Grief sends us to funny places. Amidst the loss and confusion, one might search for a life raft or buoy to tether to. Netflix’s latest dramedy, “Dead to Me” from showrunner Liz Feldman, constructs an odd-couple friendship out of this dark truth. As the Oscar and Felix (or younger Grace and Frankie), Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are both dynamic and luminous. Their chemistry is a highlight, if only for a better show. What “Dead to Me” has in terms of characters it buries between hackneyed mysteries, undramatic reveals and a mountain of repetitious beats. Though produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, the series lacks the punch this collaboration usually yields.
The show opens on Jen (Christina Applegate), a recent widow, as she attends a beach-side grief group session. The way she holds herself and clutches her bag signals she doesn’t quite believe this will help. At the group, a free-spirited woman, Judy (Linda Cardellini), instantly tries to befriend her. Jen seems taken, yet mildly wary of this emotionally open woman. However, as she fails to get to sleep at night, Jen takes Judy up on her offer of connection and confidence. The two become very close as they help each other through their recent losses. Neither of them, however, are being entirely truthful about their circumstances. These omissions (or outright lies in some cases) build on top of each other as the audience waits for this Jenga of secrets to crash down.
The pairing of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini makes for a believable odd couple. Applegate’s type-A persona conflicts with Cardellini’s free spirit. The show does write their friendship well, seeing how these two souls at varying crossroads in their lives come together. Grief can be a powerful bonding mechanism, and both actresses show how this transforms their lives and creates a powerful dynamic.
There’s little more to write home about from the extended supporting cast. James Marsden amps up his character’s smarmy nature in a role we won’t spoil. It’s great to see his affectation, even if its coupled with a few heaping doses of arrogance. But he’s working with an ill-defined character whose role in the story is barely believable. It’s always delightful to see living legend Ed Asner on screen, but his character is so tertiary to the main plot. It may serve to leave audiences wondering why wasn’t the character cut, as he serves almost no bearing on the story.
With such great actresses center stage, “Dead to Me” ought to be far more fascinating. The show has the right set-up to be a dark, comedic meditation on grief and guilt. But instead, the series opts to be a type of riff on “The Descendants” by way of a murder mystery. Rather than move the story forward, many of the episodes rehash the same dynamics, making the show tiresome well before the show’s grand reveal at the end. The moment the show has been structured around falls flat due to so little else happening around the main conflict.
The Laguna Beach set manages to look bright and cheery, despite the doom and gloom surrounding it, with Jen’s home, in particular, recalling similar home-y McMansions from Nancy Meyers’ filmography. If nothing else, the show leaves more to be desired beyond drinking white wine on Jen’s immaculate outdoor patio. As if not to be one-upped, there are other homes even nicer than this central location. In this way, the show seemingly profiles the 1% of the 1%. Still, the series needs to go beyond its atmosphere and provide more depth, which doesn’t seem to really exist. Either “Dead to Me” should shift towards a more grounded depiction of suburban conflict and secrets (a la “Big Little Lies”) or embrace its more macabre instincts (think the recently departed “Santa Clarita Diet”). As of now, it looks mostly like an HGTV reality show with a slightly more hefty through line.
Despite many elements working against the series, both actresses elevate the material. The mystery works intermittently, but not every side character pays off in the main conflict. Circumstances and story lines tend to repeat themselves, yet, at the end of the day, I wanted to curl up with a glass of white wine, sit in that amazing backyard and gab with both Jen and Judy.