TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow, Netflix presents a new 10-part series, a very dark comedy called "Dead To Me." It's about two women who meet at a therapy group to deal with grief issues. They're played by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. And our TV critic David Bianculli says these actresses, like their characters and this new TV series, offer up one delightful surprise after another.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Based on their breakout roles as young actresses, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, the stars of Netflix's wonderful new "Dead To Me," couldn't be more different. Applegate became a star playing clueless, self-absorbed teen sexpot Kelly Bundy on "Married... With Children," the crass sitcom that helped launch the Fox Network back in the '80s.
Cardellini, on the other end of the TV and comedy spectrum, starred as the sardonic outcast Lindsay, the central character in NBC's "Freaks And Geeks," at the end of the '90s. "Married... With Children" lasted a decade. "Freaks And Geeks" was canceled after one brilliant season, but its reputation lives on. So does its influence because "Freaks And Geeks" was the spawning ground for Judd Apatow and his entire comedy world. That world includes, of course, the movie comedy hit "Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy," which was produced by Apatow, starred Applegate and Will Ferrell and was directed by Adam McKay. Ferrell and McKay are the executive producers of "Dead To Me," re-teaming with Applegate and pairing her with Cardellini, who's since had memorable roles on "ER," "Mad Men" and the current "Avengers: Endgame" film.
The other key contributor here is Liz Feldman, the writer-producer who created "Dead To Me." Her credits include the CBS sitcom "2 Broke Girls," but "Dead To Me" is so, so much better than that. It's her career-best work, and it's the career-best work for Applegate and Cardellini, too.
Applegate stars as Jen, a recent widow with two young boys and a long string of anger issues. She's still dealing with the sudden death of her husband and, in the very first scene, defines her character with withering sarcasm when a married neighbor in her southern California suburb shows up at her front door with a gift. It's a sort of sympathy casserole - a ready-made meal - and Jen accepts it, but not very graciously.
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SUZY NAKAMURA: (As Karen) So you just heat it up at 300 and leave it in for 35 minutes.
CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Thanks, Karen. You really don't have to...
NAKAMURA: (As Karen) It's my take on Mexican lasagna.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Great.
NAKAMURA: (As Karen) It's nothing. We just don't want you to think you're alone. Jeff and I are here for you if you ever want to talk.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Thanks.
NAKAMURA: (As Karen) I just can't imagine what you're going through.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Well, it's like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently - like that.
NAKAMURA: (As Karen) Right.
BIANCULLI: Jen has so much seething resentment. She visits a grief therapy group where she meets Judy, a woman with her own issues of loss. She's played by Linda Cardellini. And while Judy is receptive to the soothing words of guidance from the group's pastor, Jen is a lot less open to the entire concept of emotional healing.
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KEONG SIM: (As Pastor Wayne) So last week, we started talking about the F word - forgiveness. Forgiveness can be very difficult, and it can take time, even a lifetime. But no matter what the circumstances, everyone is deserving of forgiveness.
LINDA CARDELLINI: (As Judy) Do you really think that?
SIM: (As Pastor Wayne) Jesus thought that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Amen.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Excuse me, how do you forgive someone who hits your husband with their car and then drives away, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road? How do you forgive that?
BIANCULLI: Yet somehow, Judy cracks through Jen's shell, and the two end up spilling secrets and answering each other's questions in an increasingly intimate all-night spontaneous phone conversation, as when Judy keeps encouraging Jen to talk about her late husband.
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CARDELLINI: (As Judy) Did your husband really like running? I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about him if you don't want to.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) No, no. He liked running, came to it later in life. He was 40.
CARDELLINI: (As Judy) What made him start?
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) He was getting doughy.
CARDELLINI: (As Judy) Oh, yeah. Men get that middle-aged man puff.
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) Yeah. I mean, he had a full-on beer belly. He was getting a beer neck.
CARDELLINI: (As Judy) A beer neck?
APPLEGATE: (As Jen) So he started running. I was proud of him. He was in the best shape of his life when the car hit him.
BIANCULLI: By the time the sun comes up and the women hang up, Jen and Judy are close friends, and "Dead To Me" seems set on the path to becoming a redeeming, heartwarming buddy comedy. But this is where Liz Feldman starts defying expectations in a way that is so unexpected, so creative and so effective that I don't even want to reveal what happens.
Let me put it this way. You know the Season 1 cliffhanger that pulled the rug from under NBC's "The Good Place" and redefined everything? "Dead To Me" pulls off a similarly stunning switcheroo in the very first episode more than once. And by the time the first season's 10 episodes are over - and I've seen and loved them all - you're likely to be amazed by the journey these characters and this show have taken.
"Dead To Me" also includes dynamic supporting work from James Marsden and, in a small but very touching and effective role, Ed Asner. But this series belongs to its two female leads, and they're incredibly good. Both Applegate and Cardellini play their scenes vulnerable and intensely and embody fully believable characters. When they share the screen, whether they're bonding or arguing, "Dead To Me" becomes something truly special like BBC America's "Killing Eve," Netflix's "Dead To Me" is a terrific character study of two women with an extremely complicated relationship, and also like that show, is one of the best and most unpredictable series on television this season.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of the "Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." He reviewed the new Netflix series "Dead To Me." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with actor Patricia Arquette, or with Erin Carr, a documentary filmmaker and daughter of the late New York Times media columnist David Carr, or with journalist Oliver Bullough, who investigated how oligarchs, kleptocrats and crooks hide their money, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SACKVILLE ALL STARS' "ROSALIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.