As social media seemed to drown in testimonies to #friendshipgoals—to celebrate Friendship day—I sat and binged the dark comedy “Dead To Me”, about two literal partners in crime. Created by Liz Feldman, the series has all the ingredients of making a cult classic.
Jen (Christina Applegate) has lost her husband to a hit-and-run accident, and struggles to keep it together for her two sons, Charlie (Sam McCarthy) and Henry (Luke Roessler). At a grief support group, she meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), who has had losses of her own to contend with.
Jen is an angry real estate agent, obsessed with finding out the perpetrator behind her husband’s death. Judy is a compassionate caretaker at an old age home, who just wants her own family. It is gradually revealed that Judy is the driver who caused Jen’s husband’s death. Through the series, we are taken on a roller-coaster ride of how grief is the primordial force that pulls these two characters together. Subverting the slice of life BFF-narratives that pop culture usually serves us, the unlikely friendship that blooms between Jen and Judy becomes the throbbing heart of the series.
At the outset, Jen and Judy remind us of the iconic duo in Thelma & Louise (1991)—a pair of friends(?)-turned-outlaws who evade cops and drive off into the sunset. The producers make a conscious choice to look at the world through the feminist perspective of these lead characters. They are two women in their forties, hence breaking through the ageist trope that life is uneventful once women are on ‘the wrong side of 40’. We see Jen often schooling her adolescent son about misogynistic tropes like calling a woman ‘crazy’ if she expresses anger, and teaching him about consent vis-a-vis sexual encounters. The narrative arc of the Wood twins (James Marsden)—separate romantic interests to Judy and Jen—serves as a reference point for how privilege works for ‘rich white men’. Even the characters of the cops and Judy’s mother (who’s a prison inmate) serve to explore the shortcomings of the prison and policing systems.
While this ploy brings nuance to the plot, the series hits gold with the queer platonic intimacy that develops between Jen and Judy. The presence of queer intimacies disrupt the popular ‘amatonormative’ script that attributes fulfillment in life to finding romantic and or sexual partnerships. While the meat of their dynamic lies in the crimes that they inadvertently commit and try to hide from each other, the friends delve into serious queer platonic territory by deliberately deciding to build a life together.
Within the first few episodes, Judy moves in with Jen and her children. Hereon, their relationship goes through a lot of ups and downs, but they both acknowledge that they survive life’s curve balls due to their mutual support. Their relationship breezes through all the milestones reserved exclusively for ‘couples’. They co-parent Jen’s children like a ‘mothering team’—the children warm up to Judy’s presence steadily. They handle Jen’s household together. They co-manage their finances. They plan and take vacations together. They go through Judy’s medical emergency together. Not to mention they also cover up multiple crimes together—which becomes the source of much of the dark humour. Their friendship becomes a platform of evolution for both the characters. They let their guards down and deepen into a space of rich emotional intimacy. We see them make mutual declarations of their love multiple times, in the most heartfelt of ways.
The theme of ‘chosen families’ runs like an undercurrent through the series, going beyond the partnership the protagonists share. When Judy briefly dates a chef, Michelle (Natalie Morales), it turns out that the latter is still roommates with her ex-partner. Consistent with the show’s penchant for dark humour, the ‘ex’ is revealed to be none other than the investigating cop on Jen’s husband’s case, Ana Perez (Diana-Maria Riva). Michelle explains to Judy that although they are broken up, Perez considers both her and her mother, family. This normalizes queer platonic intimacies as a legitimate form of partnership in the Dead To Me universe.
It is significant to note here that both Jen and Judy find multiple romantic and sexual partnerships through the unfolding of the show’s narrative. The writers deliberately clarify that Jen and Judy are not together out of the miserable loneliness of singlehood, but of their own volition. The characters are often questioned about their commitment to each other, and they chose each other volubly each time. This narrative choice again breaks the heteronormative script of a romantic/sexual intimacy being more important than platonic intimacies.
In fact, the structuring of Jen and Judy’s relationship follows the classic template of romantic comedies where there is an initial ‘meet-cute’, followed by several misunderstandings—Charlie jokes about the friends ‘breaking up’, rather frequently—until the climactic moment of resolution. During one of these moments, the friends choose each other to be their ‘person’ in an exchange that seems a lot like the trading of marital vows.
Dead To Me commits to subverting the notion of ‘relationship hierarchies’, where every relationship pales in comparison to passionate romances between two people. No wonder, the series left me brimming with hope for further possibilities of such nuanced portrayals of queer intimacies in pop media.