A lot of new and compelling content arrives this weekend. But first, let’s go back in time to give context to the top item.
It’s been more than 30 years since Fox debuted the relentlessly coarse but sensationally popular Married ... with Children. Among its stars, and wildly ubiquitous for a time, was Christina Applegate, who played a character who wouldn’t be tolerated now – the criminally dumb teenage daughter Kelly. And it’s been 20 years since the vastly superior and short-lived Freaks and Geeks arrived on NBC. In the ensemble cast, the standout was Linda Cardellini playing the disillusioned teenager Lindsay Weir, a character who would become iconic.
Both Applegate and Cardellini have had long careers, but they’re together and wonderfully used in Dead to Me (streams on Netflix). They are now the sort of actors who benefit enormously from the creative freedom and depth that’s broached in streaming services and premium cable. Neither has had a role this odd and unorthodox in years.
Dead to Me is a deadpan, difficult-to-define black comedy with a touch of sinister mystery thrown in. At first, it’s about grief and melancholy, and then along the way, the mystery keeps intruding. Applegate plays Jen, a successful real estate broker and mom to two teenage boys in the affluent Orange County part of Los Angeles. Her husband was killed in a hit-and-run crash and she’s dealing with serious, soul-destroying grief. At a grief-counselling session she attends warily, Jen meets Judy (Cardellni), whose fiancé died suddenly of a heart attack. They bond, become buddies and give each other solace.
For a while, that is it. The series dwells, with a nice touch, on the heft of grief intruding into mundane life, and it allows the anger of the women to breathe. There’s a curiously caustic tone to it all. (Creator Liz Feldman also created 2 Broke Girls, but this one is about two women broken by fate and by rage at the world.) Then it becomes clear, if the viewer hasn’t guessed already, that Judy is not everything she seems. The drama, always shot-through with brittle comedy, is about allowing dishonesty in true friends. And then it goes darker.
What’s admirable about the series – it’s far from flawless and some episodes, like many Netflix shows, are a bit redundant – is how it touches on sorrow and gloom, as those feelings emerge in the gorgeous setting and comfortable lives of the characters. In a way, it’s like one of those songs from Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, which seem bubbly but are deeply wistful in their bones.
Also airing this weekend
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (Sunday, midnight Crave/HBO and on-demand) is a substantial, illuminating and frightening look at the sexual abuse done over two decades by Larry Nassar, a team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Nassar is now in prison. It’s substantial in that it’s comprehensive, going back to the beginning of Nassar’s work with young female athletes and burrowing deep into the culture that surrounds gymnastics. It offers a blunt portrait of the double standards that have surrounded the sport, in which every four years teenage girls are presented to the public as figures to be admired for their bodies and their grace. As one parent of a gymnast says of Nasser, “If you were a child predator, you’d want to become him.” It’s frightening in its vivid picture of how the teenage athletes were isolated in training and taught to never complain, never speak out. This is not a good-news doc. In fact, it’s deeply disturbing in telling the truth.
The Spanish Princess (Sunday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is your period-drama fix of the month. Like The White Queen from the same producers, it’s based on the novels of Philippa Gregory. It’s about Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) who arrived in England as a teenager in 1501, betrothed already to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Later, she became the first wife of Henry VIII. Lovely and lavishly made, it’s a bit thin on character development.
And don’t forget Shrill (all episodes on Crave), the much-covered and much praised six-episode series, with Aidy Bryant from SNL as Annie, a young journalist who is plus-sized and on her way to being perfectly happy with that. Too few advance reviews have noted how genuinely, uproariously funny it is.