It’s tempting to imagine that, somewhere at Netflix HQ, there’s a giant computing system not unlike the one introduced in the third season of Westworld. But instead of dictating how humans should operate in an idealized society, Netflix’s version of Rehoboam would inform how the streamer approaches original programming. There are a lot of solid Netflix shows out there, but it often seems like the programs are based on ideas spit out by an All-Knowing Algorithm. (Ozark, for instance, seems to be made for people who finish watching Breaking Bad and want a similar, if slightly derivative, thrill ride.)
So it’s easy to see why a show like Dead to Me was green-lit—and what makes it so appealing. Created by Liz Feldman, the series was destined to fill the Big Little Lies void with its Instagrammable California locales, a central murder mystery, sardonic humor cutting through serious conversations around grief and motherhood, and a ridiculous (lethal?) amount of onscreen wine consumption. If not entirely original, Dead to Me was playing around with a very popular framework.
The first season, released in 2019, centered on recently widowed Jen Harding (played by Christina Applegate), who sparks a friendship with the hippie-ish Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) at a grief support group. (Judy’s whole vibe is very “voted for Marianne Williamson because she also believes in the power of healing crystals.”) But things between Judy and Jen aren’t as rosy as they seem. Judy intentionally befriends Jen out of guilt because [deep breath] she was responsible for accidentally killing Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run, a crime that her shitty boyfriend, Steve Wood (James Marsden), coerced her into covering up by not reporting the incident and hiding the vehicle. Audiences find out about Judy’s deceit at the end of the premiere while Dead to Me’s first season is largely about waiting for the other shoe to drop. All the while, their genuine friendship deepens.
Since this piece will discuss Season 2, you shouldn’t read any further if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of the first season. Judy’s secret can’t be contained forever: In the Season 1 finale, she tearfully confesses to Jen, who responds with both an appropriate and somewhat concerning amount of anger. (Jen’s uncontrollable temper is a recurring theme on the series, something she tries to release by blasting heavy metal music.) But Steve—in an on-again, off-again relationship with Judy throughout the season—gets involved in the drama by trying to track down Judy after she rats out his money-laundering scheme to the police. (This show is soapy; just go along with the casual money-laundering subplot involving the Greek mafia.) Steve goes to Jen’s home looking for Judy, and gets antagonistic while confessing his own complicity in her husband’s death—the next thing we know, he’s floating dead in her pool. Jen calls Judy for help. Cue the credits.
It’s important to note that we don’t know for sure how Steve died—Jen had a gun in her hand and her anger issues were threaded all season, but this is the kind of show that revels in misdirection. Still, there is a tragic sense of irony in these two friends being responsible for their respective partners’ deaths, and that also being the thing that brings them closer together. This is all a tasty setup for the show’s second season, out on Friday, but just as Dead to Me emulated the successes of Big Little Lies’ first season, there is a danger that it might fall victim to the same issues that plagued the HBO series’ second season. Even Meryl Streep couldn’t save a show that had barely anything new to say.
On a basic storytelling level, Dead to Me does hew to Big Little Lies’ path. Big Little Lies’ second season focused on hiding the real circumstances behind Perry Wright’s death at the hands of the so-called Monterey Five, while Dead to Me Season 2 sees Jen and Judy navigating how to cover up Steve’s death and dispose of his body. Meanwhile, the local authorities find the women increasingly suspicious, which is certainly not unfounded given that they started living together after one’s spouse died and, soon after, the other’s boyfriend mysteriously “disappeared.” The series mines some morbid laughs from Jen and Judy’s naive approach to covering up a death—balancing the stress of rats that are attracted to the freezer holding Steve’s rotting corpse with keeping up domestic duties like choir recitals for Jen’s youngest son. Unlike Big Little Lies’ second season, Dead to Me allows its characters to evolve while it leans into some of the show’s soapier tendencies. (Please excuse the vagueness: There are a lot of twists and character reveals that are better left unsaid. Also, Netflix forbade writers from spoiling pretty much anything.)
That Dead to Me manages to largely succeed in its second season where Big Little Lies failed is perhaps a consequence of design: The HBO series was initially intended to be a miniseries. HBO collected all those Emmys and decided it wanted to get the gang back together—and add Meryl goddamn Streep—which meant moving beyond Big Little Lies’ source material (Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name). The network’s Season 2 gambit proved fruitless and frustrating, particularly the unfortunate Andrea Arnold saga. Dead to Me, however, is its own beast, intended from the beginning to be a multiseason affair. For as well as Dead to Me’s Season 1 cliff-hanger could’ve worked as a series finale—a smart move considering Netflix is now more willing to pull the plug on programs that don’t resonate with the desired number of subscribers—the show left enough wiggle room for more. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that the end of Season 2 strikes a similar balance between closure and cliff-hanger.
If this all sounds like really high praise, I’ll note that you should somewhat temper your expectations. Even at their best, neither season of Dead to Me comes close to the highs of Big Little Lies Season 1. Instead, just consider the show the platonic ideal of a Netflix original series: breezy (each episode is about a half-hour), highly bingeable with its propensity for cliff-hangers, and best enjoyed like a quick sugar rush. Stare too closely at Dead to Me and it will feel like, as Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk described when reviewing the first season, “content made into the shape of a TV show.”
But as algorithm-friendly as Dead to Me can feel on a conceptual level, Applegate (nominated for an Emmy in Season 1) and Cardellini breathe life into the series with their superlative performances. Jen and Judy’s banter is fresh, funny, and sometimes profound. “She sees the good in people, even when it isn’t there,” Jen says to describe her best friend in Season 2, a statement as simple as it is moving.
A somewhat familiar series in which two women sip boatloads of wine—I would say drink every time they drink, but you would soon risk alcohol poisoning—in a wealthy California town while trying to learn how to dispose of James Marsden’s corpse is not the kind of content I expected to go to bat for in 2020, but we do live in strange times. And if Dead to Me doesn’t get full marks for originality, it is fun, twisty, and easygoing viewing that has yet to overstay its welcome through two seasons. On that front, at least, Dead to Me does have Big Little Lies beat.