Sometimes in a movie or a television show, the play is not the thing that catches a viewer’s interest, but the players. In old Hollywood, when there were only movies to obsess over, the headline teaming of stars was itself a selling point — the film was just a sort of delivery system, or maybe a stew pot.
It still happens sometimes, in big and little ways. “Dead to Me,” which begins streaming in its Binge Me entirety Friday on Netflix, brings together two excellent actresses who got known on television playing teenagers, and who have not, as far as I can tell, worked together before: Christina Applegate, whose last TV series was the two-season parenting comedy “Up All Night” (2011-12), and whose 21st-century career might be seen as recovery from a decade on “Married With Children,” and Linda Cardellini, the sweetheart of “Freaks and Geeks,” Don Draper’s neighborly lover in “Mad Men” and most recently a regular on the dysfunctional family drama, “Bloodlines.”
“Yes!” I can hear you say. Or was that me?
Applegate plays Jen, a Laguna Beach real estate agent whose husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver; three months on, she is still angry about it. Her older son (Sam McCarthy), is angry too, throwing up walls and acting out; her younger son (Luke Roessler) is cheerful but anxious and needy. In an attempt to move forward, she visits a grief support group, Friends of Heaven, where she is approached by Judy (Cardellini), who would like to give her a hug; Jen would like not to be hugged.
In the time-honored, time-worn tradition of fictional opposites, they will complete each other. Jen, guarded and cynical, except where her kids are concerned. Judy, who teaches art at an assisted living facility, is an incense-and-peppermints type whose openness to the universe does not allay her nerves. In quick small steps they bond, drinking wine, eating cookies and discussing which “Facts of Life” character they resemble. Jen enlists Judy in her search for the driver of the car that killed her husband.
Also in the mix: Keong Sim as Pastor Wayne, who runs the support group; Diana Maria Riva as a police detective; Brandon Scott as a person who wanders into Judy’s life; James Marsden as a person formerly in Judy’s life; and Ed Asner as Judy’s friend at the retirement home.
Given that the pilot ends with a twist (as other subsequent episodes will), it’s hard to be more specific without giving too much away; and there is some pleasure, after all, in getting those gifts without the wrapping torn. Still, some of these shocking revelations will seem so obvious in retrospect that you will be ashamed not to have thought of them before, and keener minds than mine well may.
Creator Liz Feldman’s roots are in comedy (“2 Broke Girls,” Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show), and Funny or Die overlords Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are among the series’ producers, alongside Jessica Elbaum (“I’m Sorry”). Amy York Rubin, who directed the first two episodes, is the creator and star of two first-rate, funny web comedies, “Little Horribles” and “Boxed In.”
Notwithstanding two lead characters on the verge of collapse, the mood is light and a little absurd — with a little adjustment it could be refitted as a season of “Fargo.” There are satirical doodads throughout — a Palm Springs Grief Retreat where participants sing Carry-On-Oke; a children’s pop church choir called the Holy Harmonizers, whose repertoire includes a take on Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” (“I believe in miracles / You sacred thing”); an ethnically ambiguous restaurant. But the show doesn’t really aim for laughs. (Or perhaps it aims harder than I think.) It’s a noir thriller with feelings, and not just desires, which is what makes it a little different, and most interesting.
There are perhaps a few too many ironic lines uttered by a character ignorant of what another character (and the audience) knows; certain themes are more heavily reinforced than necessary. And the pattern of tension, partial release of tension and ratcheting up of tension can feel repetitious if you watch too many episodes at once. (There are 10 in all.) Jen will learn something about Judy, for example, and get angry, and Judy will offer an explanation that might be true or partly true or metaphorically true, and they will be friends once more. And then it’ll happen all over again. Or Judy will say to Jen, “I have to tell you something,” and it will be something other than what you expect, and a new twist will be introduced.
“Don’t turn this into some ‘blame the man’ thing,” a man will say late in the series, which might be read as a kind of disclaimer for the series as a whole: Although not every male character is deserving of blame — or every woman above it — men are the ultimate source of our imperfect heroines’ sorrows. (The lone toxic female, Jen’s mother-in-law, played with pastel cunning by Valerie Mahaffey, is in some sense an extension of her late son — so, men again.)
Still, this is less a story of bad dudes and the damage they do — or even of good dudes and they damage they don’t do — than one of female friendship forged in fire. Most everything of value in the series happens in the space defined by Applegate and Cardellini, and all a concerned viewer wants is for them to stay friends and be OK, when there are many reasons they should not.
‘Dead to Me’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd