Dead to Me gave itself a tough act to follow after a near-perfect debut year, and does so admirably despite painting itself into a very tight corner with its last-minute season one twist. The series involves a widowed real estate broker named Jen Harding (Christina Applegate), who in season one is struggling to raise a family in the wake of her husband’s tragic death. She’s befriended by fellow griever Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), who quickly proves to be a silver lining on the cloud of Jen’s gloom — until (spoiler alert) Jen learns that she is secretly responsible for Jen’s husband’s death, and has been lying about it. Eventually Jen and Judy overcome the deceptions at the center of their friendship, clinging to each other like life preservers in a mutual bid to survive the toxic masculinity that has poisoned their lives and broken their spirits. In Judy’s case, this toxicity manifests in the form of her mean-spirited husband Steve (James Marsden), whose participation in the accident that killed Jen’s husband it largely responsible for starting both of their troubles.
Season one establishes a beautiful, powerful friendship-under-fire between its two primary characters, but introduces a paradigm-shifting plot twist in its final moments (more major spoilers ahead): during an escalating, out-of-control argument, Jen murders Steve, and then enlists Judy to help cover it up. This narrative decision has the troubling effect of depriving our heroes of the moral high ground — or most of it, anyway — which made most of their season-one lies forgivable. Given the circumstances leading up to the crime and the vileness of the victim, Jen and Judy both remain more or less sympathetic, but the ethical stretch of rooting for them in season two is a much higher bar to clear. It’s also marred by a tonally discordant twist that shifts Dead to Me into heightened-reality soap territory: the sudden existence of Steve’s meek, good-natured twin brother Ben (Marsden again). This credulity-stretching move shifts the show into Jane the Virgin territory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a bit incongruous with what came before.
Although it’s far too invested in the Shocking Twist school of plotting for its own good, Dead to Me remains a slick, addictive series with a fast-paced energy and absolutely brilliant turns from Applegate and Cardellini. Both consistently hit their performances out of the park, not just comedically, but during powerful, gut-wrenching moments of grief, panic, and emotional catharsis. It may be impossible to root for Jen and Judy to get away with murder, but it’s also impossible not to root for them finding some sort of happiness or peace — or at least evidence of their mutual friendship and love for one another, which the writers smartly dole out at strategic moments to remind us of the good in the characters. Contributing to the appeal of their dynamic is a great supporting cast that includes Marsden, Frances Conroy, Diana-Maria Riva, Natalie Morales, Suzy Nakamura, and Brandon Scott, among many others. As a story of broken people holding each other together, Dead to Me is powerful stuff.