‘Dead to Me’ Offers Another TV Anxiety Attack
By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post
It’s not unusual for network publicists to warn TV critics about spoiling key plot points of a new show; sometimes they supply us with a strongly worded list of details to avoid. The overall message seems clear: We can’t be trusted. Yet here are all 10 episodes for advanced screening. Please write about them, but also don’t.
The premise of “Dead to Me,” Netflix’s nifty new 10-episode thriller with a darkly comedic edge (premiering Friday), is itself a big spoiler. Like many good dramas, everything is constructed around an initial act of deception; once you know about it, you’ll spend the rest of this easily addictive series fretting about when and how the truth will finally come out.
At first, though, “Dead to Me” seems like one of those clever dramedies set against an unconventional response to grief. Christina Applegate (“Up All Night”) stars as Jen, a successful Orange County, California, real estate agent whose husband was killed a couple of months earlier by a hit-and-run driver while he was out for a nighttime jog, leaving Jen to raise two sons (Sam McCarthy and Luke Roessler).
Forcing herself to attend a support-group meeting for the recently bereaved, Jen meets Judy (“Bloodline’s” Linda Cardellini), who recently lost her fiance. Jen rebuffs Judy’s friendly attempts to mingle (“I hope this isn’t weird,” Judy asks her, “but can I give you a hug?” which Jen flatly declines).
A friendship begins to bloom anyhow, when Jen takes Judy up on her offer to call any time of night, since neither woman has been sleeping much since their respective losses. Over the phone, Jen finally gets to unload some of the anger and sadness she’s experienced, which Judy soaks up like a commiserating sponge. They start to hang out socially. Judy learns that Jen frequently pulls over while driving, to inspect parked cars around her neighborhood and look for any hint of damage that might come from striking a pedestrian. She’s investigating her husband’s death more intently than the local police.
It will come as no surprise to any half-smart viewer of “Dead to Me” that Judy is not being entirely truthful about her reason for attending the support group. All I can say -- all I should say -- about that first-episode reveal is that the little lies are not nearly as important as the bigger lies that have yet to be discovered. In this regard, “Dead to Me,” created by Liz Feldman (“2 Broke Girls”), exhibits a masterful understanding of binge-era story structure, along with a fearless approach to Judy and Jen’s personal flaws. As the plot begins to froth, “Dead to Me” takes some side paths that are egregiously predictable, but the anxiety level is spot-on -- approaching a “Barry”-esque tension in some moments.
It’s fun to watch Applegate and Cardellini so skillfully handle the show’s erratic tonal range, as it constantly segues from deadly serious to appreciably absurd, with the more serious side usually prevailing. Along with a supporting cast that includes James Marsden (“Westworld”) and Ed Asner, Applegate and Cardellini give absorbing and well-synced performances, keeping the intensity level high to the very last minute, when the series ends on a cliffhanger that suggests a whole new dynamic for a potential second season. Which I would absolutely watch.
‘Tuca & Bertie’
Anxiety-making TV is at a surplus these days, so it’s good that Netflix is also offering a nice comedown from “Dead to Me’s” chewed-cuticle drama in the form of “Tuca & Bertie,” an appealingly bizarre, 10-episode adult animated series from Lisa Hanawalt, the illustrator who gave the world of “BoJack Horseman” its distinctive anthropomorphic look.
The style here is similar, but the defining ennui of “BoJack Horseman” has been replaced by the manic ebullience of Birdtown, where a free-spirited toucan vivant named Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and her BFF, a self-conscious song thrush named Bertie (Ali Wong), live in the same apartment building and lean on one another for emotional support. It’s a bit like “Broad City” turned into a cartoon, with the same giddy undercurrent of female empowerment.
Bertie works in analytics at Conde Nest (if nothing else, “Tuca & Bertie” is worth watching for its constant supply of fresh animal puns), and Tuca is chronically underemployed. Tuca lives for the moment; Bertie is a chronic worrier.
The first episode comes on a little strong, as the viewer tries to follow the jokes and appreciate the frenetically wild visuals whizzing past (a high-rise building with naked, jiggling breasts?). Further episodes settle down and focus on some themes, such as workplace harassment from the office rooster, or Bertie’s anxiety about her reliably dull sex life with her easygoing architect boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun). Nothing gets too heavy, however, as “Tuca & Bertie” remains solidly and successfully committed to its larky nature.