REVIEW: ‘Dead to Me’ is a Unique and Powerful Look at Grief

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Dead to Me is a dark comedy from creator and executive producer Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls, One Big Happy) about Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) who meet at a group grief session and become friends. The show follows the two as they attempt to deal with loss through in their own slightly unconventional ways. The show is also produced by Adam McKay, head writer for the NBC sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live, and comedy legend Will Ferrell.

In the series, Jen is an angry and exhausted widow who deals with bouts of extreme anger. She is also determined to solve her husband’s recent hit-and-run murder. Judy, on the other hand, is an optimistic free spirit who recently experienced severe trauma. As the two bond, it becomes clear that Judy has a few shocking secrets she is desperate to hide from Jen. Things quickly unfold as we learn that Jen’s marriage was not as idyllic as she initially thought prior to her husband’s death. To complicate things, Judy’s broken psyche leads her to make a plethora of bad decisions.

Dead to Me is a bizarre and addicting show that gives viewers a lot of information early on about the secrets each character holds. This creates more drama and a thrilling narrative that at times feels closer to a horror movie than a dark comedy. While there are no traditional jump scares, the show often uses iconic music from the 1950s with scenes next to scenes depicting accidents, death, and violence. The dichotomy between the music and the scene creates an uncomfortable dissonance that is just the right amount of unsettling. The best example of this is the final scene of the series which is set to “It’s A Good Day” by Peggy Lee.

While not traditionally funny, the show does have its moments but overall, it reads more like a drama similar to How to Get Away With Murder or Killing Eve. The humor is a cross between Dexter and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It is mostly situational as the characters grapple with the tragic but also almost impossible ridiculous moments that are thrown their way.

Dead to Me is incredibly and beautifully messy, showing the deep flaws of each character. No bad decision feels one hundred percent wrong as each character is shrouded in layers. No one is all good and no one is all bad. Both of the main character experience intense traumas, Jen losing her husband in a freak hit-in-run accident and Judy dealing with the aftermath of multiple miscarriages. These women are shaped by these traumas – for better or worse.

Jen struggles with her anger, at one point vandalizing a car she saw speeding down the road. Jen will do anything to find her husband’s killer, even going so far as to blame and punish people not involved in the accident. Detective Perez (Diana Maria Riva), the detective assigned to Jen’s husband’s case, even goes far as to refer to Jen as “a widow running around town like a white wine vigilante.” All while Judy is terrified of letting people down and has savior complex, feeling the need to save everyone, especially those she may have wronged. Judy is codependent, Jen has serious anger issues, and both women want to be better people as they struggle to overcome these flaws in the face of their grief.

The show also dives into the dimensions of grief and how different people express themselves after loss and trauma. Jen deals with her grief through extreme cynicism and sarcasm. She doesn’t meditate, instead, she listens to screamo in her car in the middle of the night when she can’t sleep. But the show highlights that her anger is just as valid of a way to deal with grief as anything else though perhaps not always as healthy. The show also delves into how children deal with grief and the complexities focusing on Jen’s two children Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler) and the different ways they deal with the loss of their father as well.

The entire cast shines with each one playing characters that have their own secrets and layers. James Marsden as Steve Woods is the perfect charming scumbag. He is charismatic and incredibly dangerous but that only makes him all the more addictive. Additionally, Jen’s mother-in-law Lorna (Valerie Mahaffey) at first seems like the traditional monster-in-law but it is later revealed she is also struggling with her own grief of losing her son.

However, the major standouts of the show are the leading ladies. Applegate shines as Jen and despite her often cold demeanor is incredibly relatable, funny, and likable as a character despite her serious flaws. Similarly, Cardellini excels at getting audiences to love the neurotic and often delusional Judy. The character makes horrible decisions and does horrible things yet despite it all, she wears her heart on her sleeve in such a genuine way it makes it near impossible not to root for her, even when things are going terribly wrong. Additionally, these two characters are at the forefront of the show and so is their grief.

Dead to Me is not afraid to lean into issues that specifically affect women and even how women grieve. It touches on everything from affairs in relationships, drug abuse, miscarriages, protecting the home after losing your significant other, and being a working mother alone. The relationship between Jen and Judy – it’s success and failures – is the crux of the show and it is also the best part.

The only issue I had with the show is that despite following strong female leads, it does lack diversity. The few actors of color are given small side roles. Overall though, Dead to Me is an extremely bingeable television that ends on a cliff hanger. It is a powerful show that takes viewers through a whirlwind of emotions. Often women, especially widows, are not allowed to be angry but Dead to Me flips that stereotype on its head. While still a television drama, the show still has a lot of real moments, the show real pain and grief in a unique way.

Dead to Me is streaming now on Netflix

Rating: 9/10 boxes of Entenmann’s cookies