a widow in mourning who wants to get her life back on track and in that sense, the opening of the series does feel deeply reminiscent of the aforementioned series, After Life and Forever. This makes Dead to Me’s grand twist hit all the harder when it finally happens, but it hurts that it’s kind of painfully obvious.
Dead to Me also deserves kudos for how it never actually shows Jen’s husband through flashbacks, videos, or some other device. It instead allows him to live purely through Jen’s stories about him. It makes the posthumous demystification of him all the more effective. He’s one of many examples of how the show explores death through drastically different perspectives as it perpetually makes it the topic of discussion. It illustrates how one death can have a ripple effect and influence a lot more people than you realize.
It’s possible that all of this would have worked better as a concentrated six-episode season that trims most of its fat. The time we spend getting to know Jen and Judy is important, but the series does creatively spin its wheels over the course of these ten episodes. They could have even had the first five episodes slyly each represent the stages of grief before the big finale. In spite of these concessions, it’s easier to forgive some of these faults because of Applegate and Cardellini’s performances, which are enough to get you through to the end of the season.
The opening shot of Dead to Me that kicks off the series is of an atypical casserole (technically a “Mexican lasagna”) and that visual oddly feels emblematic of the series as a whole. There are a lot of good ingredients here and it feels like this show could be somewhat cathartic for someone that’s recently experienced loss, but it throws a little too much into the recipe and the result isn’t entirely appetizing. Dead to Me won’t make you sick to your stomach, but it’s something that would be better in smaller portions and this may not require seconds.
This review is based on all ten half-hour episodes of Dead to Me’s first season.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.