Review: Dead to Me Is a Quietly Radical Depiction of Grief’s Emotional Haze

The series is at its strongest when using dissonance to reorient our understanding of loss.

Dead to Me
Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

The opening scene of Netflix’s Dead to Me immediately establishes the tone of creator Liz Feldman’s dark comedy. A kindly neighbor (Suzy Nakamura) has handed her interpretation of “Mexican lasagna” to Jen (Christina Applegate), a recently widowed real estate broker. The neighbor, standing outside Jen’s front door, says that she and her husband, Jeff, are available if Jen ever wants to talk. She can’t imagine what Jen’s going through. “Well,” Jen says, “it’s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently.” The neighbor clears her throat, and when she starts to talk again, Jen slams the door, Dead to Me’s title smacks the screen, and the horns of Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” erupt on the soundtrack.

Grief, as Dead to Me makes clear throughout its first season, is thoughtless. It progresses at its own pace and on its own terms, subjecting those who experience it to the volatility of its whims. Jen, whose husband, Ted, died in a hit-and-run accident a few months ago, lacks patience for grief. As a result, she tries to take matters into her own hands. Unsatisfied with the police’s sluggish inquiry into the identity of the driver who killed Ted, she conducts her own investigation. And she’s equally impatient with gestures of sympathy, like Mexican lasagna. One gets the sense that, to her, very little separates the caring from the cloying. Jen’s anti-sentimentality, combined with her brashness and brutal honesty, leaves her with few people to lean on. But at a gathering of the Friends of Heaven grief support group, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a jocular, talkative woman mourning the loss of her fiancé. The two become friends, and Judy practically joins Jen’s family, to the frustration of the latter’s teenage son, Charlie (Sam McCarthy), and the joy of her younger son, Henry (Luke Roessler).

Jen and Judy’s relationship is the show’s centerpiece. They’re the only characters who Dead to Me develops meaningfully and consistently, and only a small handful of scenes don’t include at least one of them. Their conversations believably explore the thorniness of loss—the way grief exhausts the bereaved, the self-reflection that loneliness prompts, the impossibility of filling certain voids. And Jen and Judy are funny to boot. Apologizing for Charlie’s rudeness toward Judy, Jen says, “God, he’s been such a little dick since his dad died.” This isn’t a commonly presented reaction to grief, and the show abounds with similar surprises.

If grief is thoughtless, it’s awkward as well. The counseling sessions, led by the empathetic Pastor Wayne (Keong Sim), luxuriate in cringe, thanks to Jen’s outbursts and the meekness of her fellow mourners. But the awkwardness reaches its zenith—or its nadir—in one of the season’s best episodes, which is set at a grief retreat that brings together various Friends of Heaven chapters. Jen gets drunk and meets the very handsome Jason (Steve Howey), a widower whose wife died in a sailing accident. They eventually hook up, in the process of which Jen compliments Jason’s physique. “Thanks,” he says, kissing her. “When my wife fell off the boat, I wasn’t strong enough to save her.” He goes on to explain that he vowed to “never be weak again,” and the shift from the promise of a sex scene to Jason’s narration is totally unexpected, simultaneously heartbreaking and intensely uncomfortable.

While its portrayal of grief tends to elicit the discomfort, pathos, and laughs it aims for, Dead to Me isn’t without its misses. Over the course of the season, an image becomes increasingly familiar to the point of fatigue: Jen leaving a crowded room, or entering a private one, and breaking down in tears. We recognize what she’s feeling, but the repetition of the sequence ends up diminishing rather than augmenting its power.

The treatment of Jen’s anger—the bedfellow of her impatience—is also underwhelming. Jen has a penchant for heavy metal, and she regularly blasts it in her car in pursuit of catharsis—or, at least, in an effort to drown out what keeps catharsis out of her reach. But Dead to Me doesn’t do much with Jen’s affinity for blistering guitars and screamed vocals. The series, it seems, is content to have us gawk at the upper-class blond white lady bobbing her head to heavy metal. Because the detail is tacked-on and purely performative, it undermines the interiority that it’s meant to convey. This and other familiar attempts at unexpected characterization hamstring the show’s worthwhile investment in dissonance—between the expected and the unexpected, happiness and misery, humor and pain.

In contrast, the depiction of an escalating argument between Jen and Judy at a restaurant succeeds in fleshing out the former, in part because it allows her sadness and anger to bleed into each other. In doing so, the mid-season scene achieves a complexity that skirts melodrama. Dead to Me is at its strongest when presenting such tangled psychological landscapes in order to reorient our understanding of loss. It’s funny and sad, often both and rarely neither, a compelling and quietly radical depiction of grief’s emotional haze.

 Cast: Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Sam McCarthy, Luke Roessler, Keong Sim, Brandon Scott, Max Jenkins, Edward Asner, Suzy Nakamura  Network: Netflix

Niv M. Sultan

Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in New York. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift, Public Books, and other publications.

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