The art of the cliffhanger is a tricky thing. A TV show must trust its audience (and vice versa) to embrace these moments rather than recoil like their chain’s being yanked. Netflix‘s Dead To Me accepted that challenge and burst out of the gate with a debut season that reveled in a series of mini-cliffhangers — with pitch-black humor that rivaled Russian Doll and harnessed the melodrama, preventing it from tumbling into Big Little Lies territory — that felt exciting, despite occasionally predictable developments. Huge-reveal-after-huge-reveal reverberated in such a way that not only did viewers quickly come to expect these scenes, but they (or, at least, I) implicitly craved them. They’re not simply part of the show’s formula but part of the integral charm, while the two leading ladies (Christina Applegate as Jen and Linda Cardellini as Judy) cannot stop fueling the fire with increasingly bad life decisions. The major question when it comes to a second season is whether the show can keep toeing that precarious line.
Fortunately, Dead To Me maintains great chaos (even more, this time around, but it’s a tolerable level) and is still a blast. Dare I say, this show even feels “real,” despite all the inconceivable happenings. When I say real, I’m not talking about the show’s very human exploration of grief, or the morbid, darkly comic events that flesh-out that structure. Nope, I’m talking about the realistic portrayal of friendship between these two unlikely best friends, who are like a new-style Thelma and Louise, even though (let’s face it) there’s no possible way that a real-life grieving widow would invite a stranger into her home-family life, repeatedly overlook sketchy behavior, and, somehow, forgive the fact that this person killed her husband. Yet the raging contradiction of this show’s framework finds support in an emotional foundation that feels unshakeable.
This season, that relationship further strengthens and remains the central focus, but plenty of offshoot developments are at work because the grief-theme (although it’s still somewhat unresolved) must also give way to other emotions, like guilt, fury, and romance, and plenty of other “feels” that send both women scrambling to clean up messes — both figurative and literal, for this show is still plenty gruesome — which are handled deftly enough that the series still feels fresh. Again, the key to that objective would be how to keep the show’s favorite gimmick going strong.
On that subject: are the cliffhangers still holding up well this season? If you’re reading this, you know that last year’s finale ended in a bloody way, with James Marsden’s Skeevy Steve maybe dead, or not, with Jen standing over his body; and the show picks up where it left off without missing a beat or an opportunity for sliding into panic mode. Obviously, I won’t spill what Steve’s actual fate ended up being, other than to say that there are flashbacks to satisfy the Marsden lovers among us. And no matter happens to Steve, the audience will expect that Jen and Judy’s situations (together and apart) will become progressively more difficult to manage. That’s where creator Liz Feldman excels with this second batch of episodes. She inherently realizes how to keep raising the cliffhanger stakes without actually sending the show over a cliff. She and the rest of the writers pull that feat off, impressively so.
Another challenge, with such a tightly-written show, is how to add ingredients without everything feeling overstuffed. Dead To Me is one of those series where revealing much can spoil everything, but I will say that people who loved the first season will not be underwhelmed by the followup. The writing (Feldman won a Writer’s Guild award for the pilot) and performances continue to be top-notch — which is amazing, considering the relatively pulpy subject matter — and the supporting performances also deserve nods. Sam McCarthy should go plenty of places after playing “oldest teen son” to Jen, given that Sam’s perhaps the character who’s most genuinely conflicted during this season. He’s lost his father, his mom’s losing her mind, and he’s simply trying to navigate life amid all the fallout. Likewise, Brandon Scott, Diana Maria Riva, and Jere Burns’ eyebrows serve up fine performances on the law enforcement front, and Natalie Morales is irresistible in a role that would best be left as a mystery here.
As always, though, the most compelling dynamic on this show comes down to Applegate (Golden Globe-nominated for her performance as Jen) and Cardellini (robbed without the same), who are marvelous, with the former trying and failing to take a stiff-upper-lip stance and the latter wearing hearts all over her sleeves. A lip-quiver from one leads to an almost immediate softening of the other, and they’re such implausible teammates that one cannot help but enjoy their chemistry. Their solidarity and adherence to always doing right by each other is comforting, despite their world crashing down around them. Dark comedy isn’t easy to sustain, but there’s enough nuance from the actors and the way these ladies are written to (hopefully) keep this show going for a while.
Dead To Me‘s appeal is as undeniable as the relationship that blossomed between Jen and Judy. Their strange bond speaks to the ways that finding one’s “person” cannot be predictable, and once you find that person — whether it’s through bonding over trauma or not — you’d better cherish them. They won’t be easily replaced, and no amount of “orange wine” can delude anyone into believing otherwise. Chaos might follow, as in the case of Judy (with Steve’s voice ever-echoing, “Everywhere Judy goes, chaos follows”), but as Jen finds out, she’s not exactly free of that vibe herself. Whatever set of dire circumstances threw these two women together doesn’t really matter because their friendship is a pleasure to behold. And so, Netflix settled in for a new round of tragicomedy with perhaps the largest cliffhanger yet to finish the season. I gasped and have no clue where the show goes for a third season, but I already can’t wait to watch it.
Netflix’s ‘Dead To Me’ returns on May 8.