TV: Dead to Me (Season 1)

Season one of Dead to Me couldn’t be more perfectly timed. It’s a beautiful, clockwork mystery about remarkable women coping with grief, guilt, regret, pain, and anger—and channeling their subliminal battle with toxic masculinity into agency and fierce friendship. If there’s something dispiriting about that list of ingredients—well, it is and it isn’t. This is a show that leans into the sociopolitical state of things, an inherently grim space, but ultimately it underpins that darkness with strength, hope, humor, and fighting spirit. What kind of story could better serve the moment?

Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) seemed to have it all: a beautiful house in Southern California, a loving stay-at-home husband, a lucrative career as a real-estate broker, and two healthy, spirited young sons. Everything is thrown into question, however, by her husband’s tragic death in a hit-and-run accident. This traumatic change of circumstance exposes deep flaws to Jen: about her life, her perceptions, and her own character. If there’s a silver lining, it’s a new friendship: she meets the quirky, peculiar Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) at a grief-counseling session, and a fast friendship results. But it’s also a fraught one, and Judy harbors plenty of her own issues, not to mention chilling secrets.

As a gripping, entertaining drama, Dead to Me’s first season couldn’t be more masterfully clocked—especially for Netflix, which has a tendency for prestige-TV bloat. At ten whip-fast half-hour episodes, Dead to Me tells its story with bracing efficiency, filling its episodes with wrenching drama, intriguing reveals, dark humor, and truly beautiful moments of connection between its principal characters. This last point is key, because Jen and Judy are highly flawed people whose relationship is plagued by disquieting deceptions, which might have spun the affair accidentally into darker, more antiheroic territory. But Applegate and Cardellini have stunning chemistry, and their hard-luck situations make them so accessible, you can’t help but pull for them to fight their way through each painful situation. The writers, including series creator Liz Feldman, make all sorts of great decisions to keep them relatable in spite of their flaws—and other smart writing choices abound as well. For example, Jen’s deceased husband is never introduced in flashback, or even in a photograph, which keeps the story properly centered on its striking protagonists. The show also cleverly plays to TV storytelling expecations, only to ruthlessly subvert them. Magical-seeming moments quickly prove fraudulent, upbeat story turns have downbeat consequences, perfect storms blow over into mundanity. Life doesn’t always imitate art, and Dead to Me knows this—and shows it, in all its lack of glory.

Which, perversely, generates a different, more realistic kind of magic. It’s the magic of the worthy struggle: fighting for closure, for self-awareness, for connection, for forgiveness. This comes through in the scintillating performances of its two stars, who sell a complicated, problematic friendship with incredible firepower. After seeing them in these roles, I’m now convinced both Applegate and Cardellini are criminally underrated performers; hopefully their work here will shower them in deserved recognition. I’ll cite the great support as well: Jen’s children (played by Sam McCarthy and Luke Roessler) are both terrific, Ed Asner turns up in a touching role, and James Marsden is perfectly deployed as Judy’s sketchy boyfriend. But the show belongs to Applegate and Cardellini, and I can’t wait to follow them into their next nerve-wracking, inspiring predicament.

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