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How Dead to Me Pulled Off Its Biggest Twist

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

Liz Feldman and the writers of Netflix’s Dead to Me are a bunch of Chubby Checkers over here, with one writer saying in the room that the show needs to “twist again, like we did last summer.” (They write the show over the summer.) And then another writer responds, “Yeah, let’s twist again like we did last year.” For Feldman, the twists are not just fun plot devices, though they are not not that — they are meant to convey uncertainty and the tragic unpredictability of life.

Also, the show’s a comedy! At least when it’s trying to be a comedy, as Dead to Me shifts and moves between tones, like a young Chubinald Checker shaking his hips, knees, and feet side to side and backward and forward. The result is a show like no other on television, streaming or otherwise. For its efforts, this year, Dead to Me has received three Emmy nominations, one for the show and one apiece for its incredible leads Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Feldman talks about the show’s approach to comedy, being the boss, and, of course, twists. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Twists

I definitely think [the introduction of Ben] was one we had to earn once we introduced it, and so much of that credit is due to James [Marsden] because it’s him on that screen. We can write any story. We can give him fun dialogue. But he’s the person that went on camera and embodied this entirely different person. It’s his mannerisms. It’s his vulnerability. It’s his dorkiness that sold that character. And I think we tried to make Ben a very three dimensional human being in a way that Steve wasn’t. We dug pretty deeply into why this guy is the way he is, how he could turn out to be a nice guy, how he could turn out to have the heart that he has but come from the same people that Steve did. And I think all credit is definitely due to James. He’s the one who earned it.

Usually in the writers’ room, when someone says, “Okay, this is crazy,” before they pitch something, very often we try to make that thing work. I think that’s sort of the joy of the show: bringing in these crazy twists and then having to earn them. I’m sure there have been twists that were pitched, but usually the craziest ones are the ones that we do.

The barometer for the twists on the show is: Do you believe this character would really do this? Is this justified? We don’t come up with a twist and then try to reverse-engineer it and then find some sort of random way for it to be okay for that character to do that. The best twists on the show are really derived from something this ordinary person would do in this extraordinary circumstance. Sometimes there are too many twists, and then we sort of have to pare it down, because they’re really fun to think of. But to me, the most successful twists, the funnest ones, are the ones where you’re like, “Yeah, that character would totally do that.” And you’re almost trying not to laugh at the terrible choice that that person is making.

On Making a Different Sort of Comedy

I only ever wanted to be a comedy person since I was really little. I started when I was really young, and comedy was my lifeline, growing up, getting through the difficulties in life. And I think because I started so young and I had been doing it for so long, at a certain point, I just was interested in stretching the boundary of what comedy could be. I’ve gotten to write jokes for some great people. I’ve done many Academy Awards and writing those kinds of jokes. I’ve probably written thousands of jokes in my life. And it’s amazing. And I do love it.

But at a certain point, I wanted to see what would happen if I could really tell a story that was about something. And as far as I know, even as an audience member, sometimes shows that are just comedy, comedy, comedy, I just can’t quite sink my teeth into them anymore. I’m sort of looking for more meaning in what I watch, maybe because my time is more limited and I’m just sort of interested in being moved to think or feel something. I wanted to see if I could do that. I think I was hoping that I could take my comedy background and use that as a foundation to try to say something important, to try to express something real that I feel and that I hoped would maybe connect with other people and make them feel sort of less alone in their feelings. So it’s hard to know exactly what my old comedy self would say. But I do think that part of me has always wanted to stretch in that way. Even my multi-camera sitcom One Big Happy was very twisty turny and probably too much so for a 21 1/2–minute network show. I was already sort of experimenting with big crazy reveals. I’m just really grateful that there exists a place like Netflix to do a show like this that doesn’t sort of try to corner me into one genre.

On Making a “Show for Women”

I think because I come from network television, which is definitely male-skewing, I was just ready to not worry about pleasing men with your show. It’s not that I don’t want men to watch the show. Of course I do. I want anybody who wants to be entertained and have a little bit of escape and maybe feel something to watch the show, for sure. But I think I just became so tired of the same kind of prescriptions for what makes a show sellable and watchable. When you create a show for network television, the man has to be essentially infallible. There has to be a male kind of hero on the show. This is a few years ago, so maybe things are changing, but also probably not.
And not only that, but when you create female characters for network TV, they have to also kind of be infallible and beautiful and support the man in their life. They really can’t be edgy. If they are, they definitely have to be hot. I just felt so limited, year after year coming up with pilots for network TV. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity. But when I allowed myself to just go, well, what would this be if it could be anything? Because this show was born out of a sort of blind pitch. And the people I pitched it to eventually were not interested. So it became whatever I wanted it to be. And I think I just wanted to create something that I wanted to watch and create something that could be purely unfiltered in terms of the male gaze and the expectation that men should want these women. All the sort of stupid tropes that come with with pitching shows on TV. So it certainly wasn’t like, I don’t want men to watch the show. I just would never create from that place. It was just more like I wanted a show that women could feel at home with.

On Being a Boss

I’m not a solo kind of person. I think that’s ultimately probably why I moved away from standup and into more of group writing. And when I started writing in rooms many years ago, I often put myself in my boss’s shoes, maybe because I had aspirations to be a showrunner and to be a head writer.

I had good and not so good experiences with bosses, especially as a woman. Back to my first couple of jobs as a writer in a room, I was the only woman. And especially with my first job [working on All That]. I definitely experienced quite a bit of sexual harassment. It was a very negative experience, being the only woman in a room at 18. Having just graduated from high school and being targeted by my boss, it was a very confusing situation. I was very young and naïve, and I didn’t really even understand what was going on until two women who I worked with who were older than me — I think they were maybe production coordinators — they actually pulled me aside and said, “We are concerned for you. We think he’s targeting you.” I am moved in many ways by that experience. And I’m informed by that experience on both sides in that I knew I wanted to be a boss that never made anyone who worked for me feel like that man made me feel. And I also wanted to be somebody who looked out for the people who worked with me like those two women. They were heroes to me. As I learned good and bad from future bosses, I really consider it a privilege to be a boss. It is definitely a precarious moment to be in charge right now. We are in a very heightened and aware time, in a good way, where people are very tuned in to toxicity and tuned in to unfair treatment. I’m extremely mindful, and I always have been, of leading with kindness and not exploiting my position of power to make anyone feel smaller than me.

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How Dead to Me Pulled Off Its Biggest Twist