“Dead to Me” seems to be the surprise hit of the summer, according to Netflix viewers. This stealthy little dark dramedy will string you along with twists and turns and surprises that we’ll leave you wondering just who you’re rooting for.
Some people are wrongly classifying “Dead to Me” as a mystery. These are the same critics who claim to be a little disappointed that the big reveals are too easy to guess or spoiled too soon.
But, it’s not a mystery, it’s not a thriller, and the show doesn’t hold back much when it’s time to let another secret loose in order to entice you to hit the button to take you to the next episode.
“Dead to Me,” starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, starts out as a comic exploration of the grief process. And once you’ve watched the first season through — you realize that’s exactly what it is. It pretends nothing else.
Jen Harding (Applegate) is a tough and hard-edged California real estate agent, who meets Judy Hale (Cardellini) at a grief counseling group. Jen just lost her husband to a late-night hit-and-run driver, while Judy tells the group that her fiancé recently died of a heart attack.
While Jen is brusque and aloof, Judy tries to make friends with her at the group. She then offers Jen her phone number in case she needs someone to talk to when she can’t sleep. Neither of them, they admit, can sleep well since their losses.
Soon, they’re watching “The Facts of Life” over the phone and chatting all hours. Grief creates strange bonds, and hardnosed Jen (“I’m a Jo” – reference the “Facts of Life” character) and the gentler, even somewhat new-agey Judy become the best of friends.
In fact, in the first episode of this 10-episode series, Jen offers Judy a place to live in her guesthouse, her deceased husband’s music studio. You see, Judy works at an assisted living facility, where they’ve given her a room to stay after her fiancé died.
This first fast-paced episode will draw you in with plenty of surprises. Not only does this seemingly odd-couple pair become fast friends, but it also turns out that Judy’s fiancé, Steve, isn’t actually dead.
Not only is he alive and well, but Steve — played by James Marsden — was also there in the car when Judy, driving late at night, hit Jen’s husband, Ted.
And that’s just the first episode.
The Real Secrets
Nor is that much of a spoiler. And that’s not really the “big reveal” of this show at all. The real surprises are far more interesting.
While not precisely a rollercoaster of plot twists, “Dead to Me” has plenty of surprises. And most of them involve the sharp writing and character chemistry between Jen and Judy.
Yeah, Jen’s a ball of rage, and it’s easy to say that. But you don’t really understand how deep it goes until you see Jen in all her rage-y glory.
Christina Applegate saying “No” to everyone and everything in Dead to Me is inspirational pic.twitter.com/jAmAZvTvfT
— Netflix US (@netflix) May 17, 2019
No, the twists and turns in this dramedy don’t involve the mystery of who hit who with a car. The true reveals involve surprises about the bonds of friendship. The secrets lie in what happened an hour before the car accident. Or even a year and a half before it. And the real mystery is how far Judy will go to make amends.
If the writing seems uneven, the cast carries it with aplomb. Christina Applegate — who’s been underutilized and underrated for decades, is brilliant as Jen. She moves blithely from scene to scene — one as a tender mom with a small, sensitive child, the next as a vigilante chasing down speeding cars and looking at bumpers to sleuth out which car may have hit her husband. And finally, even as a fed-up but financially strapped real estate agent, venting her rage by headbanging to death metal in her car late at night.
Linda Cardellini as Judy is a bit harder to pin down. While she comes across at first as the perfect airhead and doormat, she’s got some steel in her. While she seems too easy to forgive when it comes to her skeezy boyfriend, she does have some very definite boundaries that she will not permit crossed.
One of the high points of “Dead to Me” is the pacing. While you can be cynical about the cliff hanger provided conveniently at the end of every episode, it makes the 10 installments flow seamlessly. It never drags or gets dull, even when it sidetracks into some of the minor subplots. A few of them, particularly those involving Jen’s two children, are particularly touching.
The early episodes give you everything you’d expect from a fast-paced comedy. Each scenario seems well-orchestrated to hit just the right buttons. And the right button is always “Play Next Episode.”
But somewhere at the midpoint, the series really begins to shine. The plot gets a bit messy. The stakes get a little higher. And the characters genuinely begin to grow and morph into so much more than we expected of them.
Unsurprisingly, audiences rated “Dead to Me” higher than critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with professional reviewers giving it 87/100 and audiences 95/100. I guess when you’re paid to be a critic, you really feel obliged to be … well … critical.
That’s a Wrap
If you’re looking for a mystery or a thriller, “Dead to Me,” despite the title, isn’t the show for you. Nor is it a laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s a subtle comedy whose humor stems from those dark places we don’t like to talk about. How it’s kind of funny that we really do get mad at people for dying on us. And we do actually go a little nuts after a loss.
And the glorious thing about “Dead to Me”? That messiness? That’s life. It’s human and kind of awkward and full of cross purposes and good but poorly executed intentions.
It’s like John Irving said: “Families must be like this – gore one minute, forgiveness the next.”
And ultimately, we see these characters become like family.
“Dead to Me” is by no means perfect. It does suffer from a few clichés that we could do without. The rich white girls drinking wine at their SoCal house. The flamboyant gay business partner. The nice senior citizen in the old folk’s home whose death occurs seemingly on cue. The controlling, shark-like mother in law.
But it’s okay. They serve as landmarks in a plot that spirals into an otherwise bizarre world of grief and dire secrets and unthinkable loyalties and unredeemable betrayals.
The clichés remind us even in our darkest moments of grief, life really can be plenty ridiculous all by itself.
Featured Image: via IMDb