Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman dissects that final shocking scene and answers more burning questions
WARNING: This article contains spoilers about Netflix’s Dead to Me. Read at your own risk!!!
A unique blend of pitch-black comedy, thriller, and tragedy, Netflix’s Dead to Me is one of the more unique series to debut this year. Me also boasts two excellent and award-worthy performances by stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini playing two women brought together by two very different kinds of grief.
EW talked to Me creator Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls) about the inspiration behind this show and season 1’s wild final cliffhanger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for Dead to Me come from?
LIZ FELDMAN: I was set up on a meeting to pitch a show with two female leads, and I was told, “You come. We have all these ideas and just see if something bounces off and sticks with you and we’ll go from there.” And it was at a very sort of dark time in my life. It was probably about a week after I turned 40, and on my 40th birthday, my cousin passed away of a heart attack, unexpectedly. I loved him very much, and he wasn’t that much older than me, and so it was just all very weird, and sad, and dark. And, at the same time, I was on fertility hormones trying to get pregnant. It was a bit relentless.
I was, at that point, probably on year five of trying to get pregnant, and it was just a very hard time emotionally in my life. And then in the same week, I found out that two of my best friends were pregnant, and then literally the next day found out that I was not for what felt like the 600th time. So I just was in those moments that we all have in life that you’re like, “Really? Now this?”
And so, I sat down for this pitch meeting and they were like, “Actually, we’re sick of our ideas. Do you have any?” And the truth is, I really didn’t. I feel so dumb saying I truly didn’t have any ideas. I did not come in prepared and I sat there, and maybe just because of where I was at in my life, it just sort of dawned on me: Okay, two women. One of them is a widow, they meet at this support group, and they become each other’s confidants but one of them isn’t telling the whole story, or maybe both of them aren’t. And it sort of started from there, and then I kept developing it as we went along.
How did you cast Christina as Jen and Linda as Judy? Did you chemistry-test them? The relationship between those women is so important to the series.
No, we did not do a chemistry read. They’re both stars, they’re “offer only” kind of gals. And so, when Christina’s name initially came up it was such a no-brainer because I had been working with her on another project that we ultimately didn’t follow through with, but we had already had a relationship. So literally the very first name our incredible casting directors, Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott, said for Jen was Christina. And when that sort of thing happens, and you get the chills, you’re like, “Okay, that’s meant to be.”
And then, we set out to look for somebody that we felt would be her counterpart, somebody that had the same kind of gravitas that we knew she would have, but in a contrasting and complementary way. When Linda’s name was brought up, I was already such a fan of hers, actually from Bloodline. So when I sat down with Linda to meet her for the first time, I was so taken by how she’s just got such great warmth and she’s just so naturally funny. I just thought like, oh, there’s a softness and a vulnerability there that would be so great, not just for Judy, but to play in contrast to Christina’s Jen. So we kind of rolled the dice. Sometimes you roll the dice and it turns up lucky sevens.
You mentioned your struggles with fertility, which became a plot line for Judy. But did Christina’s own honesty with her real-life mastectomy lead to Jen’s own revelation?
Yeah. We were writing the scripts, and she said, “There’s a reason why these two people started going in a different direction, and what if it’s this?” And I was like, “That is incredible.” And I even hate to cheapen it by saying, what a great idea, but it was a great idea, because she’s so right. And I thought it was so generous and kind of just amazing of her to want to give that story over. She’s like, “I just think it will resonate with people.” I imagine she’s right because it’s not something that you see a lot about. And it brings such a humanity and a vulnerability to her character.
The tone is so specific with the series shifting from dark comedy to emotional drama. Was that the biggest challenge in figuring out?
I wouldn’t say that was our biggest challenge because these two actresses are adept at both drama and comedy. There was almost an effortlessness with the way they were able to switch back and forth. I wanted it to feel like life, which can be so incredibly dramatic, and like, you can literally be at a funeral and then the rabbi or the pastor says something and you’re like, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” And that’s just how I look at life. This show is very much from my paradigm like, life can be relentless and sad and heartbreaking, but I can’t help but try to laugh through it because that is one of our only coping mechanisms that is healthy.
And I think that’s sort of what we were able to achieve, which is that life isn’t all comedy and it’s not all drama. Sometimes it is a little melodramatic and sometimes it is a little ridiculous. So many things happen in life, for me at least, that I’m like, “If I wrote this, nobody would believe me.”
Was this something you mapped out the entire season for in advance? Or did it change as you shot?
All ten episodes were completely dug in by the time we started shooting. Nine of them were written. But what I’ll say is that when I originally pitched the show to Netflix and other outlets, I pitched the entire first season. And what I pitched is similar to what you saw, but I will say that bringing in such an amazing team of writers like I had, with Abe Sylvia and Kate Robin and Anthony King, you have these incredible storytellers who also are like, “We could do this.” There were often things that I had planned that were totally elevated or, in some cases, changed by just a better idea.
A lot of the elements of the story I knew I was going to tell, but there were certainly things, including the ending, that were brought to me in the writers’ room that I just felt like I couldn’t resist.
Oh, so you didn’t originally plan on the show to end with the death of Judy’s boyfriend Steve (James Marsden)?
Oh, yeah. I had not originally pitched that. As we were talking about just sort of the broader themes in the writers’ room and what we were really trying to convey, and what story we were really telling about these two women, and how they help each other in this very weird twisted way, Abe Sylvia, my co-EP was like, “What if this happens?” And when you’re in a writers’ room, you can feel this thing happen when a great idea is pitched. I mean there’s like this electricity that kind of runs through the room and happens in that moment, and I was like, “Woof, that’s a big swing but guess what? Let’s take it.”
So if there’s a season 2, do you imagine it would be all about Jen and Judy covering up this death?
What I will say is that it will be about the further exploration of this friendship, and relationship, and now very complicated dynamic, or even more complicated dynamic between these two women. But in the most basic way, the score has been evened. What I wanted to do was create a situation where they’re forced together, and they need each other now in some ways more than they did at the beginning of season 1.
We don’t actually see Jen shoot him — is that a deliberate choice on your part?
One thing I can tell you is that everything is deliberate.
It’s interesting that we see a lot of flashbacks surrounding the death of Jen’s husband Ted but we never actually meet him. What was behind that choice?
You know, it was just something I felt really strongly from the beginning. I wanted him to only be alive for the characters who were still there. I didn’t feel that we needed him to be a character on his own. I just felt like it would be more effective to feel his absence rather than to feel his presence.
Is there a chance we could see him if you all get a second season?
Generally, if I pick a motif I’m going to stick with it. I would say that feels like that’s part of the fabric of the show, that he’s not somebody that we know.
You all haven’t been officially picked up but what could you tease about what a season 2 would look like?
So my tease for it would be: If our fans out there would love to see a season 2, let Netflix know.
Dead to Me