Who needs protagonists with the moral high ground? Not Dead to Me, a winning dark comedy that turned its grieving, fast-friend heroes into homicidal co-conspirators. After a stellar, near-perfect first season, this one – perhaps trapped by its success into continuing – took the risky move of turning its heroic victims into scheming antiheroes. It has spent most of the rest of its run laboring to keep them sympathetic, and remarkably it succeeds, delivering a timely exit strategy that emphasizes the chemistry of its leads.
Cynical Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and optimistic Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) are devoted besties whose friendship-under-fire was forged in a kiln of deceptions, grief, and violent crime. Despite everything, they’re family, Judy now an adopted aunt to Jen’s kids Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler). But they’re still living in the shadow of a dark, criminal secret: the murder of Judy’s shitbag husband, which Jen committed and Judy helped cover up. As the season opens, Jen and Judy are victimized yet again, this time in a hit-and-run accident. The crash brings another unwelcome police investigation to their door, threatening to uncover their crimes. Worse, it shines a light on seriously unwelcome medical news. As the two of them continue a highwire dance around the law, they’re confronted by life-and-death decisions once again, which force them to make crucial decisions about what’s really important in their lives.
There is so much to love about Dead to Me, but it all starts with Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, who are both just delightful from start to finish. The show, clearly recognizing that their friendship is the sustaining core of the enterprise, seems determined to give them a satisfying mutual sendoff as its untangles its improbably knotty plot. If the efforts lurch into tweeness or pathos occasionally, it can be forgiven for how much meaty mutual screentime the schemers are given to say goodbye. Another asset is James Marsden, whose dual role as shitbag Steve and kind-hearted twin brother Ben situates him as a key supporting performer. It’s the show’s most soap-operatic conceit, but Marsden is first-rate, especially as Ben, a well meaning but neurotic mess who develops into Jen’s unlikely love interest. The extended comic support in the cast is terrific, especially from Diana Maria Riva and Brandon Scott as similarly neurotic cops, whose inappropriate friendships with Jen and Judy complicate their work. And Natalie Morales is on hand in a short-lived romantic subplot. (Probably too short-lived; Morales is a treasure, and a more robust thread for her and Judy would have been welcome.)
Ultimately, I’m still convinced Dead to Me would have been more artistically successful if it hadn’t injected that shocking, irreversible twist at the end of its first season. Given that, it still manages to nicely sustain the unique tone of its hijinks to a delayed ending, as well as a strong, moving focus on grief, forgiveness, and friendship. A very good series; I’ll miss this one.