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‘Dead to Me’ Review: Needless Thrills Kill This Bittersweet Comedy

Early promise fizzles as this buddy-comedy series turns into a twist-filled mystery

Dead To Me

Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate play women who bond in grief in 'Dead to Me.'

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

It’s never entirely fair to judge a TV show based on the series you wish it were, rather than the one it actually is. You don’t want to be the one to argue, for instance, that Ballers would be much better if the Rock fought zombie Vikings every week. But it’s hard to avoid in the case of Netflix’s Dead to Me, because the version of the show I prefer in my head is also, periodically, the one creator Liz Feldman actually made.

The series stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as Jen and Judy, respectively, strangers who bond at a grief support group. Jen is a sharp-edged realtor specializing in multimillion-dollar palaces; her husband Ted was killed in a hit-and-run. Judy is a flaky sweetheart who lives in the retirement home where she teaches art classes; her boyfriend Steve recently died from a heart attack. They seem to have nothing in common except their pain, but that’s enough to get them through marathon late-night phone calls where they watch The Facts of Life together, or intense neighborhood drives where Jen looks for the vintage Mustang that killed Ted.

Read that description, or watch Dead to Me‘s early scenes, and you would assume the show is a bittersweet female buddy comedy — as a friend put it, “Gen X Grace & Frankie.” And that show seems quite appealing. Applegate’s long been a comic Swiss Army knife. And while Cardellini’s better known for grim dramatic work on shows like ER and Bloodline, anyone who discovered her on Freaks and Geeks knows just how funny and weird she can get.

For the most part, though, that’s not the show that 2 Broke Girls vet Feldman is interested in making. We soon find out that Steve is very much alive, and while Judy has a more genuine reason for her grief, she’s also lying about many other things. Then, very quickly, Dead to Me reveals itself to be less odd-couple dramedy than a lightly comic take on a thriller like The Girl on the Train. There are mysteries, cliffhangers, plot twists and even a very literal version of Chekhov’s Gun.

That’s the show Feldman created, and the one I should be judging. But that show is a very mixed bag. Even though the episodes are roughly a half-hour each, for instance, Dead to Me suffers from the usual serialized Netflix problem of not having enough story to fill 10 of them. The tonal shifts back and forth between deadpan comedy and psychological drama are rarely smooth, with the two halves tending to undercut one another. Cardellini, in one of the best performances of her career, works wonders in making the comic and tragic halves of Judy feel like the same character. Jen, though, feels like she’s trying to exist in two different shows simultaneously, even though Applegate is good in each.

The best episode by a wide margin is the fifth, “I’ve Gotta Get Away,” where Jen and Judy head to a grief retreat — Judy hoping to work through her emotional issues, Jen just needing a break from her miserable life and maybe a hot guy (Steve Howey from Shameless) to seduce. That one puts the season’s plot almost entirely on hold and just focuses on who these two characters are and what makes them tick. It’s not aiming for wall-to-wall laughs — one of its most effective scenes has Judy struggling to recite the mantra “I am not broken” during one of the seminars — but it feels much more of a piece than the rest of the show, on top of displaying how much chemistry the two leads have together.

But soon we’re home again and back to the thriller story. And even though James Marsden (as a sketchy guy tied to both women) throws himself into his shallow and lightly nefarious pretty-boy role with aplomb, the plot’s just not as interesting as getting to spend time with Jen and Judy. It’s yet another of Peak TV’s many quicksand dramas, where the harder the characters struggle to get out of a bad situation they’ve put themselves in, the deeper they sink in.

There’s obviously a market for that kind of show. Netflix itself has made a bunch, including Bloodline and Ozark. But there’s also a much higher degree of difficulty to make them work, because they burn through plot so quickly as each solution creates three new problems. Dead to Me‘s later episodes try to lean on character drama whenever possible, and Applegate and (especially) Cardellini get some strong moments as various truths come to light. But the season concludes with a cliffhanger that left me less interested in where things go next, and wishing we could go back to the grief retreat for some more laughs and tears. Which, again, isn’t entirely fair. But Feldman gave me just enough of that Dead to Me to prefer it over the rest.

Season One premieres May 3rd on Netflix. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.

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