The dark comedy Dead to Me debuted on Netflix in 2019 and returned for a second season this past May, earning its first Emmy bid for Best Comedy Series. The show has been renewed by Netflix for a third and final season. I had the chance to speak with creator Liz Feldman about how she sees the show, her favorite recurring players, and a few cryptic hints about what’s next for Jen and Judy. Beware substantial spoilers for season one and minor spoilers for season two.
Q: Dead to Me competes at awards shows as a comedy series. While I do find myself laughing while watching it, there are also some very intense and dramatic moments, especially in season two. How do you feel about its classification as a comedy?
A: Well, I feel like we’re working with what’s available to us in terms of the way in which we look at television. We’re still in quite a binary field of view in looking at genre. Dead to Me, along with many other shows on TV, is really defying the confines of comedy and drama, and forging our own way into what I call a genre-nonconforming template. Perhaps one day the different awards shows will evolve their way of thinking along with us. For now, it’s comedy and drama, and we do obviously have quite a bit of comedy in our drama. It’s half an hour, and because of that, it gets automatically put into the comedy categories. I do think of it as a comedy, but also as a drama, a thriller, a mystery, and a few other things thrown in there too.
Q: Both season one and season two were such rollercoasters. What can we expect in season three?
A: You can expect to be hopefully surprised and moved and delighted and entertained.
Q: Do you have a favorite character?
A: I don’t. They’re all like my children. Honestly, I think all of the writers love the character of Shandy. She’s Henry’s friend, the macabre little girl who comes in and out of the show. She’s definitely one of our favorites because she’s such a fun and specific person. She can kind of say anything and show up at any time. The actress, Adora, is just awesome. But no, I don’t really have a favorite. When people ask me if I’d do a spinoff, I say yes, it’s Shandy.
Q: I appreciate the casting of great actors in recurring roles, like Natalie Morales, Suzy Nakamura, and Marc Evan Jackson. Will we see any of them again, and do you have any other favorite guest stars?
A: Truly, our casting directors, Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott, do an incredible job of finding these actors that fit so seamlessly into our tone, which is tricky. They really have a knack for identifying the right actors for each role. I’ve never been disappointed. Frances Conroy was who we wrote the part of Eileen for, and it’s so rare that you get your first-choice. That was a true dream, since Six Feet Under is one of my favorite shows of all time, and certainly an inspiration for this show. To have her on the show felt like a reward. Having Katey Sagal show up as Judy’s mom felt like a fun, weird and exciting choice. Valerie Mahaffey, who plays Lorna, is someone you’ve seen on TV for so many years. That’s another character we love writing, such a fun point of view, a narcissistic underminer whose pain is greater than everyone else’s.
Q: Did you always envision Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini for the lead roles?
A: No, not necessarily. I wrote the pilot with no one attached to it. I always like to write with certain actors in mind, just as a template. I will never reveal who those people were. I will say that when I did sit down for the first time with our casting directors, the very first name they brought up for Jen was Christina. As a fun bit of side business, we had been developing a show together that was not Dead to Me. It was right before I wrote the pilot, and we decided not to do that show because it was political in nature and the timing didn’t feel right. She was definitely on my radar as someone I really wanted to work with, and so when Sherry and Russell suggested her as literally the first name, it felt very meant to be. Something inside of me said, that has to be right, and I realized that she’s perfect for that part. It never occurred to me when I was writing it, but as soon as her name came up, it just felt right. When Linda’s name got brought up for Judy, it took me a second because I had actually considered her for Jen. She was on our list of dream actresses for Jen. She is someone who I had thought of as more of a dramatic actress. I just hadn’t seen her comedic work. I was a huge fan of Bloodline and knew her from that. When I sat down with her for the first time, it was like we were friends instantly and had known each other for such a long time. She had that quality that I wanted Judy to have, the instant likeability and infallible sweetness that you couldn’t think that this person was capable of something that she actually did.
Q: Let’s talk about James Marsden. He’s terrific. Was the work he did as Steve in season one influential for having him come back as a completely different character in season two, or was that always the intention?
A: The intention was actually just to have him on for one season because that’s all we could get him for, and the character of Steve was only ever meant to be a one-season character – we knew that’s how he was going to meet his end. It wasn’t something I had thought of. It actually is because of James that he ended up coming back. He wrote me an e-mail when season one premiered after getting some really nice feedback that people were enjoying it. He said, why am I Googling if a guy can survive a traumatic brain injury and drowning? It was just so fun to work on the show and I’d love to come back, but I realize I’m dead. It got me thinking because I hadn’t even considered that he would come back because we only had him for one season. As soon as he brought that up, I just started thinking and couldn’t stop, and I went and had lunch with Kelly Hutchinson, one of the writers on the show and one of my best friends. I told her about the e-mail and we both looked at each other at the same time and said, in sync, “Twins?” So it was just an idea that came pretty quickly once he essentially opened the door to it. I knew that if I was going to bring him back, I wanted to give him something fun and challenging and different for him to play. When I started thinking of who that would be and what it would be like to be Steve’s brother, this character started unfolding. Ben is kind of inspired by James not just because he opened the door but because he is an incredibly kind, sweet, and unassuming guy. He’s the groundwork for Ben because he’s a good guy. Steve was a little bit of a piece of shit. I thought it would be really interesting to have James play a character who was a little closer to himself.
Q: I’m particularly interested in the part the police play on this show with Perez and Nick? Will we see them again in season three? How did you decide to incorporate them so deeply into the plot?
A: That’s something I didn’t intend on initially. In developing season one with our writers’ room we realized there was room to bring in these two characters, as long as they fit into this world. I never wanted it to feel like a cop show or a crime show. It needed to feel like a show about real people who happen to be going through this insane situation. Once we cast Brandon and Diana as Nick and Perez, they’re such incredible actors and actresses that it validated our choice to bring in these two characters. Though I didn’t want it to skew too crime-y, they were so interesting that I couldn’t help but keep developing their characters and their storylines. They figure in again is season three. I won’t say too much, but you will see them again. I’m thrilled because I love working with them and writing for them. Especially in season two, with Perez, we wanted to deepen her character. We didn’t want her to just be the two-dimensional tough lady cop, we wanted her to be a real person who has loved and lost and lived through a lot of experiences just like Jen and Judy have. I think she did an incredible job of bringing Perez to life, especially in the finale when you really get to know Perez in a deeper way.
Q: I want to mention that I really enjoyed The Great Indoors, which I know you worked on previously. Do you think that this kind of show is what we’re looking towards in the future or if there is any hope for those laugh-track sitcoms of years past to be the future of comedy?
A: My hope and my belief is that there’s space for all different kinds of show. Dead to Me is in this new school of genre-bending, loose kind of character- and plot-based storytelling. I grew up watching sitcoms, and multi-cams are what made me want to be a writer in the first place. They’re certainly my first love. When they’re done well, they really reach people. Look at The Big Bang Theory – it’s still probably the biggest comedy on network TV of the last fifteen or twenty years. I do think that there is room for it, and especially coming out of this incredibly difficult time we’re in, there’s already a resurgence of nostalgia. I think we’ll keep seeing that, harkening back to things that feel comforting and remind us of a simpler time. I do think that multi-cams and the broader network comedies do fit into that. There is an appetite for it. For myself as a writer, I always like to challenge myself. I want to keep growing and expand my abilities. It was great to start in the multicam format. It’s really challenging to tell a good story in twenty-one-and-a-half minutes. To anyone who does that well, don’t underestimate the talent and skill that it takes to do that. For me, I wanted to have more time to tell the story. When you do half-hour on streaming, it just gives you ten extra minutes, which is an entire act of television. I think that audiences are so savvy that they enjoy a little bit more story development. I think we’ll continue to see these chunky half-hours, as I like to call them, but I hope people will continue to make sitcoms, because I think there’s a place for them. There certainly is in my heart.
Q: I know that you have an overall deal with Netflix. When can we expect season three of this show, and what else can we look forward to soon?
A: I don’t exactly know when you can expect season three. I hope it’s going to be in 2021. That’s certainly my goal. We have not started shooting yet. We are COVID-willing at this point. We do plan to start shooting early next year. It is a process, and takes many months to shoot and to post. I’d say at the very earliest, it would be next fall. That’s my hope, but I can’t make any promises. As for what else I’m working on, all I’ll say is that whatever I do next will be something that will continue to challenge me to grow as a storyteller. I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to do Dead to Me and to make the show I wanted to see, to write something that feels like a real expression of who I am as an artist. I want to continue to dig and see who else is in there and who wants to come out.
Seasons one and two of Dead to Me are available to stream on Netflix.