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‘Russian Doll’ and ‘Dead to Me’ Bosses Break Down Exploring Death in Dark Comedy

Liz Feldman and Leslye Headland both have dark comedies that stream on Netflix: Feldman’s “Dead to Me” focuses on the new friendship between grieving widow Jen (Christina Applegate), and Judy (Linda Cardellini), who has more of a connection to Jen’s dead husband than it seems at first glance, while Headland’s “Russian Doll” is an addiction metaphor that centers on a woman named Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) who keeps literally dying over and over, forced to find meaning and connection before everything around her disappears. But that is far from all they have in common. Both women were first-time single-camera comedy showrunners with these series. Headland came from theater and independent film, while Feldman spent years working in multi-camera broadcast comedy. And, as they realized when they sat down at Variety, they have similar sensibilities and approaches to their genre, as well as their storytelling.

Did you find yourselves adapting your writing style for the binge-watching model?

Headland: It’s interesting — at Netflix they don’t tell you that, but you just know that it’s how you watch it.

Feldman: You want to be a part of that club.

Headland: Exactly. As a person who comes from comedy, I’m not as experienced as you are in television writing, but I did work on one show as a staff writer. It was called “Terriers”; it went for one season at FX. I basically had never been in a writers’ room since then, so when “Russian Doll” started, I had no idea what I was doing.

Feldman: Can I tell you something? I had no idea either because I come from multi-camera television and all of a sudden I’m a single-camera showrunner. I had never worked in a single-camera room or been on a set.

Headland: That’s amazing. I felt like it had been drilled in me, in that staff-writing experience, to write in act breaks even though we were writing to commercials.

Feldman: I was so happy to let go of that. But here’s what I did have to do: I had to basically strip jokes out. I started as a joke writer and a lot of the sitcoms I wrote for were very jokey: “2 Broke Girls,” every line was a joke. It was an impulse, but at a certain point I went through and de-jokified every script.

Headland: It’s dark but funny, very sarcastic, a satirical edge to it.

Feldman: I had to make the comedy come out of real characters; it couldn’t feel like a joke.

Did you feel more or less concerned about ending episodes with enough of a hook to entice a viewer back for the next one, knowing you wouldn’t have to hold their interest for a whole week but instead mere seconds?

Leslye Headland Russian Doll Showrunner
CREDIT: SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety

Feldman: It wasn’t necessarily intentional from the inception of the show itself. With the pilot, the end just sort of popped into my brain, and I think you just sort of start the promise you want to fulfill: If you do that once, you kind of have to keep doing it or it will feel like a let down. I’m a pleaser, so I wanted to give the audience that feeling every time.

Headland: Being a playwright, you’re only in one space, so it’s almost like there isn’t any end to a scene: Something is happening and the next scene is already coming in. So to me it felt very natural. With “Russian Doll,” because the rules of the world were complex, for lack of a better term, it was about, “OK, but when do we introduce the fruit is rotting and the flowers are wilting?” They didn’t necessarily seem like cliffhangers, but new pieces of information. If we did get very prescriptive notes, I think it was to make sure we were kicking things into the next episode. But I don’t think we got that note that often because we all watch Netflix and we know how it works. And I love movies and television shows where problems are overtaken by other problems.

Feldman: That actually speaks a lot to how we would speak to our cliffhangers so they weren’t just this manipulative thing where you’re almost mad that you have to continue to watch. It has to be a problem on top of a problem: “And now, this.” That is what life is like.

Headland: It’s true. And a lot of “Russian Doll” is about ego — Natasha’s character, Nadia, represents the id and Alan represents the super-ego, and they’re in conflict with each other. But a lot of what I think ends up being funny about the show, at least in theory, is the myopia or the narcissism of, “Only I am going through something.” That’s why the high-concept premise of, “You die, you restart,” it’s a huge problem for you but everyone around you is like, “We don’t care.”

“I love movies and television shows where problems are overtaken by other problems.”
Leslye Headland

Let’s talk more about the tone because both of your shows deal in death, but in a half-hour format where people are expecting to be able to laugh and breathe a bit more.

Feldman: The show, in its conversation about death, came from a very real and personal place for me. Maybe because I’m a comedy person, I can’t help but look at things that are incredibly dark and find the quirky, weird, funny details about them — or experiences you have through them. For me, the only parameter there was was that it had to be respectfully authentic. For example, there’s a grief counselor in the show and his matter-of-fact tone is based on a grief counselor that I had a conversation with when doing research for the show, who told me about this incredibly horrific thing that had happened in his family, but he said it like he was just taking his son to a baseball game. It was so dark that I was trying not to laugh, but I think that’s often how we deal with things that are uncomfortable: in that slightly sophomoric way of laughter. If it felt authentic and grounded in the experience the character was having, we could make a joke about it, but it could never be making fun of the person going through the thing — because this show is just as much for people going through things as it is a general audience.

Headland: Our death in the show is kind of a spiritual death. We talked about it as a character, basically. I guess what I thought was, in order for this premise to work, with that first car hit you have to really believe she’s dead. You don’t have to be scared out of your mind, but you have to know she didn’t imagine something. So we have to treat death extremely seriously there; it’s a little bit of the jump scare after she’s hit and going in close on her face and all of that stuff. And in Episode 2 is an opportunity to make death funny again. Now we need to kind of de-fang death for the series so every time she died it was less of a, “Oh no, she’s dying,” and more, “It’s part of my vocabulary now.” The real hard thing was to make death scary again, so by the time you came to the end of the story, you’d feel the stakes and that her dying would mean something — and that’s a big testament to the writers of Episodes 4, 5, 6 and 7 that they could move from something silly to her having internal deaths that can’t be explained.

Liz Feldman Dead to Me Showrunner
CREDIT: SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety

Both shows hinge on central two-character relationships. What was the key to casting those duos?

Feldman: I had been developing for Christina prior, so she was definitely top of mind. So it was then about finding someone we hoped would be great opposite her, but it’s a very specific world right now where you want to cast big names and you don’t get to cycle through and read a bunch of people. I was a fan of Linda from “Bloodline,” and I knew she had done comedy but I didn’t think she had gotten a chance to show how funny she is. So I got to meet with her, and she was just so f—ing likable. I wanted to hang out with her, and that was the Judy quality I was looking for — somebody that you don’t need to know a lot about them, you just like them. It was so important to me that Judy be so endearing and Jen a tougher person to get to, and Christina embodied that. They had never met — we cast them blindly. It can be challenging — a wing and a prayer, an Atlantic City roulette moment — but the moment we all sat down, we just started talking about life and the pressures, and it was immediate and just there.

Headland: I assumed we were going to get this pressure to cast big stars, but my secret dream with this particular premise was that you wouldn’t recognize anybody — and even if they were people you knew, they’d be playing parts they didn’t usually get to play. I felt in order to sell that snowglobe of the East Village, which was our Bedford Falls from “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Hill Valley from “Back to the Future” or Punxsutawney from “Groundhog Day,” it had to feel self-contained. And if some wildly famous person showed up, it wouldn’t feel real. We saved that for Episode 7 with Chloe Sevigny as Nadia’s mom. Charlie [Barnett] was someone Natasha had brought up for Alan way at the beginning of the writers’ room. She just kept saying it, and finally he was kind enough to come in and read, and we were like, “That’s the guy.”

How tightly did you feel you had to control the narrative of your first seasons to allow for room to grow in a second?

Feldman: You have to be able to adapt. I did pitch a second season arc — a shape of how it would start and end — but that changed based on how the first season ended, which changed as we went on. It was Abe Sylvia, who’s my most incredible co-EP, who said, “What if this happened?” And my first instinct was, “That’s f—ing — what!? Yeah!” Why would you hire a room full of talented people if you’re not going to listen to them or be able to adapt? I come from the world of improv [where] the No.1 rule is “Yes, and.” So if somebody comes to you with a good idea, I’m not going to go, “No”; I’m going to explore it.

Headland: I felt so similarly. You’re not going to save it for the Season 2 we haven’t been picked up for yet. Having my only other experience be on a show that only went for one season, to me the season of that show is perfect, and if it had gotten a second season it would have been an excellent second season, but I’m really glad they didn’t bank on that second season.

Feldman: You have to seize the season.

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