Morbid Netflix comedy Dead to Me takes the talents of its two lead actors and runs with them, says Sam Brooks in his review of the second season.
Very minor spoilers for the first season of Dead to Me follow.
More so than any other art form, television has moved leaps and bounds from the rigid boundaries that defined it. It wasn’t so long ago that our fictional television was limited to the hour-long drama or the half-hour comedy, with variety talk shows and specials being just that: variety. If a show was half an hour long, it was a sitcom, and it took until the late 90s for those shows to confidently move out of the three-camera style (read: Friends) into a more cinematic, single-camera style (read: not Friends).
The turning point was probably Sex and the City: the HBO comedy that was shot like a big-budget romantic comedy. The start of the new century came with a huge pivot towards single-camera comedies, and also towards comedies that didn’t feel very much like comedies. As the form expands, its genres have become less restrictive and more like tags put on for marketing purposes, rather than a box for makers and networks to put shows into. They’re the wallpaper, not the load-bearing walls.
Dead to Me is, if not the logical conclusion to this increasing shrug towards genre, then a solid stepping point. The concept seems to point quite definitively towards drama, even towards noir; it follows a grieving widow, Jen (Christina Applegate), after her husband has been hit by a car. She’s approached by Judy (Linda Cardellini) at a support group for bereaved spouses, and they strike up a friendship. The twist? Judy’s the one who hit Jen’s husband with a car, and then drove off after. The show follows the friendship, and the house of cards Judy has to keep renovating to keep her secret from getting out.
Despite that, Dead to Me is structured like, and more tonally similar to, a half-hour comedy, specifically the kind of half-hour comedy that is often more depressing than it is funny (Nurse Jackie, Girls, the show named after the cancelled comedian that spawned its own genre). It’s a show that tackles grief, damage and trauma in a refreshingly frank way, with more tears per minute than laughs per minute. It doesn’t adhere to the forms of either hour-long drama or half-hour comedy at all. In fact, the only form it seems to adhere to is the binge-friendly form of placing a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, sending the viewer fumbling for the remote to hit “next episode”.
The only thing the show seems tailor-made for is the appeal of the stars at its centre (in that way, it’s probably closest in intent to the self-titled cancelled comedian show) and arguably, they’re the Trojan horses that probably lead the viewer to expect a comedy. Cardellini, despite turning in reliably good performances for nearly two decades, is still most well-known to viewers for her lead role in cult hit Freaks and Greeks, playing Lindsay Weir, a teenager oscillating between comfortable distancing and awkward intimacy. She was great then, but she’s at her best here with Judy.
We need to believe that she would continue to commit to the ridiculous gambit of being best friends, and believe that Judy has the kind of damage that leads to someone getting into this kind of situation. Cardellini sells that entirely, playing Judy as someone who is desperately clinging to every moment like the next is never guaranteed. It gives the show an electricity, and a plausibility that it might lack with a less formidable actress.
Cardellini makes the show’s premise believable, but it’s Applegate who makes the show necessary viewing. Christina Applegate is, for my money, television comedy’s most unappreciated actress. Ever since being a parody of the girl next door on Married with Children, she’s proven herself to be a stealth assassin with a punchline, and can embody even the most unlikeable characters (Rachel’s sister Amy from the aforementioned Friends) with enough life and vim that you can’t look away from them. She’s doing her best work in Dead to Me, finally allowed to stretch herself dramatically, this time into the skin of a woman whose grief is not necessarily manifesting in anger, but awakening a volcanic anger lying dormant.
She’s obviously great in those moments, razor sharp and magnetically present, but it’s the more invisible acting that is even more impressive – the basics of moving a plot along, of inhabiting a real-life person with real-life relationships. The way she throws off curses and comebacks doesn’t feel like an actor reading funny lines, but a funny person lashing out with weapons they’ve been using for years. The show’s concept could easily rise to soap-opera silliness (as the plot often does in the second season), but Applegate keeps it real and grounded.
It’s a show built for its talent rather than its form, and the second season cashes in on that talent. It’s a bit sillier, and it runs with the cliffhangers of the first season in ways that find it somewhere closer to Desperate Housewives than, say, Big Little Lies. The core is still the relationship, and the chemistry between Applegate and Cardellini is still unlike anything else on TV; the way they pivot from being in the trenches together to being frustrated at each other’s quirks, and, you know, crimes is not just believable, but endlessly compelling. The second season gives them more room to develop that relationship, more room to play different feelings (Judy finds another friend, Jen finds… more anger), and it’s a sign that Dead to Me knows when it’s got a great thing going.
In saying that, if you weren’t onboard with the concept in the first season, you won’t suddenly get onboard now. Even more crucially, if you weren’t onboard from the tone, and how the show could roll around in the black tar of grief one moment, and then shake it off and down a Sex and the City-esque mimosa the next, then this will put you off even more. While genre is a prison, tone is a rollercoaster – you need to be this into it to ride, and if you’re not, then hop off before you get sick.
Streaming services, and the internet in general, have changed the form of television in an irreversible way. Season lengths and even episode lengths are entirely arbitrary, to say nothing of genre, tone and even ratings, thanks to Netflix’s famous reticence to tell us who is watching what and in what droves. There are a lot of casualties to this change – a lot of experiments that don’t work, or shows that have never found their audience among a glut of content – but there’s a lot of exciting work to be made too. Dead to Me isn’t the most risky, being a comedy with two established stars working excitingly but still definitely within their wheelhouse, but it’s one of the most successful. Find the gold where you can, and if you need to break down established norms to do it, at least have as much fun doing it as Dead to Me does.
You can watch the entire second season of Dead to Me right now on Netflix.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.