Liz Feldman has been there and written most of that. The queer creator of Netflix’s dark comedy Dead to Me is new to the realm of buzzy showrunners, but she’s been working in TV for more than two decades, penning material for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, 2 Broke Girls, and the Oscars (she also created One Big Happy, a short-lived NBC sitcom about a lesbian having a baby with her best male friend).
But Dead to Me, which was just renewed for a second season, is a very different beast. It’s the story of Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini), two women who meet in a grief support group. Jen’s husband has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver; Judy’s boyfriend has also died—or so she says. It turns out he’s actually alive (and, better yet, played by James Marsden) but has just broken up with her. Nevertheless, Judy soon ingratiates herself into Jen’s life, even moving into her guest house. The catch: She was the one behind the wheel of the car that killed Jen’s husband, which she’s keeping a secret.
As the series continues, Judy sweats, Jen tries to find the culprit, and the two women help each other move forward with their lives. It turns out that Judy does know about grief—she’s struggled with infertility and had multiple miscarriages—and we soon learn that the series’ twisted premise is really a red herring for an incisive, touching tale about the search for human connection.
Feldman recently talked to NewNowNext about how her personal loss inspired the show, why she finally chose to come out in Hollywood, and what’s in store for Dead to Me Season 2.
The setup for Dead to Me is so clever. Is it true that it came to you spontaneously at a meeting with TV execs?
Yeah. I was at a pitch meeting where I was told I didn’t need to bring any ideas—the people I was there to talk to had a bunch of their own ideas. When I sat down with them, they were like, “We’re sick of our ideas. Do you have any?” And I really did not. I was coming off a really difficult couple of weeks in my life. I had just turned 40. On the day I turned 40, my cousin passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack. Also, I was struggling with fertility, trying to get pregnant for what felt like the 7,000th time.
From that state of being, I thought of this idea about a show for two women—which is what I was being asked to pitch—and one of them was a widow. She meets another one in a grief support group. Only that woman, her guy didn’t die. He just broke up with her. It just dropped into my head, like from the ether.
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini in Dead to Me.
Did you want to explore grief, loss, and fertility issues in a way that hadn’t been done on TV?
To be honest, it wasn’t a totally conscious decision. But I’ve always wanted to tell a more complicated story about friendship and relationships between platonic partners, if you will. I’ve been really interested in that, because I have such incredible friendships with both men and women. There’s something really interesting and unexplored about the intimacy and even romance of a friendship.
You’ve written for Ellen and the Oscars and a multicam comedy, 2 Broke Girls. This show is extremely different in tone. Was it a goal for you to make a huge shift?
It definitely was. I just knew I wanted to tell a story differently. You know, multicams are great. I’m a joke writer. I really enjoyed getting to have fun with those characters. But there’s only so much depth you can achieve in 21 minutes on network television in that format. When I think back to the ideas I had in my early 20s, I was always drawn to a dark kind of twisty-turny thing. Those are the kind of shows I like to watch, and I jumped at the chance to do one myself.
We’re so avoidant as a culture—we hide behind devices and texts and ghosting. One of the things I like about the show is that, to me, it’s about confrontation. Judy is approaching accountability, weirdly, by secretly ingratiating herself with the woman whose widowhood she’s responsible for. Anyone else would have just run away.
I can’t say confrontation was a theme we were really writing toward, but connection definitely was. In my own life, connections are what fuel me—with friends, family, my wife. And with connections come intimacy. I think that even though Jen and Judy are both grieving something from the past, they force each other to be incredibly present. That’s what a good friendship does.
It’s impossible to hate Judy. Her struggles with miscarriages and infertility and her breakup are so heartbreaking. What some people don’t realize is that sometimes losing a relationship is like a death, and it comes with grief that’s just as deep.
Absolutely. Just like losing a fiancé because he broke up with you is a form of death, you can go through grief having fertility issues. Judy’s struggle is very much inspired by my own struggle. I try to write from a real place, so it feels easy to connect to. This was written from a real place of hurt and loss—that roller coaster of loss and hope you go on when you’re trying to get pregnant.
Linda and Christina are a dream team.
They had never met before. So we cast them, in a sense, blindly, and it just shows you how incredibly talented they are. They didn’t even know each other, and they so effectively played these fast and deep friends.
I think James Marsden is an underrated comic actor. I loved his arc on 30 Rock. Why did you cast him?
I’ve been a fan of James, as well as Christina and Linda, for so many years. Everybody knows he’s incredibly handsome, but he’s also so talented and funny. He also has depth and vulnerability. You can’t help but like him, even though he’s playing a real complicated douche bag.
Linda Cardellini and James Marsden in Dead to Me.
You’ve done a lot of LGBTQ-themed projects in the past. When you were approaching this project and selling the show, did you want to do something that wasn’t?
I had for so many years focused on LGBTQ-themed shows. I’ve developed so many pilots that nobody ever saw with a representative lead character. As a writer, you do itch to tell a different story. But for this moment in time, where this idea came from wasn’t about my sexuality. I was trying to have a baby. And that’s not sexuality-specific—that’s just human.
I felt a lot of guilt moving away from the themes I normally explore. But I felt like my body of work has been so clearly dedicated to the LGBTQ community that it would be all right for me to explore a different story. One of the very first lines in the show is, “I think gay is beautiful.” I wanted to get that right out there into the ethos of the show. There’s a queerness that runs through the veins of it, because I’m the creator and had such a strong hand in writing all the episodes. My right-hand man in the writers’ room is Abe Sylvia, who is himself a gay person. The director of Episodes 1 and 2 is a lesbian. There’s so much innate queerness running through the show that I felt like I was representing, and I just had to allow myself to tell the story I needed to tell.
How has the environment for LGBTQ and female writers and producers changed since you started in the business?
I’ve been writing for television for 24 years. In 1995, for my very first job, I was in the closet. I was 18 years old, and it was really an act of self-preservation more than anything. I didn’t even feel comfortable to be myself. It was before Ellen came out; it was a very different time. Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m in a job on a show called Blue Collar TV, where again I didn’t feel super comfortable to be out of the closet. It was shot in the early 2000s. I think my bosses knew I was gay, but I don’t think most of the cast did.
Then I went to work for Ellen, and everything changed. She has been such an incredible influence on not just my career, but on my sense of self and on my self-confidence to be who I am. As soon as I started working for her, I was like, “Oh, okay, now I have to just be my authentic self.” And as soon as I started to be myself, I really felt a shift in my career. For me, being gay has only ever helped me. It has never hindered me. I certainly gravitate toward LGBTQ people when I’m doing the hiring. I think we have come a really long way. I’m very hopeful about where we’re going—the inclusivity I’m seeing not just from people like myself, but straight allies as well.
Give us a hint of where you’ll take the show in Season 2.
Given how Season 1 ends, Jen and Judy need each other now more than ever. Instead of one of them keeping a secret from the other, they’re both keeping a secret from everyone else.