Pop Culturing: Netflix's Friendship Thriller 'Dead to Me,' with Christina Applegate, Will Keep You on Your Toes

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday May 3, 2019

Linda Cardellini, left, and Christina Applegate, right, in Netflix's "Dead to Me."
Linda Cardellini, left, and Christina Applegate, right, in Netflix's "Dead to Me."  (Source:Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

Netflix's new dark-comedy-thriller "Dead to Me," which hits the streaming service Friday, is TV's biggest surprise of the year so far. It's one of the few Netflix shows that feels properly tailored to the company's bingeable format; breezily paced and doesn't feel bloated with extra episodes that have a runtime that will make you shutter. The freshman season, consisting of 10 half-hour episodes, has the strong storytelling of a (good) network show but benefits from airing on a platform without restrictions. Even better, it features two career-best performances in its leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini.

"Dead to Me" follows the growing friendship between Jen (Applegate) and Judy (Cardellini). The pair first meet at a support group for those grieving a close loss. For Jen, it's the sudden death of her husband, who was recently killed in an unsolved hit-and-run. Jen, a successful real estate agent in Southern California, is an intense type A with a hot temper that can reach a boiling point at any moment (too cool down and let off steam she blasts heavy metal in her car).

Judy is quite the opposite — a free spirited woman who works at retirement home, coming to terms with the unexpected death of her fiancé. As the two bond, Jen's hard shell begins to dissolve thanks to Judy's warmth and compassion but she can't let go her husband's murder and vows, to Judy, that she's bent on solving the crime. Saying anything else would give away some of the show's biggest and most satisfying twists, which there are plenty. Unlike some other shows built on OMG-moments, the unexpected turns the comedy takes are earned, punctuating episodes and moving "Dead to Me" along nicely — like reading a well-written paperback thriller.

Linda Cardellini, left, and Christina Applegate, right, in Netflix's "Dead to Me." Photo credit: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

"Dead to Me" rises above the slew of Netflix programming thanks to its excellent casting in Applegate and Cardellini. It's been over 30 years since Applegate starred as a sarcastic teen in the raunchy sitcom "...Married with Children," perhaps her most iconic role (though she won an Emmy for her guest role on "Friends"). Cardellini had a part in "Green Book," which won Best Picture at the Oscars earlier this year, but it's safe to say most may recognize her from the cult 1999 teen sitcom "Freaks and Geeks" (she earned an Emmy nod for her guest role in "Mad Men"). "Dead to Me," however, serves as a platform for the two actors, allowing each of them — and especially Applegate — to give nuanced and thoughtful performances with range. The women have brilliant chemistry together as Jen, a mother of two boys, and Judy, aimless and near rock-bottom, go through the ebbs and flows of their newly minted friendship.

Applegate revels in Jen's anger; one moment she's sarcastically hilarious and then breaks into a fit of rage in a seamless transformation. Cardellini's Judy, harboring a dark secret, vibrates with tenderness and guilt. Thankfully. "Dead to Me" knows what a winning combination it has with the two stars and makes the most out of them, putting them in dozens of scenes per episode. (James Marsden, Max Jenkins, Brandon Scott and Ed Asner also star.) When the emotional moments come, and there are plenty of them, Applegate and Cardellini are at the top of their game and deliver performances that sell the show and urge you to hit "Watch the Next Episode" prompt at the end of 30 minutes.

Linda Cardellini, left, and Christina Applegate, right, in Netflix's "Dead to Me." Photo credit: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Created and executively produced by out writer Liz Feldman (a TV writing vet, who wrote for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "2 Broke Girls"), "Dead to Me," where Will Ferrell and "Vice" director Adam McKay also serve as executive producers, doesn't break much new ground; nor does it have to. At its best, the dark comedy is a gripping thriller that doubles as an interesting portrayal of female friendship. At its worst, the show feels ephemeral (a common complaint about Netflix's original programs). Despite its twists and turns, electric performances, and energetic writing, no one episode stands out from the rest of the bunch and it's not the type of show that demands repeat viewings. Sometimes "Dead to Me" feels familiar but then takes a sharp left turn and feels incredibly fresh.

That "Dead to Me" is built on shocking moments makes it hard to write about (don't even watch the trailer). Nevertheless, the comedy is extremely watchable — in the moment, it's exciting and enjoyable; an easy weekend binge watch. It doesn't offer much of a subtext but it's an interesting update on the odd couple sitcom. "Dead to Me" isn't a show the demands a re-watch or one you'll be thinking about six months from now. But if and when it returns for a second season, it'll likely be at the top of your must-watch queue.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

Comments on Facebook