Monday, 30th October 2017

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What women want

Netflix’s Dead To Me celebrates its middle-aged women — weird, whimsical and instantly relatable

  • Published 8.05.19, 7:22 PM
  • Updated 9.05.19, 5:56 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Christina Applegate as Jen and Linda Cardellini as Judy in Dead to Me, now streaming on Netflix Picture source: Netflix

Grief is a great leveller. That’s what Netflix’s Dead to Me seems to focus on, but beneath the surface, this compelling 10-episode series that dropped on the streaming platform last week, is a layered and complex look at love and loss, relationships and friendships and, of course, death and its aftermath.

An unlikely friendship between two grieving women drives the drama in Dead to Me. Death has visited them both — Jen (Christina Applegate) has lost her husband Ted in a hit-and-run accident. Jen, a go-getter realtor with no-nonsense walk and talk and a mother of two boys, is so consumed with grief that she’s made it her mission in life to keep an eye out for any car in town that’s moving around with “a person-sized dent,” as she calls it. Like Ricky Gervais’s Tony in the recent Netflix series After Life — the man makes rudeness his “close pal” after losing his wife to a terminal illness — Jen uses unhinged anger and acerbic wit as a coping mechanism, but that doesn’t prevent her from crying loudly with her face buried into her pillow at night.

Life takes a turn when she (rather unwillingly) enrols in a grief support group and meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), who’s also experienced death, but is the complete opposite of Jen — Judy likes to look at the positive side of life, harbours ill feelings towards none and is unofficially Laguna Beach’s Li’l Miss Sunshine.

Unwilling to open up at first, Jen gradually finds herself gravitating towards Judy. The two women bond over phone calls through insomnia-driven nights, giggle at the memories of ’90s TV shows and over the depth of their grief and the inability of almost anyone else to understand it. They come together as only two people connected by tragedy can.

Very soon, Judy finds herself shifting bag and baggage into Jen’s, but the big twist arrives in Episode I itself when Jen learns that Judy’s life isn’t what she claims it to be. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg and the bigger drama unfolds in the subsequent episodes, with the viewer remaining invested as the lives of both the friends play out in shades of grey and not in black and white as one had initially expected it to be.

Dead to Me works because despite death looming large and some of the drama cutting very deep, the show manages to be often quite funny. Even as it explores loaded themes like forgiveness, teenage angst, the perils of parenting, the weight of relationships, infidelity and infertility, Dead to Me keeps things breezy. It’s also rooted in emotion that could choke you up and the unpredictability of the relationship between Jen and Judy — very Thelma and Louise in parts — is what keeps the show alive. It follows the predictable trajectory of a family in mourning and raises the inevitable question of ‘Why us?’, but manages to be both a personal and cathartic look at life and death.

The pace is a big #win. The episodes clock between 26 and 32 minutes, but pack in a lot, coming up with a twist almost at the end of every episode. Some of the plot developments may seem convenient, but can be ignored given that the pay-off is almost always satisfying.

Dead to Me celebrates its (middle-aged) women, with the men often being reduced to serviceable status. Both Jen and Judy are weird and whimsical and it’s their deeply flawed yet deeply felt friendship that makes them instantly relatable. They may go through their share of heartbreak and heartache during the day but you know everything will be kind of all right when they dip their feet into the swimming pool in the backyard and knock down a shared bottle of wine over a laugh or two.

Both Applegate and Cardellini are rock-solid TV veterans and they make Jen and Judy flesh-and-blood characters. Applegate, as Jen, has the more showy part, but it’s Cardellini who gleefully sinks her teeth into the layered Judy. The two inhabit their characters in a way that you feel they have been Jen and Judy all their lives, and that’s exactly the feeling you get with all the other actors — from James Marsden who plays Judy’s boyfriend Steve to Max Jenkins as Christopher, Jen’s business partner.

Dead to Me ends with a delicious twist — lies, deceit, and finally murder — setting itself up for an interesting Season 2. There’s been no announcement of the next season, but in the meanwhile, could we look at a spin-off called ‘Jen & Judy?’ We’d pay to watch that one!

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