When Liz Feldman’s “Dead to Me” premiered in 2019, it filled a space that was largely missing in television – a quick-witted dark comedy – or “traumedy.” These series have the rare ability to make viewers hysterically laugh and cry within seconds of one another, tackling profound ideas of grief and loss all while maintaining cathartic humor throughout.
The nearly impossible feat that “Dead to Me” achieved is only attainable because of two factors – Feldman’s impeccable writing and the transcendent, unparalleled chemistry between Emmy nominees Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Their complex yet earnest portrayal of female friendship is the heart of the show, culminating in a third and final season released last week that encapsulates the central essence of the series in a way that feels complete and authentic.
“Dead to Me” initially introduces viewers in Season 1 to cynical real estate agent Jen and eccentric optimist Judy, who cross paths at a grief support group in Laguna, California. The series quickly reveals that there is more to the pair than meets the eye – Judy has joined the group to befriend Jen out of guilt because she played a role in the hit-and-run of her husband.
After an immeasurable amount of twists and turns, Season 1 ends with a grand reveal – Jen winds up killing Steve, Judy’s ex-fiance, in self defense. Season 2 brilliantly flips the dynamic of Season 1, deepening the complicated friendship between Jen and Judy, who become each other’s chosen family. As Season 2 comes to a close, the Thelma-and-Louise-esque duo is seemingly on the other side of their crimes as well as their personal struggles – until they are hit by a car themselves. Season 3 begins with the two women in the hospital trying to make sense of the accident, which is further exacerbated by a health scare.
Feldman has said she always knew “Dead to Me” would be a three- or four-season show, evidenced by the meticulous planning of each detail and the full-circle plot of the series. But what was unplanned was Applegate’s 2021 multiple sclerosis diagnosis in the midst of filming the final season. After receiving her diagnosis while on set, production paused for about five months. Despite struggling to walk and requiring limited hours on set, Applegate said she felt an obligation to conclude the characters’ story, which surrounds illness particularly in Season 3.
Applegate has been widely considered a master at her craft for decades, having won her first Emmy in 2003 and receiving seven nominations since. But in likely the last role she will ever portray on screen, she defeats insurmountable obstacles to bring fans a career-defining performance, further cementing her status as one of the greats. Last week, in her first public appearance since her diagnosis, Applegate was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, introduced by heartwarming speeches from Cardellini as well as her “Married…With Children” co-stars Katey Sagal and David Faustino.
The remarkable off-screen friendship, detailed by Cardellini in her speech, that the two women have developed as a result of filming the show shines through in their acting performances, particularly during such a difficult time for Applegate. Despite her struggles and chronic pain, her illness was barely visible on-screen, thanks to creative camera blocking and the distinct humor that brings the two flawed yet loveable characters to life.
Season 3 maintains the show’s classic plot twists and unmistakable brand of humor but hones in on what has always been the core element of the show – the shared grief and abundant love between Jen and Judy. The semi-autobiographical series stems from Feldman’s own struggles with grief, infertility and motherhood, all of which Applegate and Cardellini authentically and honestly depict. In addition to her own experiences, Feldman has also incorporated some of her stars’ real life struggles into the plot, including Applegate’s experiences with a double mastectomy in 2008 after surviving breast cancer.
The series serves as an extended metaphor for grief and loss, made even more devastating by the heartbreaking yet well-executed ending of Season 3. But the unfaltering support Jen and Judy provide for one another throughout their turbulent and dysfunctional times together is nevertheless uplifting and serves as a lesson to viewers, “reminding you to remember” what you’ve lost and its significance, as Judy says to Jen throughout the final season.