Second seasons are tricky, especially in this locked-in binge era. You decide to check out a series, find you can’t look away, and four hours later, you’ve seen it all. Then you wait a whole year to see more episodes. Can anything live up to that kind of anticipation?
Well, Fleabag did. It exceeded expectations, in fact, even after a three year wait. After Life met high epectations with a moving and funny Year Two.
Which brings us to Dead to Me, a series I really enjoyed last year. Christina Applegate, as grieving mom and widow Jen, was a revelation in a role that demanded skilled comedy and drama chops. Linda Cardellini, as Jen’s out-of-nowhere, messed-up, surrogate BFF Judy, was not far behind.
Emmy Award-winning creator Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls) wrote a sneaky and complex tale about murder, lies and friendship. Each first season episode ended on a WTF cliffhanger. It made great use of Netflix’s trap of racing you past end credits and straight into the next episode before anybody can reach for the remote.
CAUTION, SPOILERS AHEAD: The second season picks up right after the first left off. (Kudos to this show and to After Life for providing a recap –it’s even skipable — of how the first season ended). Without giving anything away, Jen is still smack dab at the scene of the crime.
A relentlessly nosy neighbour walks into Jen’s backyard and starts cross examining. Cranking up the tension is essential with this kind of heightened storytelling, but I don’t remember it seeming as forced in Season One. This happens a few times in season two, with even the younger actors in on the full court press, backing Jen and Judy up against a freezer and other crime corners.
There is the predicament of a body to dispose of, and this gets sloppy. There is a look-a-like character who is very much in the middle of things this season. He’s well-played (by James Marsden), but the device just seems stolen from daytime soaps. Some will probably find this all part of the fun. I just feel it wasn’t as obvious in Season One.
It also feels like the tone is off in 2020. Feldman balanced soap opera and comedy amazingly well in Season One — no easy task.
While there are still some audacious cliffhangers — especially one involving police detective Ana Perez (Diana-Maria Riva) — there’s a lot of business where people seem to get off too easily. Some settings that were key last season, such as at the long term care centre where Judy semi-works and at the beach-side therapy group where Jen seeks help — seem tacked on in the new episodes.
One or two new characters are introduced, but, again, some of their scenes seemed like Feldman needed B stories to get to ten episodes. Katie Sagal does a brief turn as Judy’s slammer momma. While Sagal is always welcome, she’s so powerful she takes you out of the story.
What remains is still often fun and intriguing. The whole question of how there are no good characters or bad characters but just a world full of grey characters is always worth exploring. Most importantly, Dead to Me is still grounded by a towering performance by Applegate. She somehow makes the character sympathetic and forgivable despite all that smoking, drinking and manslaughter.
There is, of course, a crazy ass convergence of things that sets up a third season. It suggests a new way to push restart and to have all the characters set up at another starting gate. This is one other reason why Dead to Me is it’s own hard act to follow. It is difficult for shows that are really miniseries to keep up the surprises year-after-year.
Prison Break was another such series. At the end of a terrific first season, it set up a whole new, second angle featuring the same characters. That led to diminishing returns for Prison Break, proving that there are only so many ways you can re-use a T-Bag.
Netflix has not yet announced a third season for Dead to Me but I bet they do, giving Feldman one more crack at this high wire act. Wishing her luck.