“Dead to Me,” which debuted on Netflix this summer, stars Christina Applegate in a fascinating look at how grief molds and changes our lives.
“Dead to Me,” which debuted on Netflix this summer, stars Christina Applegate in a fascinating look at how grief molds and changes our lives. Applegate plays Jen, a fortysomething mom who has recently lost her husband to a hit-and-run accident. His tragic death has upended her life, and her grief is front and center in her personality.
The show is packed with diverse experiences with loss, and it asks us to challenge our assumptions about what grief really is and what experiences can prompt it.
Created by comedian Liz Feldman (“2 Broke Girls,” “One Big Happy”), “Dead to Me” is a half-hour comedy — or is it a dramedy? Feldman and its stars have come to call it a “traumedy” for how it finds moments of lightness amidst the traumas that have affected Jen’s lives and the lives around her.
That’s on display from the first moments of episode one, when a well-meaning neighbor brings Jen a casserole and says she “just can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Jen’s snarky response, delivered with a smile — “Well, it’s like if Jeff got hit by a car and died, suddenly and violently” — sets the tone for the show.
The episode proceeds to the grief support group Jen is reluctantly attending, where we meet some of the diverse grievers who provide contrast to Jen’s grief. One of them is Judy, played by Linda Cardellini, who says her fiancé recently died of a heart attack at 44. She tries hard to befriend Jen, who initially holds her at arm’s length but soon gives in to Judy’s kooky charm. The two are BFFs by the end of the first episode.
The show’s plot twists and turns in weird and shocking ways, and we won’t lay them all out here in order to avoid spoiling the show for new viewers. But it’s worth noting that “Dead to Me” becomes as much a soap opera as it is a traumedy, with secrets and lies piling up as the show’s ten episodes unfold. There’s plenty of drama to go hand in hand with the trauma (and comedy, of course).
But there’s also insight into the many individual ways we grieve. That’s shown in Jen’s two sons, who are handling the death of their dad in very different ways. The older boy is carefully guarding his emotions and engaging in potentially dangerous behavior, while the young one is cheerfully finding deep meaning in a visiting bird that he sees as a message from his father.
Jen’s grief support group is full of diverse grievers, too. One woman compassionately nods along as others speak; another stares off with a heavily medicated look. A disagreement arises over grief for a breakup and a series of miscarriages — and while they’re different from grieving a spouse’s death, anyone who’s been through either knows it’s just as valid a reason to grieve. Then there’s the grief counselor’s own story of loss, which is unusual and played for humor, but at its heart is still a real cause of pain.
Jen’s coping methods are on display in “Dead to Me,” and some might say she’s not expressing her grief in the healthiest of ways. She’s angry, relishing in taking out her grief on well-meaning others. She thinks she appears to be holding it together; she’s reined in while around her kids and neighbors, but when she’s alone, she falls apart. Her greatest release is sitting in her car and listening to death metal with a zoned-out look on her face, gently headbanging.
The moment when Jen lets Judy in on this grief ritual she’s developed is a weirdly touching one. The two women sit in Jen’s car as she cranks the stereo and mouths the words to the aggressive song. Judy bemusedly smiles before starting to headbang herself. She seems similarly unflustered later, when Judy reveals another coping strategy: searching for her husband’s killer by inspecting any “person-sized dent” she might find in a stranger’s car.
“Thank you… for not being repulsed by my version of grief,” Jen later says. She’s found one of the most valuable friends a griever can have: one who rolls with it even when she’s behaving in ways that are hard to understand.
“Dead to Me” has some similarities to “Sorry for Your Loss,” which debuted last year on Facebook Watch and is in production for season two now. Both focus on younger widows whose grief is stalled in the “Anger” stage of the famed Five Stages of Grief. Both also feature a variety of people coming to terms with loss in diverse ways. And both widows are determined to figure out just how their husbands died.
Yet the two shows’ plot lines are nothing alike, making them complementary rather than redundant. It’s a good thing that there are two shows, out at the same time, focusing on the grief of young widows. There should be more, exploring other kinds of loss. Grief is a universal thing — we’ll all experience it eventually, and more people around you are grieving right now than you might have guessed.
“Dead to Me” certainly won’t be for everyone. The soap opera style won’t appeal to some, and there’s strong language that others will prefer to avoid. But some people will love it – and it’s also helping open doors for other shows to offer honest portrayals of how real people grieve. Shows like “Dead to Me” offer representation for the ever-growing population of grievers, and that’s a powerful and useful thing.