So your husband was killed in a hit-and-run. What's next?
Dead to Me, Netflix's newest traumedy (trauma-comedy) dives into that question headfirst — and all the grief, lies, and secrets that are unearthed when a loved one dies.
Christina Applegate plays Jen Harding, the grieving widow who is determined to find her husband's killer — and could perhaps use an anger management class or five. In an attempt to begin healing, she attends a support group and meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a free-spirited artist who's struggling to get a handle on her own grief.
Bound by their trauma, the two women forge a fast friendship and plow through their inner demons together. For many LGBTQ+ viewers, myself included, the intimacy and connection of Jen and Judy's friendship might read as queer throughout episode 1 — before the secrets start spilling out and the two women's lives spiral out of control.
The Advocate sat down with the creator and showrunner of Dead to Me, Liz Feldman, who ponders why it still feels rare to see a nuanced relationship between two women unfold on-screen. "So much of what you see on television is written from a male perspective," she says. "I wanted the show to be seen through a female lens, from a female perspective, because that's who I wanted it to be for."
Feldman went on to chat about her experience leading the show as a lesbian, her connection to the loss portrayed throughout the series, and why we need more diverse storytelling.
The Advocate: Why did you want to tell this story about grieving women?
Liz Feldman: The truth is that the story was very much inspired by where I was emotionally at the time that I came up with it. And I was in grief because I had just turned 40 and my cousin died suddenly of a heart attack on my birthday. So it was just a moment in time that just felt very unfair and unexpected and deeply sad.
And at the same time I was going through my fertility struggles, trying to get pregnant and just not being successful at that. So it was very much inspired by just where I was.
I'm a comedian, so I can't help but look at even the darkest things through a comic lens. It's just how I cope with life. And I wanted to make a show that felt like life, that was funny when it needed to be funny and was sad when it needed to be sad, and a show that had twists and turns. Honestly, just like life does. There are things that happen on a weekly basis, that happened to me on a weekly basis that make me think, if I wrote this nobody would believe it. And so I just wanted to try to make a show that reflected where I was. And where I was, was on this emotional roller coaster.
What was grief's role in the friendship between Jen and Judy?
I think Jen and Judy are very different types of women. They look at the world differently, they approach their day-to-day lives completely differently, but they had this incredible shared bond in grief. There's a power in commiserating with somebody who really understands what you're going through emotionally. You don't need to have background with each other. You don't need to know every little thing about the other person. But you know where their heart is, and that's an incredible connection. And that's what I was trying to explore with their relationship.
Before the twist of episode 1, I fully expected some kind of, like, romance to happen between the women. Was that a lead-on or was I projecting?
I mean, I'm conscious of it because I'm a lesbian. And I knew that if I was watching this relationship blossom and unfold, that's what I would be thinking. I didn't mind the misdirect, just because there is an intimacy, there is a romance in friendship. Or at least there can be. Especially when you're first meeting somebody that you have a really profound kind of unspoken connection with.
There's a romance in that, and I don't see that often portrayed in friendships, especially female friendships on TV or in film. But it's so often that female friendships are laced with this, like, cattiness or the competition, and I wanted to show the true heart connection that you can have in friendship. And I didn't mind if people thought maybe that's where it was going. And I figured at least a small part of the audience that knows me and knows my work and knows my perspective and paradigm, I figured that's what some people would think.
I think that's part of the fun of the show is that nothing really is what you think it is. Everything kind of turns on you.
Why are nuanced female friendships still so rare to see on TV?
You know, I don't know. My guess is because so much of what you see on television is written from a male perspective. Maybe I'm just blessed to have some really incredible deep friendships in my own life that I can draw upon and take inspiration from. And that's what I did. I mean, that friendship that you see in Dead to Me is inspired by my closest relationships with my female friends.
One of my best friends was a writer on the show and we've known each other most of our lives, and so much of what you see is based on us. And it's from a real place. And I don't know, maybe not enough writers have wanted to explore friendship from a nonsalacious point of view, just to explore the, like, beauty and simplicity of two people who really connect.
Who better to tell our stories than us?
Every episode of Dead to Me is directed by a woman or a gay man. Was that purposeful?
It was just my absolute demand that all the directors were women or members of the LGBTQ community. Every single writer in that room was either a woman — there was one straight man [Anthony King], but he had lost his mother at a young age and he just was able to lend something so personal to the story that it just felt like he needed to be there. And then every other writer was a woman or Abe Sylvia, who's the gay man. And I got to choose those things. I got to choose the writers, I got to choose the directors, and it was very intentional. I wanted the show to be seen through a female lens, from a female perspective, because that's who I wanted it to be for.
This is really a show for women, and it's amazing that men have seemed to really connect with it as well. No offense to men, but this was really like my ode to women.
With women running the set, was the vibe different than others you've been on previously?
What's funny is that, this is going to sound a little crazy, but I had never really been on a set like this. I come from multicamera television. Multicamera television is a very different beast. And no, I had never been on a set that was run by women, directed by women, starring women. And I don't think our two stars had ever been on a set like that either. It was new for all of us. It was like this entirely fresh way of making TV, and very early on both Christina and Linda sort of looked around and they thought ... they'd never had an experience like this. They'd never been on a show that was created by, run by, and directed by women. And I don't want to speak for them, but I remember them looking around with incredible feeling ... I know that it felt like we were doing something special. To all of us.
And I really am very mindful of fostering a very supportive set. I lead from love, and I think that that carries through every day on set. Hopefully, everybody's all comfortable, like they could say anything they needed to at any time. Both Linda and Christina are producers on the show, so they were empowered to make this as good of an experience for themselves as they could, and it was, it was really an incredible experience making this show together. And I think so much of that is because we just worked really well together. There was just a ton of mutual respect.
The first two episodes, the pilot and the second episode, were directed by Amy York Rubin, who is also gay. And my right-hand person on set was Abe Sylvia, who is also gay. So, especially during the beginning of production, like basically everybody in charge was a gay person.
And, though the show isn't queer in story, I hope that you can feel there's like just some queer blood running through the veins of the show. But yeah, I very intentionally... One of the first lines in the show is Judy saying, "I think gay is beautiful," because I wanted to just get it out there from the very beginning of like, that's the ethos here.
How can we keep the ball rolling on diverse storytelling and get more shows like this one that we haven't seen before?
Listen, I was definitely blessed with some kind of otherworldly luck on this show. But I will say, that because I allowed myself to tell a story that was real, not autobiographical per se, but real, the feelings represented are real. It was cathartic for me to write this; it's coming from a very vulnerable place. I think that if more writers maybe would let themselves crack open and tell their deepest truths, we might see more stories that we connect with like this.
But I also, at the same time, I have to credit, I have to credit the studio I work with: CBS Studios and Netflix for giving me the platform to tell the story. It's one thing to come up with a story to decide to, you know, to decide to dig deep and tell something that really expressed a piece of you. But then you need those partners who will give you the shot to show that story to the world.
And if this show ends up striking a chord and becomes successful, hopefully it will inspire more shows like it.
Dead to Me is on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below: