Biweekly Binge: The art of lying and grieving
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new – in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
In an early episode of Netflix's new series Dead To Me, Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini) develop a phone friendship, because insomnia has wrapped its ugly head over them. It's also the shield that nurtures their relationship. At one point, Jen can sleep only when she knows Judy is on the other end of the line but not speaking. They bond over reruns of The Facts of Life. The Facts of Life, of course, was a TV show set in an all-female boarding school. Female friendships were at the very core of The Facts of Life and so it is in Dead To Me, created by Liz Fieldman and spearheaded mostly by an all-women crew of writers and directors. It won't be a stretch to say that that particular brand of relationship has been historically misrepresented, bathed in stereotypes and the new age television and cinema are in the process of a course correction. Dead To Me, therefore, comes at an opportune moment, it is sufficiently woke and even if it’s guilty of patting its own back at times, it is a show that could only exist now.
Dead To Me deals with grief and the impenetrable hold it has over us. Jen lost her husband a couple of months ago - in a road accident - a hit and run incident. She meets Judy at a counseling session called Friends of Heaven and, at first, anger is all she's got - be it during the course of the session or with Judy who seemingly tries to help her children, a wickedly rude teenager and a softer younger son. Nothing in Dead To Me is as it seems. Not even the younger child. Judy is dealing with the aftermath of five miscarriages, the physical and emotional trauma coupled with an expiring relationship. But at the centre of Dead To Me lies Jen and Judy's relationship and something far darker - who or what was behind Jen's husband Ted's hit and run that resulted in his death?
Jen directly references Kate & Allie, another TV series from the 80s about two women, but a lot of things in the Netflix show follows from Thelma and Louise - the female friendship, the feminist commentary that the show casually tosses in, and the darker turns the narrative takes. Unlike the relationship in the film, Jen and Judy are just about beginning to discover each other, building on their shared grief albeit with their own secrets. The series is like a long road trip with unforeseen experiences and discoveries. Jen and Judy even take a trip along with Friends of Heaven where you can chill at the pool with your margaritas and choose sessions on dealing with your recent widowhood status or about the trauma caused by unsuccessful attempts to enter parenthood. It sounds like the most white, late capitalism thing to do, but Dead To Me is aware of its positioning - it is set in an affluent neighbourhood in upper-class Laguna Beach where Judy's off and on partner Steve (James Marsden) is a high-flying attorney. During the trip, Jen tries to flirt with a fellow Friends of Heaven member but it is Judy who gets lucky with Nick, somewhat like the Brad Pitt character in Thelma and Louise but with a twist.
Dead To Me begins in great fashion with its comedy sufficiently bookended by its darker undertones, but falls apart under its own weight of secrets and twists. The show inexplicably feels compelled to sign off every latter episode on a cliff-hanger that even poor straight-shooting Nick isn't spared. A setup like this can feel contrived and it is Judy's characterization that is short-changed in service of the ultimate premise the show is heading for. The show's highlights lie in stolen moments that Jen and Judy share, with a full glass in hand and giving each other the kind of pep talk that a Friends of Heaven counsellor wishes they had come up with. But it is great to see Applegate on screen again, comedy comes naturally to her and watching her deadpan to the challenges of single motherhood is a good enough reason to give the show a chance.