REVIEW: DEAD TO ME
Dead to Me launched its second season on Netflix last May, bringing back its well-match leads Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini for another season of genre-bending twists and turns. The show has garnered a significant following thanks to its star-studded cast, entertaining storyline, and dark humour.
Dead to Me follows the dynamic and complex friendship of Jen Harding (Applegate) and Judy Hale (Cardellini). After Judy claimed the life of Jen’s late husband in a hit-and-run she seeks out a friendship with Jen to relieve her guilty conscious. The two become close very quickly, and at the end of the first season, tensions rise resulting in Jen taking the life of Steve, Judy’s ex-fiancé. The second season follows Judy and Jen as they work to forgive each other for their respective crimes and push forward with their lives whilst trying to keep their secret buried.
Right off the bat, the show established itself as a genre-bending piece combining elements of drama, comedy, and thriller making for a versatile experience. The thriller elements keep the audience on the edge of their seats with an unpredictable plot, while the comedic elements provide comic relief, and lastly, the dramatic elements add a hint of catharsis and with it, the uncomfortable thought of this could happen to you. That’s a tall order, but the show handles it with confidence and flair.
One decision that has had a powerful impact is having two protagonists. We’re told the story from two points of view simultaneously. This allows for both Jen and Judy to have opportunities to be reactive and active. This resembles the dynamic of a real friendship, we don’t relate to just one character we relate to both of them allowing the friendship to stand front and centre. We have empathy for both characters and can relate to either when there’s a conflict with the other. This brings the audience into this friendship as if we were a third party. This is a really important element in the show. Everything is built on it. If it were unstable everything that the friendship holds up, the plot, the conflict, the characters would collapse.
The main challenge that the show takes on is the continuous twists and turns in the plot. If done incorrectly the show can soon veer off the road, going from entertaining to confusing and unbelievable. When discussing the twists and turns the show takes the audience on, Liz Feldman, explained that the choices had to remain true to the characters. If they didn’t believe it then it wasn’t an option (Fox. 2020). This method ensures that the direction of the plot feels authentic and credible. The choices of the characters manipulate the direction of the story. However, there are moments where the results of said choices feel a little far-fetched or contrived.
The introduction of Steve’s twin brother Ben played both by James Marsden following Steve’s death is something that we’ve all seen before. It can be argued that Jen’s choice to kill Steve triggered his brother to come and look for him therefore upholding credibility, but it’s a stretch. It’s all a bit too convenient and feels like a trope that’s been rung dry at this point. However, the characterisation and function of Ben earned him a place in the second season.
Ben’s storyline is weaved into every episode, sparking conflict, evoking emotion, and providing opportunities for thought-provoking questions. Initially, there was a disappointment due to unoriginality of this plot point but the purpose and intentionality of this character is essential to the second season. The smart writing, along with a fantastic performance, grounds this out-there plot twist and therefore maintains the trust of the audience.
Audiences love twists and turns, they enjoy surprises and want to be entertained. However, the trust established between writer and audience is fragile and hard to regain if at all possible. It can be understood why this choice was made. James Marsden was a real asset in the first season and there would be a hole to fill had he not returned in some way. This was a risky move, luckily it did pay off.
The well-rounded characters, with complex, entertaining, relationships provide a solid credible foundation for the show to experiment with crazy plotlines that hook and grab the attention of the audience. This is one of their most notable assets. The characters have been written with the fundamentals of character development in mind. They possess strongly individualised dialogue, a versatile array of flaws, and they contrast and complement each other.
When we first meet Jen she’s receiving comfort food from a neighbour following the death of her husband. Already, we feel sympathy. We are then shown the complex range of emotions that she’s drowning in, from bitterly snapping back at her neighbour that seems to be saying all the wrong things to weeping uncontrollably in her car. We are shown who she is through how she’s handling her grief. Straight away the audience is thrown into the deep end. They’re hooked by Jen and her unpredictability.
Another element that enhanced the characters are their flaws. They add dimension and humanity to the characters. Jen has issues with her anger which makes for funny dialogue and comic relief in sombre scenes. She’s expressing an unpleasant and ungraceful side of grief with is far more entertaining and realistic than the alternative.
Judy doesn’t respond to situations with the most stable intentions. She’s guided by her heart and rarely considers employing logic. She’s not concerned about how she may look considering the unusual choices she continuously makes. They aren’t stable or appropriate most of the time but they are always bursting with love. This choice expresses imperfection, humanising Judy’s character but it also evokes compassion. This is an admirable quality, detrimental or not.
Ben is a loveable dork in the series constantly putting his foot in his mouth or telling a dad joke that fails to win the room. His motives throughout the series are serious and sombre affairs so having this contrast brings a lightness to the character allowing our empathy for him to flourish only benefiting the story.
There’s also a strong contrast between the characters. Jen’s aggressive, dominant nature is highlighted and emphasised by the contrasting nature of Judy who’s nature is more nurturing and compassionate and vice versa. Contrasting characters is a clear way to express characterisation. It allows the audience to learn indirect information about your character without forced, flat exposition.
Another, and one of the most prominent ways of expressing character, is the choices they make. One of the biggest choices that Jen makes is to attack Steve resulting in his death. There were many things that built to this climax but the choice in this climax is what dictates character. Jen had had enough. She was at her breaking point and didn’t maintain composure or foresight, she simply reacted. It doesn’t matter if it was right or wrong, as long as it was true to her character and due to the traits, dialogue, and contrast that have been established throughout the show it was clear that it was.
Characterisation provides the building blocks of choice making. The audience needed all the characterisation delivered throughout the series to allow important character-defining choice to feel real and authentic to the character, to the world, to the story, and the audience.
The show has a list of accomplishments but the most noteworthy is its honest, unapologetic, exploration of grief. Without the characters, the exploration would be meaningless. Without the complex plotlines, it wouldn't be as entertaining. We’re shown an array of different characters all dealing with grief in their own way. The show demonstrates that there’s no wrong way to greave and no right way to greave; there is just grieving.