“Dead To Me”: A Balancing Act

Guest reviewer:  David A. Kennedy, horticulturalist and author of the thriller, RICOCHET

Mortality, deceit, redemption – these are bread-and-butter themes for the storyteller. Add a little meat to them bones, and you might have something special. Netflix’s Dead To Me (two seasons with the third coming this fall.) attempts that balancing act, and as a comedy-drama, no less. And, for the most part, it succeeds quite well.

In the pilot episode, Jen (Christine Applegate) meets Judy (Linda Cardellini) at a group bereavement meeting. Jen recently lost husband Ted in a hit-and-run tragedy. Judy lost her fiancé, Steve (James Marsdale) – or so she claims. It’s the first of many lies that thread through the series. Jen quickly discovers that Steve is still alive – he merely dumped Judy. She did have miscarriages, and so she remains in the group for the grief-stricken. And Jen gets over her anger at the lie, allowing Judy into her life. Jen is aloof and closed-off, while Judy is super touchy-feely. Or, as Jen explains to Judy: “You’re the sweet one, I’m the shitty one.”

But Judy harbors more secrets. We soon learn she’s responsible for Ted’s death, (Jen’s husband) and sought out (or stalked) Jen.  But why? Ted –was no angel, either. In addition, Jen has difficulty as a mother tending to her two sons’ increasingly difficult period of adjustment to their father’s death, leading to them acting out in somewhat over-the-top ways – especially Charlie, the teenager.

By the end of S1, Jen and Judy share an awful secret that could land them both in the slammer. S2 introduces Steve’s “semi-twin” Ben (again, James Marsden), who’s nerdy and fairly clueless.   He came to town looking for his brother, who he thinks is missing. Jen is drawn to Ben, and Judy has her own romance troubles.  

These two gifted performers carry the show with marvelous aplomb. I was especially blown away by Cardellini (who played the super-smart lawyer in Netflix’s Bloodline).   Applegate has already established herself as a remarkable actor, and her deadpan and portrayal of manic depression provide a great counterpoint to Cardellini’s saccharine personality. Marsdale is an absolute hoot in both of his “twin” roles.

Set in the chic, pricey environs of Laguna Beach, California, Dead To Me misses some opportunities to exploit the contrasts inherent in these kinds of beach communities. Well, it is a half-hour show, folks. Jen is a realtor who doesn’t seem to be very good at it, yet lives a decidedly high-end lifestyle. Judy teaches arts and crafts at a nursing home, and the show finds ways to mine humor there.

Music is used very effectively, particularly when the “Holy Harmonies” become a part of the show. These little song-and-dance bits are utterly hilarious and sweet – even to a non-spiritual person such as myself. “You Sexy Thing” becomes “You Sacred Thing.”

Availability: Netflix

Note: Netflix has promised that Season 3 will premier in late 2022.

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