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'Dead to Me,' a Multi-Layered Black Comedy Filled with Surprises, Drops on Netflix
May 3, 2019  | By David Hinckley

If you think titling a show Dead To Me foreshadows something ominous, you’ve barely started peeling the onion with the latest from Netflix.

Dead To Me, which premieres Friday on the streaming service, is framed as a comedy. That puts it in crowded company since dark shows with amusing interludes have become one of the hot tickets in contemporary television.

Even in that field, however, Dead To Me occupies its own niche. There isn’t any other half-hour show with the premise or the combination of elements this one presents.

No, we’re not going to spoil that premise here. You just don’t have to be watching for long to get a clear sense that something disturbing lies not far down the track.

That said, Dead To Me at the same time comes out of the gate as a first-rate female buddy show.

Christina Applegate plays Jen, a mother of two whose husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Several months later she’s still in shock, understandably, and her 14-year-old son Charlie (Sam McCarthy) articulates some of their shared anger and frustration when he complains that he’s tired of eating other people’s food.

In the preceding scene, which is definitely comic and involves no spoilers, Jen has been visited by the 5000th well-meaning neighbor bringing marginal food and an inarticulate expression of sympathy.

So it comes as a bright spot when Jen meets Judy (Linda Cardellini) and, in one of those unexpected yet perfectly credible sequences, they quickly evolve into friends.

Judy is the therapy jackpot for Jen. She says the right things. They share interests, right down to a secret love for Facts of Life reruns.

We’d be happier for Jen, however, if we didn’t already know that Judy has secrets. They aren’t all bad secrets. They also aren’t all good secrets.

We find out some of those secrets before Jen does, so we get to start mentally anticipating Jen’s reaction when she inevitably realizes what’s going on.

Jen has a few secrets, too, so this perp-and-target scenario doesn’t only flow one way. Collectively it creates a generally unsettling air around Dead To Me, a sense that characters we like have some additional suffering ahead.

While that’s not a classic formula for comedy, Applegate, in particular, has the skills to weave the humor into her bad situation and make us believe both.

Jen starts off as more the earnest straight woman, which is intriguing because Judy doesn’t seem to be wound as tightly as Jen. Either way, Cardellini makes it work. Judy could be one we don’t like, and it doesn’t play that way.

The supporting cast includes Ed Asner and James Marsden, and they handle their roles well. But Dead To Me is really a two-character show, the same way that Grace and Frankie, for instance, is really a two-character show.

Because its dark side is very dark, and played that way, Dead To Me stands apart from even its dramedy brethren and sisters. In this crowded TV age, that’s not a bad thing.

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