By Kristen Baldwin
May 02, 2019 at 03:43 PM EDT
Saeed Adyani/Netflix
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John Lennon once sang that life is something that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. That lyric kept bubbling up in my mind as I watched Dead to Me, a new Netflix comedy starring Christina Applegate — giving the performance of her career, by the way — as a widow trying to rebuild her life after her husband is killed by a hit-and-run driver. While the show spends 10 busy episodes trying to be a madcap mystery about suburban SoCal secrets and lies, it turns out there’s a far more interesting portrayal of female friendship happening in the margins of all the carefully-plotted action.

Dead to Me begins with high-end realtor and mother of two Jen (Applegate) slamming the door on yet another neighborly well-wisher bearing a casserole. Three months after her husband’s death, Jen’s primary emotion besides grief is anger. She’s mad at the person who ran her husband over. She’s mad at the cops who haven’t found the driver. And she’s generally mad at the world for handing her such a raw deal.

But Jen’s life begins to change for the better when she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a flighty and free-spirited woman who is also dealing with her own loss. Their chance meeting at a grief support group isn’t actually by chance — the final shot of episode one reveals that Judy is keeping a Big Secret from Jen — but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Jen and Judy form a real relationship, commiserating and comforting each other over insomnia-fueled phone calls and late-night Facts of Life reruns. Pretty soon the lonely Jen invites Judy to live in her unoccupied guest house.

It’s still all too rare for TV to offer an honest, thoughtful representation of a relationship between two women bonding over life’s challenges and disappointments. Jen and Judy actually have a lot in common: Jen’s marriage was fraying long before it was cut short by a violent accident, while Judy can’t extricate herself from her on-and-off fiancé Steve (James Marsden). He’s a slick finance type whose good looks and charm mask a controlling, dismissive attitude toward the soft-hearted Judy. When he calls Judy “nuts,” she tries to brush it off — “It was practically my nickname” — but Jen won’t let her. “Men call women ‘nuts’ and ‘crazy’ way too often,” she huffs, “just to undermine us.”

And yet it’s the show that truly undermines these characters. Dead to Me is far less interested in Jen and Judy’s connection than it is in the Big Secret that could destroy it. People say things like “unless you know something I don’t” and “you can live in the same house with someone and have no idea what they’re going through”; episodes are peppered with fake-out moments and convenient coincidences that lead Jen to the brink of discovery, only to veer away with a rush of phew-that-was-close cheer.

Meanwhile, the show is at its best when Jen and Judy are just hanging out, talking about things that aren’t Secret-adjacent — like motherhood, vaginal grooming, whether they’re a Blair or a Jo. “Humor as a defense mechanism” can be a dead-end character trait, but Applegate, returning to series TV for the first time in seven years, brings an astonishing depth to her portrayal of Jen. The actress taps the deep well of sadness fueling all of Jen’s rage, and she handles the widow’s wide spectrum of grief — whether sobbing into a pillow while on the toilet, or finding her husband’s last glass of water and taking a sorrowful sip — with equal care. Though Judy’s motives, related to the Big Secret, are unbelievable to the point of ridiculous, Cardellini infuses her character with genuine warmth and humanity. Her scenes with Ed Asner, as a cranky old charmer at the nursing home where Judy works, are particularly lovely.

Anyone who has ever seen a TV show can probably guess whether or not the Big Secret gets revealed — which is, of course, another reason it’s so disappointing that this is the thematic hill Dead to Me wants to die on. I watched all 10 episodes in the hopes that the story would eventually move past the manufactured intrigue, and — spoiler alert — it does not. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a story to have high stakes, but who said grief and healing aren’t high enough? B

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