This week’s case study in the anxieties of contemporary television: “Dead to Me,” a new series on Netflix starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as widows who meet cute at a grief support group.
Liz Feldman, who created the show, has been writing and performing comedy for more than half of her 41 years, and she’s demonstrated some real flexibility. She was a writer for Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show and for “Blue Collar TV,” which starred red-state favorites like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. She wrote for conventional sitcoms like “2 Broke Girls” and “Hot in Cleveland” while hosting her own “gay-mazing” YouTube series, “This Just Out,” from her kitchen table.
Nothing she had done before, though, resembled the kind of up-to-the-minute streaming dramedy that “Dead to Me” wants to be. And while its 10 half-hour episodes have a lot of the requisite look and feel — the enervated, dolorous mood and rhythms; the mysteries within mysteries; the handsomely filmed Southern California locations — the show harks back to Feldman’s roots. At heart it’s a traditional odd-couple sitcom, albeit one that’s heavy on situation and light on comedy.
Applegate plays Jen, whose husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and Cardellini plays Judy, whose fiancé died of a heart attack. Jen’s angry and cynical and hard-edged, Judy’s rueful and apologetic and twee, and we know where that’s going. Jen will toughen up Judy and Judy will soften up Jen, an exchange of services made easier by the unlikely twist of Judy’s moving into Jen’s guesthouse.
Hundreds of episodes have been built around less. Short-season streaming shows don’t work that way, though, so Feldman counterpoints the comedy of female friendship with the tragedy of male condescension and predation, and sets it all within the framework of a murder mystery, or at least a manslaughter mystery.
As she makes the rounds of Orange County’s beach towns selling real estate, Jen searches for the car that mowed down her husband. Judy, meanwhile, has big secrets, which are doled out in flashbacks throughout the season. The revelations about her past are both mildly surprising and, in the way they stretch out the plot and inject conflict into her and Jen’s relationship, entirely predictable.
There’s some ingenuity in the ways Feldman works out the story’s complications. There’s craftsmanship in the details, like a running motif of Judy continually building up to confessions that turn out not to be the confession we’re anticipating. And there are moments when the comic situations click, mostly involving supporting characters like the earnest pastor and grief counselor played by Keong Sim or the casserole-bearing neighbor played by Suzy Nakamura.
But at the heart of the story, things don’t really add up or carry the emotional weight they should, because Judy and Jen are ideas more than characters — avatars of anger, grief and guilt. We’re told that their unexpected bond is based on giving each other the space to grieve in their own ways, but it often feels like they’re just indulging each other’s bad choices in ways that don’t make narrative sense.
Applegate, whose TV-comedy roots stretch back more than 30 years, most notably on “Married With Children,” gives a strained, uptight performance that superficially matches up with Jen’s personality but isn’t all that fun to watch. You don’t mind when she’s onscreen with Cardellini, though. Starring in a live-action comedy series for the first time since “Freaks and Geeks,” Cardellini gives Judy a vibrancy and a genuine peculiarity — she’s the show’s one consistent source of pleasure.
Otherwise the show always seems to be reaching for something — a complexity, an ambiguity — that it doesn’t support and doesn’t really need. It may be telling that one of the ways Jen and Judy bond is through a shared love of the 1980s chestnut “The Facts of Life.” If that’s Feldman’s way of signaling her own nostalgia for the moral certainties of an earlier sitcom era, it’s also an admission that there’s no going back.
Dead to Me
Streaming Friday on Netflix
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