Netflix UK TV review: Dead to Me
James R | On 06, Oct 2019
“Wherever Judy goes, chaos usually follows,” says Steve (James Marsden) about his ex-fiancé (Linda Cardellini) in Netflix’s Dead to Me. It’s a warning that soon comes true, as the twisting, turning thriller finds its groove – and then keeps twisting and turning even further.
The series begins as a show about grief, as we see Jen (Christina Applegate) trying to come to terms with the death of her husband in a hit-and-run. With seemingly no evidence or suspect, there’s no closure for her in sight – but unexpected support does arrive in the form of Judy, who is attending the same counselling group.
Their relationship is at once wonderfully complex and incredibly simple, with Jen’s barely contained frustrations a natural foil for Judy’s free-spirited whimsy. But as back-stories come to light, and secrets emerge, their bond evolves into something darker, deeper and more sincere. Also, something deadlier.
Because yes, Dead to Me is a show that lives up to its title, not just in terms of loss or even long-held grudges, but in terms of murder and revenge. It’s a cocktail of cover-ups and lies, shaken with a dark humour and laced with a tender understanding of grief.
“I am not broken,” recites Jen at one session, and Christina Applegate is fantastic at conveying that resistant streak in the face of the unthinkable. She is determined to keep going, internalising every bit of blame, anger, resentment and pain to the point where it starts bursting out of her at work – much to the concern of her colleague, Chris (Max Jenkins). Cardellini, meanwhile, is just as wonderfully layered, managing to be bruised yet unbroken, while still finding room for a streak of sincerely fought problems issues that are only disguised by the way she pretends to be dealing with other issues entirely.
Created by Liz Feldman, it’s a treat to wallow in such a plausibly tangled friendship, and their interactions bring melancholy, drama, laughter and shocks to the table. But the show is almost stolen away from this dynamic duo by another: James Marsden.
The X-Men, Enchanted and Westworld star is one of the most underserved talents in Hollywood today, a versatile performer able to do charming leading man, dark villain and light comic relief all with a chiselled, handsome cool. The character of Steve gives him a chance to do all of them, as he moves from unknowing client of Jen to the more slippery former partner of Judy to something even more toxic. He’s able to wield a power over Judy – or thinks he is – as smoothly as he can repair a car, cover up a sinister deal or threaten someone with blackmail.
The more the messy ball of messed up bonds unravels, the more Steve gets caught up in it, and we see that slick exterior give way to desperation and panic – a descent into chaos that powers the noir-tinged thriller into unpredictable territory. That escalating tension is balanced out by such warm supporting turns as Edward Asner as Abe, a compassionate old man who lives at the retirement home where Judy works, and such convincing companions as Sam McCarthy‘s Charlie Harding, Jen’s susceptible, sarcastic son.
The result bristles with ideas, plays with tones and races through plot points with an irresistible relentlessness; the script, like so many page-turners in this streaming age, is paced precisely to encourage binge-watching, with cliffhangers dangling over each end credits sequence. But that calculated storytelling is backed up with these surprisingly rounded female characters and a deceptively intimate study of mourning. The result is a neat balance of shallow potboiling thrills and compelling character drama. Whether you’re after pulpy silliness or something a little more serious, Dead to Me will hit the spot – and then keep driving round the next absurd corner with entertaining abandon.
Dead to Me is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.