Nowhere is it written that half-hour series have to be comedies, and yet “Dead To Me” seems adversely intent on sticking with tradition. Labeled a “dark comedy” by Netflix, the upcoming 10-episode first season is light on jokes and heavy on drama; even the darker elements in the twisty, flashback-driven mystery are treated as serious emotional turning points, rather than cringe-inducing punchlines. Only the pacing and occasional glib comment give the sense that humor is present, for “Dead To Me” provides no indication it has a sense of humor at all.
In today’s day and age, laugh-less half-hours are nothing new. Not only have series like “Girls” and “Transparent” stretched the definition of comedy, but more recent series like “Homecoming” and “Sorry to Bother You” have ditched the descriptor all-together. They’re not comedies. They’re dramas, only shorter.
But “Dead To Me” doesn’t work as a drama either. Tracking a bereaved widow who’s befriended by a free spirit who’s suffered her own recent loss, Liz Feldman’s messy series doesn’t have a perception problem. It’s not like viewers just have to be told what to expect, and they’ll be able to enjoy. The series doesn’t know itself: It’s too timid to be a satisfying thriller, too self-serious to be an entertaining soap, and too preposterous to be an affecting drama. I guess the only genre left is comedy, but, well, “Dead To Me” just isn’t that funny.
Christina Applegate plays Jen, a real estate agent, mother, and grieving wife of a husband killed in a hit-and-run. Refusing to process her emotions using any established methods — therapy, exercise, etc. — Jen finds herself going many, many nights without sleep. She listens to death metal in her car, but to no avail. She’ll drink a bottle of wine or two, but she can’t even pass out. Finally, she goes to a group for bereft spouses, and it’s there she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini).
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Judy is chipper. She’s positive. She’s open to any idea and eager to help anyone she can. She’s the exact kind of person who should piss Jen off, and at first, she does. Jen is in too dark of a place to see any kind of bright side, but that’s the only side Judy knows. Except, that is, when it comes to her own loss and what brought her to the group in the first place.
So, as fate / the laws of TV would have it, these two opposites attract and become friends. They stay up late on the phone, just keeping each other company while they can’t sleep. Those conversations lead to get-togethers, and those lead to friendship. Before you know it, Judy is living in Jen’s guest house and doing her best to play substitute caretaker to her kids.
At first, “Dead To Me” feels like “Grace and Frankie” for a younger generation. Jen and Judy are reluctant friends brought together by crisis, but instead of their husbands coming out of the closet after decades of marriage, these two 40-somethings are alone. Jen’s enviable wealth and access to luxurious beachside mansions leads to many shared glasses of wine by an electric, indoor firepit or rolling around in king-size beds with a view to the ocean right outside the window. And Judy, well, to say anything more about Judy would constitute a spoiler, even though it would also quickly illustrate why “Dead To Me” wasn’t billed as a “G&F” spinoff titled “Jen & Judy.”
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In short, “Dead To Me” brings the twists. It stacks twists on top of twists, so that by the end of the first episode, whatever you thought you were watching has been flipped on its head. Feldman, a writer and producer on “2 Broke Girls” and “The Great Indoors,” appears to be so sick of laugh tracks she’s only going for gasps, except the blatant teases don’t add up in the long run. Conversations that should be had after the premiere are delayed until the final episodes, and waiting is made all the more frustrating by graceless dialogue. (At one point, a character asks if Judy wants to talk about a pivotal, undisclosed scene, and when Judy says yes, the character waits six episodes to follow up. Rarely has a tease been so shameless and added up to so little.)
These kind of showy exchanges and cheesy flashbacks would feel right at home in a daytime soap, but there’s no indication that allusion is intentional. So much of the series is grounded in honest-to-goodness pain, and the actors do what they can to respect that. Applegate and Cardellini fully commit to the earnest intentions of their characters. Their performances are convincing, even when the material is not, and their consistency is almost enough to give the series a uniformity of its own. Even James Marsden, whose role also can’t be discussed, finds cogent levels of depth in a superficially complicated asshole.
But “Dead To Me” is too committed to its plot and too unaware of its tone. It rides its big secret — a secret the audience knows from the end of Episode 1 onward — all the way to the finale, demanding you invest in characters who refuse to honestly invest in each other. Jen and Judy fight through one convoluted scenario after another, making a weird, circuitous journey away from the central issue only to come back to it, unchanged. As uncomfortable as it is unrewarding, the first season becomes a painful waiting game dwelling on morbid mistakes and ultimately feels like it’s just sustaining itself because it doesn’t know what else to do — or, in other words, “Dead To Me” just never finds a reason to live.
“Dead to Me” Season 1 premieres Friday, May 3 on Netflix.