Christina Applegate is the ultimate Hollywood kid, to parents ‘in the business,’ her father was a record producer and her mother a singer and actress. As a slim, pretty blonde, Applegate could have been a cliche of a screen actress, but she has always managed to throw something wry, acidic or offbeat into the mix.
“I was a dark kid,” Applegate told the LA Times in a 2016 interview. “I always thought serious projects were going to be my jam. But (Married with Children) really helped me to let go of being so serious all the time. If I look back over everything, I think the throughline is in strong characters with ambition. And I love a good dirty joke,” she adds.
Married with Children (1987-97) was the Fox Network’s first sitcom and Applegate was cast as Ed Bundy’s ditzy, sexually promiscuous daughter. She has consistently been favoured by critics for noteworthy performances even in slight projects, including guest starring in TV series like the police drama Heart of the City, the iconic Friends and a starring role in the NBC sitcom Jesse (1998), which gained her a Golden Globe nomination.
Her first starring role in a mainstream movie was as a rebellious teenager in the black comedy Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991). She played alongside Will Ferrell in Anchorman (2004 and reprised in 2013) and says she ‘had a free rein with the character.’ Of Bad Moms (2016), she said: “we’re living in this society that puts so much pressure on us to be perfect and the whole premise of the movie is if one day you just go ‘I can’t be perfect.’ I loved being able to play this incredibly evil woman who represents a lot of things you see out there in the world from these very type-A moms who have a lot of judgment.”
Applegate also showed her singing and dancing skills in a run of Sweet Charity on Broadway and, fun fact, was a founding member of The Pussycat Dolls. She came through a public battle with breast cancer and is a vegetarian and anti-fur activist.
All in all, Applegate is a veteran with a range of skills and subtlety at her fingertips. Her lead role in the latest Netflix Original, Dead to Me picks up all these threads. There’s light sharp comedy at the core of this ‘odd couple’ format. Applegate is Jen, an uptight, recently widowed real estate agent who meets Judy (Linda Cardellini), a free spirited but chaotic woman at a grief forum for the recently bereaved.
Set in California with a backdrop of blue skies and palm trees and the nostalgic music of perfect summers, eg the Beach Boys, the set-up counterpoints the characters’ struggle with loss and the darker side of life.
The strength of the series is that you can take it on a number of levels. It’s a chick flick as the women bond over TV and cookies, a light comedy with a sardonic edge and elements of farce and slapstick. Judy has two sons, one a surly teenager played with the right degree of moodiness by Sam McCarthy.
Poignant themes of loneliness and sadness are handled with a light touch but never dismissively. And there are so many tight, often shocking, twists and turns to the plot, it’s impossible to review with examples without giving the game, or rather many games, away.
The series was created by writer / producer Liz Feldman, who got her break with Ellen Degeneres when she was a writer on The Ellen Show from 2005. She created This Just Out, described as ‘Your favorite lesbionic kitchen table talk show’ after gaining success with The Great Indoors (2016) and 2 Broke Girls (2011). She also wrote and produced One Big Happy (2015), a comedy loosely based on Feldman’s own experience of being gay and seeking to have a baby. “People are thirsty for fresh voices and stories they don’t hear all the time.” Feldman told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think audiences want to feel represented. We have a very diverse nation, and you want to watch TV and feel like some part of you is being represented. This is why I really like working in television because outside of being a politician (which seems like a nightmare) and being a public advocate, how else do you create or try to manifest any change? I feel like television does it first, which is amazing.”
These ideas underpin Dead to Me, gently unpicking the model of stereotypical relationships and human needs, and casting a wry look at the main characters’ frailties, manipulations and compromises as they try to negotiate shifting boundaries. Many family groups are not the ‘perfect’ nuclear model, so outside of that where do we get support, resolve loss and define ourselves?
Coincidentally, it was Applegate’s role as a woman working in real estate that earned her Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy win for best comedy actress. Samantha Who ran for three seasons 2007-09 and was a break-out for the comedic talent of Melissa McCarthy. Like Jen in Dead to Me, Samantha is forced to start life over after a horrific hit-and-run accident, but in Sam’s case she loses her memory. In Dead to Me, the hit-and-run accident takes Jen’s husband’s life and the first episodes see her obsessed with trying to find the driver who killed her husband, confront her grief and find a new support system. This is complex, skilled comedy with a recipe of dark themes handled with a light touch. As Feldman says, “My only agenda is to make people laugh.”