Netflix's 'Dead To Me' Creator Explains the Real-Life Inspiration Behind the 'Traumedy'
This post contains major spoilers for the first season of Dead To Me.
The story of how your latest Netflix obsession, Dead To Me, spawned is quickly becoming a tragicomedy legend all its own: Comedian Liz Feldman was invited to a pitch meeting with some producers, who were supposed to talk about ideas they had for her. But Feldman was blindsided; they asked if she had an original pitch because they were tired of talking about their own ideas. Ill-prepared, she ad-libbed something about a widow (who would later be cast as Christina Applegate) who meets another widow (Linda Cardellini) at a grief support group. But really, that second widow is a liar. Her man isn't dead; he just broke up with her.
The idea was a hit. Perhaps it was so inspired because it came during a raw, painful time in Feldman's life -- her cousin, David, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack on the day of her 40th birthday, and she was trying to get pregnant (on fertility hormones) for the fifth year. The resulting show became the Netflix discovery of the spring, a twisty, self-proclaimed "traumedy" about grief and loss, with character reveals that will keep you engaged until the bitter end. In other words, a far cry from what the comedian used to do.
"I grew up with The Facts of Life, Family Ties, and The Show About The Huxtables That Shall Remain Nameless," Feldman told Thrillist. "I always wanted to work in multi-cam, as a joke writer, but then, once I was in year seven or eight of that, I wanted to tell more serialized stories that could have depth and didn't rely on laugh tracks."
Dead To Me is the kind of story Feldman's always wanted to tell -- one that's atonal and genre-nonconforming, the kind of thing that has a dark patina, but you can't help but laugh at it. If you think it's weird, Feldman wouldn't blame you. After all, the show is supposed to be her reflection of how weird life can be. Following the show's release, we called Feldman to talk tone, tricky bird co-stars, Reddit fan theories, and Season 2.
Thrillist: How much did the idea for Dead To Me evolve from your initial brain-vomit pitch to what we have today?
Liz Feldman: Honestly, as if from the ether, the idea [for the show] dropped into my head. When I said it, [the producers] were like, "That's pretty good!" And I was like, "Oh, OK!" I left the meeting thinking that was very weird -- that I had pulled this thing out of nowhere and they wanted to hear more. So I kept developing the idea, layer by layer. It was only a couple days later that it occurred to me that if I really allowed myself to make this show about something -- I've done multi-camera sitcoms for the last decade, so there isn't always a lot of room for meaning in shows like that; they're more about a situation than they are about a theme, you know? It would be a show about loss, because that's what I was going through at the time. Once I leaned into that, the other layers started to come. Then, the producers lost interest.
Why is that?
Feldman: They were looking for two actresses they had in mind. I imagine those actresses lost interest or didn't feel it was the right project for them. So then I got to take this fully fleshed-out pitch to CBS Studios, where I have a deal, and they were immediately on board.
In your original pitch, James Marsden's character Steve wasn't supposed to die. What was supposed to happen at the end of Season 1?
Feldman: I'm not going to say because it's something we could still use in future seasons, but my concept of who the Steve character was evolved in the writers room. Once I was working with all these really talented [writers] and we started fleshing him out, we saw an opportunity to take a big swing at the end. Abe Sylvia, my co-EP on the show, had the idea for Jen to kill Steve. When it was first pitched to me, I was speechless, but there was such a palpable energy in the writers' room when he brought it up that it was undeniable -- just a very exciting way to end the season.
It was a little scary because we had decided that [ending] long before we cast James Marsden. So we didn't know who this person was going to be, how they were going to pop, how they were going to work with the others -- we hadn't even cast [stars Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini] at that point. That's what's crazy about the binge model: You get 10 episodes, you write them in one fell swoop, and then you produce them all at once. So you get on this storytelling train, and you're on the track. It's very hard to switch lanes at that point.
What was James' reaction when he learned he was going to die?
Feldman: When I first spoke to James, I pitched him the entire season. He had a lot to digest, but I remember he was intrigued at the idea of playing a likable, complicated asshole. He was interested because Steve wasn't all bad. Steve still had a glimmer of humanity. The only thing I didn’t tell James was he was going to have to float face down in a pool because we were still figuring out the exact path of his demise. But as soon as he read the script, in his usual incredibly sweet and enthusiastic manner, he was excited. We shot that scene at 3am. It was cold, we were all exhausted, but, as always, James was an incredible sport with an amazing attitude -- not to mention a very convincing, handsome dead guy.
You guys have called Dead To Me a "traumedy" because there's so much traumatic stuff that happens -- but then there's humor to balance it out. How were you using the comedy as a way to cope with or understand your own grief?
Feldman: What you're watching in Dead To Me is very much through my lens -- how I approach life. I'm a comedian, so my way of handling grief and loss is to feel it and go through it, but also to find the moments that are funny. Inevitably, there's something funny in almost every dark thing. If you can find a way to laugh at it, we all know that that helps. It's my coping mechanism.
All these characters had their own specific coping mechanisms. How did you pinpoint those?
Feldman: What you see in Jen and Judy represents my own duality. With Jen, her anger, her frustration, her pain -- it comes out in jagged ways. When I feel hurt, that's how I wish I could act. I think so many women relate to that desire to be angry and that desire to allow ourselves to be unfiltered, when, in reality, especially as women, it's really not acceptable to be angry. There's something very scary about an angry woman, which is exactly why I wanted to portray one.
With Judy, she represents someone who comes from a place of love, someone who wants to do good no matter the circumstance -- even if the circumstance is a horror she created. So with her, I wanted to explore that guilt she feels, the responsibility she has to take on to better Jen's life because of how much worse she's made it. And in terms of Jen's sons, it's very different than how adults handle that grief. They don't have the same context or tools to process grief, so we wanted to find simple but authentic ways to show the grief of the kids as well.
Like the most underrated star of the show: Henry's Bird Friend.
Feldman: We felt the same way on set. I don't know if there are Bird Emmys, but that bird should at least be nominated.
How do you choreograph a scene with a tiny bird? And where did that idea come from?
Feldman: It's very technically difficult to film a scene with a bird. There was a lot of conversation about how we were going to get that done. What we ended up doing was shooting it with plates, which means you shoot in a split-screen kind of way. Not to take that magic away -- there were a few occasions where [Henry and the bird] are actually in frame together, but for the most part, it was split screen.
In the writers' room, we talked a lot about what we were calling "death magic," this desire to feel connection between those who have passed on and those who are still here. Like for me, when I see a butterfly, I feel like it's my grandmother saying "hi." When I say that out loud, I can see that that makes me sound like a crazy person, but I just know when I see a butterfly I always feel connected to my grandmother. Even if that's something we make up in our heads, if it makes us feel better, great.
I also enjoyed Jen's metalcore meditation. How did you pick the songs for that?
Feldman: I found that when I was writing the pilot. It's a Caliban song. We've had a lot of loss in my family, and I have some close family members who lost their father. When the son was in his teen years, he got really into heavy metal. I'd always wondered if he had ever really processed his grief about losing his dad -- it was interesting to me that he got into this extremely emotional music. So I thought that that would be an interesting thing to give Jen because her anger is the only emotion she feels comfortable expressing. I'm so glad you liked that because that was one of the things I really had to fight for.
Really? Why? That first cut-to is hilarious.
Feldman: Yeah, and I didn't have to fight for much. I think it was just because heavy metal is so generally off-putting to so many people, so there was some concern it was going to be off-putting. I had to just keep saying, "Yeah, that's the point!"
The show shifts, tonally, episode to episode and moment to moment, and it seems some critics have had trouble wrapping their heads around that -- as they did with other dark dramedies like Friends From College -- so what were the conversations about tone like in the writers room?
Feldman: Yeah, I know some people have had a hard time digesting our atonal qualities and the fact we're a genre-nonconforming show. There wasn't a rule of thumb, like, Now we're going to do this kind of thing, now we're going to do comedy. It was always, What would be the authentic thing this character would do in the moment? And in terms of there being twists and turns, for me, that mirrors the relentlessness of life, the weird shit that happens. Where you're like, If I wrote this, nobody would believe me. It's fun to put your characters through that and watch it.
The relentlessness of life makes me think of the moment when Abe dies.
Feldman: From the very beginning, it was in my plan for Abe to die. It's a show about grief and loss. So I purposely put in a character who's 89 years old, who Judy has this really special relationship with. We have friends, whether they're 36 or 89, and the one fact of life, as we all know, is everybody dies. It's funny to me people are surprised Abe dies because if anything is predictable on the show, it should have been that.
Linda's line in that scene -- "No, I didn't get to say goodbye" -- was unscripted. What was it like shooting that scene?
Feldman: If I remember correctly, we shot that scene on the last night of production. Whenever we were shooting, I asked the director not to yell "cut!" until I felt like scenes were over -- even if the dialogue is over, that doesn't mean the scene's over. So there's a lot of dialogue in the show that's improvised. It's just a thing we found early on: Christina and Linda were able to channel these women in a really effortless way.
Sometimes the improv is in the middle of a scene. Like in Episode 2, when they're in that opening scene, sitting at the table, Jen is trying to figure out how long Judy's going to stay, and they haven't really talked about it. All I said was, "Do a little back-and-forth, where it's a little awkward and you're not sure." And then they improvised that, and it was hilarious.
So I would just ask the director to let the camera go because I knew they were going to add something. Some of my favorite moments ended up being those improvised moments because they were funny, but also in [the Abe] case because they could be heartbreaking. That just came out of Linda. I don't know where it came from, but it certainly felt like it came from a very deep, real place.
Christina suggested the reference to Jen's double mastectomy be added in the middle of filming. How did that come about, and how did you adjust to it script-wise?
Feldman: I think it was Episode 4 where it first comes up. She got the script, and we would often talk on the weekends -- how the week was, how it all went, what was coming up. So we were talking one weekend, and she was like, "There's a reason two people grow apart. There's a reason a fracture occurs. What if Jen had a double mastectomy?"
I was so blown away that she would be willing and open and generous enough to want to portray that. Obviously, it's so close to home for her, but it's not just close to home for her. It's resonant for so many women. I think she knew that, and she was like, "I never see this talked about on TV or in film." I was immediately like, "Yep, how do I find a way to incorporate that, but incorporate it in a way that feels like another layer of her character being revealed and not like something we were hitting you over the head with?"
It's not like [the revelation comes in] a very special episode. It's just part of who she is. In getting to know Judy, it's a part of herself that Jen chooses to reveal very casually, in conversation, at the restaurant where they're confronting [the woman, Bambi, who slept with Jen's husband]. So we felt like the more effortless we made it, the more conversational it was in the fabric of the show and, in some ways, the more powerful it would be. You can imagine when we were shooting those scenes, it was absolutely heartbreaking and riveting and beautiful.
And in terms of the scripts, it really elevated the conversation. It fit in seamlessly, as if it was always meant to be in there.
Another late addition was Judy saying, "It's OK!" every time Steve apologizes to her. Where did that come from?
Feldman: That's another one we found in the moment. We were shooting the scene in Episode 3, where Steve comes to tell Judy he's revoking the restraining order. So when we were shooting that, Abe was directing, and I kept hearing in my head -- it wasn't in the script -- him saying, "I'm sorry," and her saying, "It's OK." I thought it was so funny, but also so indicative of the dynamic between two people in a really unhealthy relationship. We tried it, and it clicked immediately. It was almost never scripted. It was always on the day. We'd be like, "Oh, it'll sit right here!" So if it feels spontaneous it's because it was.
Have you seen Dead To Me's subreddit yet? I saw--
Feldman: What does that mean? I don't even know what that means, to be totally honest.
You guys have made it! More than 1,300 people are discussing Dead To Me episodes and theories online.
Feldman: Oh my God.
It's great. Someone over there pointed out a fun Scooby Doo Easter egg --
Feldman: Do tell! Because I'm not sure I know it.
In Episode 8, when Linda is sitting in the backseat of Judy's car and she says, "These businesses are all downtown. So why don't you guys drop me off and then I'll check these out." And Nick is like, "Hmm, safer if we stick together." Was the talk of splitting up a nod to Linda's role as Velma in the live-action Scooby Doo?
Feldman: [Laughs.] Well, gosh, I don't wanna dash anybody's theories. The greatest compliment is that people are seeing things in the show that I didn't even realize were in there! I will be honest and tell you -- and Linda knows this -- I've never seen her Scooby Doo movie. So it was not intentional, but hey, maybe it was subliminal.
Do you already know what a hypothetical Season 2 looks like?
Feldman: Yes, when I pitched this idea, I had to pitch what the arc of Season 2 would be and how we would keep the stories going from there. Aspects of it have changed because Season 1 grew as we wrote it. But I have some pretty fun and dark ideas for Season 2. [Judy and Jen's] relationship has only gotten more complicated. They're in a bit of a role reversal, but more than that, in some pretty fucked up ways, they need each other now more than they ever did. That was, for me, the selling point of how we ended Season 1. Instead of it being Judy who has a secret, now they have a secret together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.