Netflix dramatic comedy Dead to Me doubled down on darkness in its second season. This is quite an achievement for a show that started out with a hit-and-run and a sham friendship formed at a grief support group between a widow and the woman who was driving the car.
Christina Applegate, who plays mother, widow and realtor Jen Harding, and Linda Cardellini, who plays driver, health care assistant and emotional pudding cup fan Judy Hale, are forced to face a whole new set of challenges after the death of James Marsden’s crooked Greek Mafia lawyer Steve Wood.
Firstly, the pair must figure out what to do with the dead body; then, they must avoid getting caught, deal with Wood’s twin brother Ben—who, in pure telenovela-style, is also played by Marsden—and work on recalibrating their own relationship.
Throw in a couple of new love interests, including a tryst between Judy and Natalie Morales’ Michelle, and a prison appearance from Katey Sagal, who played Christina Applegate’s mother on Married… with Children.
Created by Liz Feldman and produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Gloria Sanchez Productions, the half-hour comedy hopes to build on Applegate’s nomination last year for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (she was beaten by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
Now, from their respective lockdown bubbles, Deadline reunites Applegate and Cardellini for a long discussion of the show. “Are we Zooming?” jokes Applegate. “Does anyone have to get a gown?”
DEADLINE: How did you feel about where you started Season 2?
LINDA CARDELLINI: Judy has decided that she would kill herself because that’s what Jen has asked. She goes from that to then being saved by Jen and her telling her to come home, which is a word that is very important to Judy; the idea of having a home and having a family. She is now part of something that she could have never imagined and that puts her in such a complicated place. It evens the footing between the two women, because they both have something to do with the loss of the other one’s significant other.
In terms of her mourning for Steve, that relationship is very toxic and I thought the idea of mourning a toxic relationship was interesting because I haven’t really seen it done like that. Jen and Judy only have each other to rely on in the worst of times, and they end up not being able to live without each other because they need each other to get them through something that they can’t share with anybody else.
CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: Jen was amped up. It’s exhausting because she was already kind of amped up, and now there’s another level of conflict, and her muscles are just in knots all over her body and her soul and her heart.
DEADLINE: What did you think when you found out James Marsden was returning as Steve’s twin?
APPLEGATE: When Liz told me that there was going to be a twin, I was like, “You’re punking me right now, right?” She said, “Just trust me.” Then I watched my beautiful friend, James Marsden, just f**king sell it. He just beautifully fell into it, and I think that that was the biggest surprise, obviously, for the season. We wanted James back. He’s a delightful human being and a great actor. It was like either we were going to just have him back for a bunch of flashbacks or find another way to get him in this.
CARDELLINI: I loved it. When Liz first told me about it, I just laughed, and I thought that it was going to be so much fun to pull off. As out there as you think it is, the really fun part is to earn all of that. He’s so great. He’s so wonderful to work with too, and he’s such a team player. I love all the people who got to return in the second season, it’s just so much fun to have them with us. You really do become a family, because you work so hard and such long hours with each other. I really think Liz is so fantastic at taking those kinds of twists and making them seem so well-earned, so natural.
DEADLINE: Where do you think the relationship between Jen and Judy stands at the beginning of Season 2?
APPLEGATE: I think that unfortunately Jen was very manipulative with Judy in the second season at the beginning because she needed her to fix this. It was very selfish. And I think towards the end, she realized how much she needs her, and how much value Judy plays in her life, to her whole family, and the relationship with her kids, and trying to figure out how to be a better mom, and then getting that second chance to be a mom.
CARDELLINI: When it rains, it pours. Judy’s in the middle of a storm cloud. For me, one of the challenges of the character that I haven’t had to face with other characters is that she doesn’t get angry. It’s something that was decided early on, that she has a hard time showing her anger.
DEADLINE: It’s a very dark show about grief but there’s still an element of comedy to it. How do you balance that?
APPLEGATE: The comedy obviously comes out of the tragedy. It’s not saying jokes. It’s coming out of the awkwardness of life, the pain of life, the messiness of life. For the viewer, it’s funny, but for the characters, it’s not. Their imperfection and their messiness is what I think people relate to, and the comedy always kind of forms out of that. I think that some of our funniest stuff is when it’s just me and Linda, basically just ranting.
CARDELLINI: It’s a delicate balance. At first when we were tasked with it, we weren’t sure exactly how to do it because on the page it can go many different ways. It can go very broad, you can go very dark, and the idea that it’s sort of in this inbetween zone is really fun. I hadn’t really done anything like that. The really delicious part about Judy is that she takes these things that are almost hard to believe, and makes them seem so natural to her character. And that, to me, is really fun.
DEADLINE: The moment when Linda is breaking down while eating a pudding cup seems to be a great example of that.
CARDELLINI: That was actually improv. I thought, I’m just going to open this up and see if it makes anybody laugh. Then we kept that.
DEADLINE: How much of the show is improvised?
APPLEGATE: We always do as written, and then it’ll be just those moments when Liz will say, “Hey, can you guys just do your Jen and Judy thing?” Then we’ll just kind of come up with weird s**t. It happened a couple of times, and then they just saw how comfortable we were with it, and then it kind of became like their own language.
CARDELLINI: The wonderful thing is that Liz has created these characters that are so specific. I feel like she’s really given us ownership of them, but we go to her for everything. I mean, you see the two of us on screen, but she’s also right there with us for any questions that we have and for anything. It’s really her vision that we are proudly executing. We always get what’s on the page, but the fact that she has given over to us these characters, we are allowed to do whatever we feel in the moment.
DEADLINE: You’ve both done lots of comedy before. How is this different?
APPLEGATE: When you’re on a sitcom and you’re in front of an audience, it’s vaudeville. That’s kind of how I look at it. It’s a dance between you and those 200 people, and you need to get an audible reaction out of them. It’s not canned laughter. I consider that kind of like the vaudevillian form of comedy. Then you do something like a Samantha Who?, which has got its own tone, and then an Anchorman lives in its own bizarre kind of realm. I always feel like comedy is twinkling above reality. This is unlike anything I’ve ever done; it’s its own genre really. We always call it a traumedy because it’s not a black comedy, it’s not a dramedy. It’s people in trauma.
CARDELLINI: It’s different to being on the old network schedule, which used to keep you for about nine months. On the Netflix schedule, because it’s 10 episodes, as opposed to 24 or 26, like I might have done during ER, it’s a shorter schedule, so you do have more time in the year to do something else. The idea of being able to play different roles is what it’s all about to me. I love the idea that I get to dive into this great female-led show with two strong colleagues, and I get to be on the screen and work really hard and go sort of stretch all of my muscles in that way, and then I love the idea that I can then go do a movie in the interim between seasons.
DEADLINE: It’s a very personal story for creator Liz Feldman. Can you talk about her process and working with her?
APPLEGATE: She’s incredible. She’s so hands-on, which is wonderful because that’s her vision. She works really well with the directors, which are all female. We only had one male director, Abe Sylvia, who’s incredible. He was one of our producers too. But he, fortunately for him, sold a show, and moved back to New York. So, this year, it was all females. What that means on a set and how it’s run is very different than anything I’ve ever been a part of. Liz is really the driving force behind everything. She oversees everything. She oversees every script. She oversees the editing. She’s there keeping us on track and she’s just a lovely human being.
CARDELLINI: It is truly a team effort and Liz trusts who she hires, she trusted us with the material, and she trusts us going forward.
APPLEGATE: She’s the reason I did it. I was looking to go on an ensemble show, like working two days a week. That was what I was really looking for. [But now] I’m working 18-hour days, and not seeing my child for three months. To go from my dream job, which was like Ed O’Neill’s schedule on Modern Family, to that, it was not what I had expected or desired, but it ended up being very satisfying.
DEADLINE: There’s a scene where Jen is dissolving a rat in the bathtub, and for a moment, I thought you were going to go full Breaking Bad.
APPLEGATE: We wanted you to feel that way. That was the intent. The intent was she’s now completely unraveled. She’s gone completely f**king nutso. But the reality is, who could do that? Jen just can’t. She was losing her mind. So that’s why the scene after that was her just completely breaking down, almost like a scared little child.
CARDELLINI: I love that about the way that they do the show. They take you somewhere where you think you know where you’re going and then it goes in a different direction. I remember feeling that way about the balloon floating down in the first season, and thinking, Oh, I know what this is. Then it turns out that it’s not my balloon. But I love the little, tiny moments where you think you’ve got it pegged and they do something completely different.
DEADLINE: The line, “Sometimes justice works itself out,” after Jen confesses to Detective Perez, seems important; more so given what’s going on in the country right now.
APPLEGATE: Given what’s going on, yeah. It’s so painful, I just feel so helpless. Not that you should smash someone’s head and then bury them in the woods, and then get off; not to say that’s a good thing. But humanity sometimes has to take precedence over something else.
DEADLINE: Katey Sagal turns up this season but she’s playing Judy’s mother. How was that?
APPLEGATE: I was so bummed. I didn’t get to see her or work with her. I finally got a day off the day they did all their scenes. I’m very good friends with a lot of the crew. One of my favorite people in the world, Mitch [B. Cohn], who’s our boom operator, would always get me peanut butter cups when I was having kind of a hard day. He’d hide him in my mic pack and stuff. I texted him, and I said, “You take care of Katey today.” She ended up texting me a picture of her in front of all this candy that he had gotten for her. It was so sweet.
CARDELLINI: How lucky am I? It was so great. We were so happy to have her. I think that character is a glimpse into Judy’s life that nobody ever gets. You don’t really see Judy’s background so much. I think it’s an interesting idea that you can have this mother who, clearly they have similarities, but just by being born to her, she’s learned some things. But they’re two completely different people. Judy’s not as manipulative in some ways as her mother, but she has learned to manipulate from her mother.
DEADLINE: That final scene is quite shocking with the car crash, the really surprising reveal of who is driving the car, Jen’s son finding out who his mother is, and a dog seemingly digging up Steve’s body. So what do you think happens next?
APPLEGATE: I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I mean, we haven’t been picked up or anything, but it’s not really the landscape right now, right? But given if we do go back, if any of us go back to work ever again, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Originally, [in the car crash scene] I was really injured, so I didn’t say, “F**k me.” That was all added. Because I think originally, they wanted you to think that I was toast. But I think that would have upset people. So, they added me saying, “What happened?” and, “F**k me,” again, so that you know that there’s another chapter to all of this.
CARDELLINI: I loved it. The question of what happens next is always sort of the fun part of the show. I am definitely looking forward to, if there is a third season, seeing where that goes, and what that does to them, and if they know who hit them, and when they do know who hit them, what happens. There are a lot of unanswered questions.
DEADLINE: Are you confident that there will definitely be a third season?
CARDELLINI: I am cautiously optimistic. That’s sort of a skill I’ve learned in this industry after all this time. I hope so. And if not, we’ve given it our all, and people have enjoyed it, and that’s something too. I have been on many shows that have not lasted long, and ones that have been very short-lived, so you never know.