Netflix is no stranger to half-hour comedies that work despite the inherent darkness of their conceit, and the streaming giant’s newest series, Dead To Me, offers up yet another example of how well that particular formula seems to work. Though not as exuberantly weird as the recently canceled Santa Clarita Diet, this new series, from creator Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls, The Great Indoors), offers up a engaging story about a friendship between two women that develops in the wake of the death of one woman’s husband. But it wouldn’t be a binge-watch if there weren’t a dark twist. As it happens, Dead To Me has that in spades, for better and for worse.
The series stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a recently widowed real estate agent raising two young boys and dealing with the grief of her husband’s sudden death. While attending a grief support, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), an empathetic free spirit who quickly takes an interest in the widow and becomes an unlikely source of the emotional support Jen needs. The only problem is that Judy is harboring a very dark secret, one that not only makes her efforts to ingratiate herself with Jen and her family unsettling, but also threatens to upend the memory or Jen’s dearly departed husband.
The last time a series was this deliberately secretive about plot details was Amazon’s afterlife comedy Forever (and, certainly, Netflix’s own Santa Clarita Diet). While it’s understandable that Netflix and the show’s creators would want to maintain the integrity of its various plot twists and reveals, those surprises have little to do with what makes the series worth watching in the first place. As with most spoilers, the details contained therein don’t turn the story into a single use piece of content meant to be disposed of after all has been revealed. If they’re actually good, they help make the story more compelling and cause the audience to want to know and experience more.
While Netflix delivered the series to critics ahead of time, it came with a laundry list of details that couldn’t be revealed in any advance reviews. Suffice to say, there’re some unseemly secrets being kept between some of the main characters, the biggest of which helps drive the plot initially, but quickly threatens to weigh the narrative down. Where Dead To Me succeeds is in its engagement with Jen and Judy, one that, yes, relies heavily on what the latter is keeping from the former, but also develops into a worthwhile relationship, one that addresses the show’s preoccupation with grief without devolving into a soupy mess.
To that end, Applegate and Cardellini are excellent, with Applegate settling into one of the best roles of her career with thrilling conviction. Jen vacillates wildly between grief and anger, often directing the latter at the police who have too few answers with regard to her husband’s death. As an outlet for her extreme emotions, Jen tends to lash out at strangers — especially those trying to help — and often sits alone in her luxury SUV listening to death metal at an eardrum-bursting volume. Meanwhile, her home life is slowly showing signs of trouble as her eldest son Henry (Luke Rosseler) begins rebelling, while her youngest, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) turns to religion.
Judy, by comparison, is already a mess. She’s living in the assisted living home where she works, and has a meaningful relationship with Abe (Ed Asner), a patient at the facility. Her entree into Jen’s life is a lie and one that gradually snowballs from there. To reveal more would be to pull back the curtain on the series’ biggest twists. But the secrecy surrounding the various twists and, certainly, the twists themselves are secondary to what ultimately becomes an affecting quasi-comedy about a friendship that blossoms in the midst of unimaginable grief and despite a poisonous secret at its core.
Yet as deeply felt and convincing as Jen and Judy’s complicated friendship is, the spoiler-phobic nature of the media most people consume ultimately does a disservice to Dead To Me. Not only does it create an impression that the series is loaded with twists you’ll never see coming (don’t worry, you’ll see them), the idea of keeping them a secret actually overestimates their importance to the story overall. Dead To Me may have a series of cliffhangers and surprise reveals, but while they provide a jolt and reason to continue with the binge-watch, they’re not as essential to what makes the show work as Netflix might want you to believe.
At the heart of that is the realization that watching characters keep secrets isn’t all that exciting or even dramatic. In fact, a lot of the time, it winds up being an all-too easy crutch in place of more compelling storytelling. Though there’s plenty of that going on in Dead To Me, the series makes up for it with great performances from Applegate and Cardellini — and supporting characters who can only be talked about later — and a sincere effort on behalf of the writers’ room to push past the storytelling crutch, even if it will only really benefit a potential second season.
In all, Dead To Me is a worthwhile dark comedy that is at its best when exploring the value of a new friendship in a time of great sadness and anger. That angle is also what keeps the series going as it threatens to be stymied by an over-reliance on narrative twists and surprises that don’t really add long-lasting value to the overall story.
Dead To Me will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, May 3.