TV

Showrunner Liz Feldman On The Genre Non-Conforming Style Of ‘Dead To Me,’ And The Show’s Alternate Ending

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Liz Feldman is used to making people laugh. She’s written for sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland and 2 Broke Girls. She’s won Emmys for her work on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She started performing stand-up before most kids learn how to drive.

But she’s never killed someone before. Or, at least, pretended to.

Feldman’s new Netflix series, Dead To Me, a grief-com, or, as the cast likes to call it, a “traumedy,” is a melting pot of genres centered on a story of love, loss, and betrayal. It features Christina Applegate in her first TV role in seven years, as a rage-filled widow trying to move on from the death of her husband. Linda Cardellini plays a friendly, free-spirited woman she meets at a grief support group and the two journey together through their sorrow and shame and sh*tty life circumstances.

They get high, they vandalize cars, they rock out to heavy metal, and they find themselves involved in not one, but two murders by series end. Feldman’s responsible for most of the madness she puts her characters through, enjoying forcing them through the kinds of twists and turns that hook binge-watchers in need of an adrenaline rush while also mining the kind of dark humor that makes the show’s more poignant moments feel all-too-relatable.

Uprroxx chatted with the showrunner about defying genre stereotypes, refusing to be pigeonholed, and why she never planned on killing James Marsden.

This is a comedy, but it’s probably not one that would live on a network like CBS. Was this show one you’d been itching to make for a while?

This is the kind of show I have always wanted to make, but what happens in your writing career is you often get, I don’t want to say pigeonholed, but you seem to get work in the genre that you start in and it becomes harder to sort of break out. I started as a joke writer, but I was always really interested in shows that were dark and twisty and edge of your seat kind of thrill rides if you will. I would always come up with ideas of shows that had those elements, but I just wasn’t in a place where I was able to pitch them.

When I broke into sitcom television, mostly camera television, I would often try to bring elements of some sort of interesting storytelling to those types of shows. The format of multi-camera network television is pretty [strict]. You have 21 minutes. You can’t really tell a serialized story because you’re hoping for the show to be syndicated and then the episodes run out of order, and you sort of get stuck a little bit in these casual episodes with a beginning, middle, end, and you can watch them out of order. So, I had always wanted to tell a more serialized story. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would have called the genre. In my mind, it was almost genre non-conforming. It was like, I love those kinds of shows that have twists and turns, but can’t they also be funny?

If Netflix wasn’t around, where would this show live? Lifetime maybe? It’s got a bit of that vibe to it, which I mean as an absolute compliment.

[Laughs] I will accept that. I haven’t watched a ton of Lifetime. What was intentional was that the writers’ room was predominately women and that I was interested in telling stories that appealed to women, and I know that is what Lifetime does, so if there is any similarity it is probably just because it is through the female lens. But yeah, I think that there is a slightly heightened element to our show and that can feel a little, yes, like a murder mystery, maybe even a little soapy. We just sort of went where it felt like the characters would reasonably go.

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People seem to be resonating with the story, especially Jen’s story.

I’ve been sitting here trying to analyze why, you know? What did we do that spoke to people? And it’s weird, because when you’re in a writer’s room and you’re coming up with the storyline for a season of the show, we were just doing what felt right to us, taking our own personal experiences, as women, as women who have lost people, as women who have had fertility struggles and informing our characters with our own personal struggles. At the core of the show is a real, I think, authenticity of experience. We talked a lot about the kinds of issues, relationships, a lot of the stuff that you see portrayed in the show. We’ve said before the facts are not true, but the feelings are real.

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini play the leads on the show, and they serve as a nice gender-flipped odd couple. The story is about grief, yes, but it’s more about their friendship.

Absolutely. This is very much like an ode to friendship and it is absolutely inspired by my friendship with my best friend, and how we have been through some really crazy shit in life. The kind of crazy shit that I think if we all looked at our lives and kind of broke down some of the weirder things that have happened to us, you would say to yourself ‘Boy if I saw that in a show, I wouldn’t believe it.’

Is there something about female friendships that feels particularly interesting as a comedy writer?

There’s an understanding there and empathy that you can have with another female friend that you just can’t get anywhere else. It’s a sisterhood, but because you’re not actually related, you don’t have some of the same baggage that you might have with family.

Speaking of, the ending of season one threw most of us for a loop. Was the intention to always throw these two back together through yet another death?

I originally had pitched an entire season to Netflix, which is the pitch that I sold them. And my ending was… I did not go as far as to kill Steve. Sometimes, when things are pitched in the writer’s room, there is an electricity that takes over the room, you can feel this sort of palpable buzz because it’s a good idea and everybody knows it. That’s what happened when they brought up the possibility of killing Steve. I thought it was kind of a big swing.

And then you cast James Marsden. It can’t be easy to kill someone that good-looking.

Exactly. James plays the role and he’s so brilliant. Just, what a wonderful asshole. He brings such humanity this guy that could have been written off as just a douche.

What was the original ending you had planned?

I’m not going to say because that’s something that we still may use.

Does this ending fuel the story moving into a second season then, if one is given the green light?

Yeah, the idea was to force them back together to deal with their complicated relationship. Obviously, Jen and Judy have a love for each other, but once Jen finds out what Judy has done, that’s a very difficult thing to forgive. So, we wanted to set them on an even footing. They’re forced together to keep this, secret if you will. And in doing so, will be confronted with having to forgive each other.

‘Dead to Me’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

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