It’s been a while since I felt like a show outsmarted me. But “Dead to Me,” Netflix’s new star-studded series, has made me gasp quite a few times. It manages to subvert all my expectations in a way that feels entirely purposeful — and not just for shock value.
This compassionate, thrilling new “traumedy” (that’s what the cast calls it) is one of my new favorites. It’s a must-watch for Jewish mothers, women and TV lovers in general.
And while nothing about the show is explicitly Jewish — aside from an incredible Jewish funeral scene — its creator, Liz Feldman, is. And “Dead to Me” will resonate with Jewish women and moms from all walks of life because of its sensitive handling of wide-ranging topics, from parenting a teen to infertility to breast cancer.
“The story, though not autobiographical, is deeply personal,” Feldman says. “The facts are made up. The feelings are real.”
The show features Christina Applegate as Jen, a real estate agent and mother of two whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Jen is acerbic and sharp, a strong woman but also a woman struggling with rage and overwhelming grief.
At a grief support group, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a quirky and bright yin to her yang. Judy is sweet and attentive to a fault, with tendencies to erase her own needs for others — something wholly familiar to many a Jewish mom.
Judy is an artist who works at a retirement home. Her only other friend is Abe, a Jewish retiree played by the innocently flirtatious Ed Asner. Abe is also unconditionally supportive — he reminds me of every sweet Jewish grandfather I’ve ever met.
Judy and Jen quickly become an odd couple of sorts. But their friendship quickly hits a dramatic roadblock when Jen catches Judy in a big, cavernous lie.
One of my favorite scenes shows how Jen channels her anger about her husband’s death by listening to heavy metal music on full blast in the car. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a powerful portrayal of a mom who is still edgy, even at her most pained.
The problems facing Jen extend beyond her grief: Like Applegate herself, Jen has a double mastectomy because she has a BRCA1 gene mutation (Ashkenazi Jewish women are more likely to have it). While Jen initially shrugs off the mastectomy and surgical reconstruction, the series explores the emotional impact this event can have on a person and on a marriage.
But for Feldman, the creator, it’s Judy’s struggles and losses that are the most profoundly personal. Judy comes to face the fact that she may never become a mother, no matter how hard she tries. This is a story that Feldman knows all too well. She has been trying to get pregnant for the past six years without success, an odyssey she described in Glamour magazine as a “full-on Greek tragedy,” full of “painful procedures, infections and miscarriage.” However, as in the show, Feldman has found a way to look at these moments of profound pain and “see the comic aura around them.”
“Dead to Me” also has a scene that ranks as one of my favorite Jewish TV moments of all time.
Judy is at a Jewish funeral, apparently a first. She lauds the rabbi (Jewish comedian Jenny Kober) for her recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and asks what it means.
“That despite losing somebody we love, we still praise God,” the rabbi responds.
The two talk a bit about loss and faith, and the rabbi tells her that in Judaism, there is no heaven or hell.
“In the Jewish faith,” the rabbi says, “if you’ve hurt someone, you try to make amends, find a way to compensate for what you’ve done wrong.”
That line sends Judy on a journey toward redemption — it’s a beautiful moment and one that really shows how Judaism deals with loss and wrongdoing. It’s not a surprise that the show gets it so right; after all, Feldman once called herself a “big Jew” in an interview and admitted to catching the theater bug during a synagogue Purim play.
Those who try to make amends in the show are rewarded, and those who don’t are living in the dark. But as in life, nobody gets what they want all the time. Here the rewards might not be the ones the characters want or expect, and the moments of happiness may be tainted. But they are nothing if not real.