Dead to Me: A Dark Comedy of Forgiveness

In the Netflix original series, Dead to Me, Judy (Linda Cardellini) helps Jen (Christina Applegate) […]

Sam Guthrie / 6.18.19

In the Netflix original series, Dead to Me, Judy (Linda Cardellini) helps Jen (Christina Applegate) cope with the sudden loss of her husband, Ted. The two form an unlikely friendship tracking down Jen’s husband’s killer in the pristine landscape of Malibu.

Thanks to Liz Feldman, the creator of the show, clicking “Next Episode” never felt easier. The series stays true to its dark comedy label with hilariously painful scenes at nursing homes and grief circles, amidst the sorrow death brings. Grief often takes center stage in all of its unwanted shapes and forms. In the days and weeks after a hit-and-run accident, Jen tries to fill the gaping hole her husband’s death leaves by attending support groups, sweating her pain away in morning runs and late-night Peloton rides, self-medicating with large glasses of wine, and frantically searching for damaged cars on Malibu streets hoping any evidence will lead her to her husband’s killer. But what proves to be the most successful remedy to the pain is Jen’s unlikely friendship with Judy, a nursing home aid who also knows her fair share of loss. The budding buddy dynamic of Judy and Jen is the common and most enjoyable thread throughout the whole series, and the chemistry of two unlikely friends only gets better as they grieve and laugh through their fragile lives in Southern California (and try to solve a murder mystery).

For a 10-episode series to tackle a commentary on grief is a tall order. But where Dead to Me succeeds is in its broad brushstrokes of grief and the many human offshoots inextricably tied to it. A consistent theme in grief’s shadow and Dead to Me’s commentary is human nature. Common vices and shortcomings surface when Jen’s husband dies, most notably her uncontrollable anger. But as the show progresses, more characters show their true stripes, and the writers leave audiences to contemplate whether shortcomings are situational or sown into the fabric of humanity. Are we angry because of death or are we angry because we are human? Do we drown our sorrows with exercise, drink, and work to fill the void of a lost one or has there always been a gaping hole in our hearts?

It’s no coincidence the show takes place in the paradise of Southern California. The idyllic beaches, near perfect weather, and affluent community all feel like part of the dark joke of Dead to Me. Much of the show’s footage is shot in or around the stunning, albeit lonely, homes of Orange County. As a real estate agent, Jen sells beautiful homes to beautiful people. But the homes, like their inhabitants, are lonely and devoid of character. Jen’s job and own home represent her inward struggle and the impossibility to cope with grief alone. And especially after Ted’s death, it doesn’t take much to make her professional composure become undone with rage.

Judy, on the other hand, is a spunky nursing home employee. Unlike Jen, Judy works with the disheveled and wrinkled of society. She wheels her friends around and has a particularly sweet relationship with a tenant named Abe. Where Jen is focused on meeting her bottom line in real estate, Judy just needs to help Abe find the last piece to the jigsaw puzzle he’s been assembling. For Judy, instead of dealing with her grief in the empty halls of a Hollywood house, she ponders her pain in the confines of a smelly, one-bedroom apartment in the nursing home. But by episode two, their relationship growing, the lines between these two worlds blur as Jen invites Judy to live in her guest house; their lives becoming more entangled in grief, friendship, and the pursuit to find Ted’s killer.

The show’s commentary on grief is definitive: each episode explores the many manifestations of the feeling all humans experience. And while projections of humanity hide in the narrative of grief, the show also subtly asks questions of what it means to forgive. Or, if it’s even possible to forgive. As the plot thickens and tensions rise, the answers become complicated. Jen’s thirst for justice will stop at nothing until the killer is caught, despite the skeletons she can’t keep from tumbling out of the closet. For Jen, forgiveness seems like an impossibility; for others in the show, the odds of being forgiven seem equally bleak. Jen and Judy are a perfect tandem on screen. Mirroring the mismatch of Jen and Judy’s personalities, Feldman weaves comedy and pain intricately together throughout each episode all while audiences contemplate what and who can be forgiven. Forgiveness, like the show, can be darkly comedic. Despite all our grief and propensity to veer off the rails, it is offensive, even laughable, when someone has the audacity to forgive us in the mess we’ve made of our lives.

The most powerful part of Dead to Me is how the writers are able to include so many unlikely pairings and juxtapositions in a tight, developed, and layered show: Jen and Judy, tragedy and comedy, loneliness and community. And with Jen inching closer to the truth each episode, one wonders whether there’s room for justice and mercy to meld. In a world marred with pain, forgiveness may be the only place where tragedy starts to feel a little more like a (dark) comedy. The dark comedy of forgiveness is relieving in spite of the present pain. But for those who stake their lives on the rumor of forgiveness, before it can be relieving, we must first trust that it is true.

Image credits: Netflix.

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