In a scene from season 2 of Dead To Me, uptight real estate agent Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and sweet optimist Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) decide to let off some steam at a bar after burying the body of Cardellini’s ex-husband, Steve. Judy starts to talk about how Steve was her “person” – the first person who ever truly made her feel loved – and starts crying. Jen, overcome with emotion, joins her in crying. “You’re the kindest person in the whole f*cking world. I love you so much, I really do,” Jen manages through her tears. The two friends hug tightly and Jen asks Judy if she’ll be her person.
“Hey there,” interrupts a well-dressed man holding a drink, sidling up behind the two women. “Do you guys wanna dance?”
“Excuse me? Do you see that we’re in the middle of something here? Does it look like my friend wants to f*cking dance? Read the room, f*cko!” Jen bursts out.
In one single line, the heaviness of the scene is broken, and in the span of three minutes, the show has seamlessly morphed from making you tear up to making you laugh out loud. The moment may be one of the gold standards of what makes Dead To Me the definitive dramedy of this moment, and what showrunner Liz Feldman strove to create with the series.
“I joke around with Christina and Linda all the time because on most shows, or traditionally on shows or in movies, actors are generally playing one thing per scene. Or they have one objective. Their arc is kind of a hero’s journey, beginning, middle, and end,” Feldman told Uproxx. “And on our show, in any given scene, the actors are playing like, five or six things. There’s just so much going on and there’s so much sort of story layered in there that it’s complicated. It’s definitely not the way that I learned how to tell a story, but it is the way I do experience life — you know, one conversation can be about one topic, but there can be about a million feelings running underneath.”
The above-mentioned bar scene is a prime example of that, but over the show’s two seasons and twenty episodes, there are multiple instances — sometimes two or three times in one episode — where those complicated layers come to life. And those instances range from everything as serious as a funeral to as celebratory as a birthday party.
“I think I had for a very long time wanted to branch out of the broad comedy genre that I had been pretty firmly fixed into. Because I found as an audience member, as a fan, I was enjoying darker and darker material,” Feldman said. “I was given a real gift in developing Dead To Me, because I didn’t develop it under the auspices of any specific producer or mandate. It just sort of sprung from somewhere inside of me. And it was so weird and outside of the norm of what I would usually bring to the marketplace, that I was almost like allowing myself as an exercise to create a show that bridged all the genres that I like to watch so much.”
While Feldman acknowledged that she “leaned into creating a world that felt at least emotionally textured and complicated in the way that life is,” it’s Applegate and Cardellini who bring the nuances of those complicated emotions to life. And when it comes to balancing those comedic and dramatic tones, the showrunner trusts her two leads implicitly.
“Because Linda and Christina have embodied these characters who are funny themselves, they’re not just saying jokes that were written to be jokes. The characters themselves are making the jokes,” explained Feldman. “And because of that, it allows us to sort of surf in and out of comedy and drama, because they themselves can feel in any given scene when it’s time.” The showrunner recalls that early in the filming of season one, when they were still trying to find the tone of the show, Applegate would instinctually make a joke in the middle of a filming a serious scene to ease her own heavy feelings that Cardellini would riff off of.
“There were several moments like that, where I would then yell from the back of the monitors, ‘that’s the tone!’ We found it just by them sort of experiencing it in the moment,” said Feldman. “I always knew that I wanted [the show] to be funny, but I knew that I wanted it to feel real. And my goal was always to make the audience feel. I want them to feel sad, I want them to feel their own grief reflected back to them. And then I want them to also feel the joy of this friendship, and the catharsis of this relationship that is getting these characters through that difficult time, but hopefully, also getting the audience through it as well.”
Dead To Me may be one of the smartest programs for this reason, but while Feldman — who has written for Two Broke Girls and The Ellen DeGeneres Show — agrees that there’s been an evolution in how well television shows meld genre, she’s quick to acknowledge she’s far from the first showrunner to play with that balance.
“There are shows that have certainly rode the wave of comedy and drama,” Feldman said, referencing Six Feed Under and Weeds. “I’m happy to see that there are more shows that are just sort of defying multiple genres. There are more comedy thrillers, there are more dramedies, there are more half-hour dramas. I think people are allowing themselves to think beyond their own little box that we often get put in as writers and creators. And I think because of streaming, and because there are now 500 shows on TV, you know, there’s room for it. And it’s great because I love to watch those kinds of shows.”
Season 2 of Dead To Me premiered in May of 2020 and ended up being a welcome reprieve of laughter and a release of emotional grief in the thick of a pandemic that upended the country. The show’s third season, which is currently filming after a year of COVID-related delays, will be its final one. And while Feldman wouldn’t spoil how a year of quarantine had changed any storylines when it came to balancing the comedy and dramatic tones of the show, she did elaborate on what she hopes the show’s legacy will be.
“I try not to put too much expectation on the takeaway, just because so much of working on this show is just the journey of getting there,” Feldman admitted. “I am just honestly striving to entertain and to potentially help people see themselves a little bit more clearly, and to give people permission to feel a multitude of feelings that they may not feel comfortable or allow themselves to feel in their daily life. I think the takeaway here is that if people have a catharsis of some sort watching the show, if people feel seen or their stories feel reflected, that will make me feel like maybe this show has some important impact.”
Ultimately, Feldman hopes that her show will “inspire other creators to look beyond the binary genre options.”
“It doesn’t have to just be a comedy, it doesn’t just have to be a drama. It’s incredibly satisfying, I think, when great actors are given roles that allow them to express the full spectrum of humanity,” she said. “And that’s what we try to do on Dead To Me.”