Deep into “Dead to Me,” Judy (Linda Cardellini) screws her entire face up in wrenching pain, eyes brimming with nascent tears as her best friend Jen (Christina Applegate) stares on in cold fury. It’s a pivotal moment that the entire first season has been building towards, and even though Cardellini and Applegate sell the hell out of it, a nagging feeling swiftly undercuts it. At this point, this show’s already hammered this exact dynamic and conflict so hard, and in exactly the same way, that it’s hard to take this final straw as seriously as it should warrant.
That “almost, but not quite” vibe is what plagues “Dead to Me.” Produced in part by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s Gloria Sanchez Productions, Liz Feldman’s black comedy works hard to balance comedic impulses with bleak subject matter. The structure of the show, which leans hard on cliffhangers and the charm of its leads, keeps it zipping along; every episode ends with enough immediate intrigue that letting it autoplay into the next quickly becomes second nature. But by the end, its persistent attempts to surprise us dulls the impact of its overall story.
“Dead to Me” follows Judy and Jen, who become best friends after bonding over the depth of their grief and the inability of most anyone else to understand it. Jen is furiously mourning her husband by playing amateur sleuth around their wealthy Orange County neighborhood, inspecting every jerk’s cars for evidence that could tie them to the hit-and-run that shattered her life. Meanwhile, Judy’s hopes for a family have fallen apart in a way that has shocked her to her core, leaving her reeling, rudderless and even scared for what might be yet to come. Without getting into the show’s specific twists and turns, it’s safe to say that neither Jen nor Judy are being completely truthful with each other or themselves. But as they drink wine, swap stories of happier times, and encourage each other to go outside their comfort zones, they still grow to love each other as only two people connected by tragedy can.
It’s undeniably exciting to see Cardellini and Applegate, two rock-solid TV veterans who have rarely gotten roles worthy of their skills in recent years, play off each other and rip into material that asks so much of them. In any given episode, Judy and Jen can be doing anything from stumbling into a screwball misadventure to screaming and crying when their pasts come back to haunt them. Jen’s half-hearted attempts to keep her anger to a manageable simmer and Judy trying to handle the unique pain of fighting infertility issues are particularly compelling, and not just because the actors are so good at portraying them. On a show starring a woman who sighs that “money’s tight right now” while sitting next to the sunken hot tub outside her giant Laguna Beach house, it’s nice to occasionally find something more relatable to grasp. (Seriously: Jen’s kitchen alone is enough to make a Nancy Meyers movie weep.)
Accordingly, Applegate and Cardellini do most of the heavy lifting as the series keeps vacillating between tones instead of fleshing out the characters beyond their traumas. Cardellini in particular makes the most of her ample screentime, making Judy empathetic even as she makes terrible decision after terrible decision. The same goes for James Marsden and Brandon Scott, both playing thin roles that Netflix nevertheless forbids me from revealing at this time. Just about every character is stuck in looping patterns of their own making, which, as Netflix’s “Russian Doll” proved earlier this year, is decent story fodder if you can find something new to say about it. But in order to do that,”Dead to Me” needs to break its own narrative loops first.
“Dead to Me” premieres Friday, May 3 on Netflix. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)