In the weeks leading up to the July 16th Emmy nominations, Primetimer staff and contributors will be making our picks for which people (and shows) we think deserve recognition for their work this year. For your consideration today: Linda Cardellini for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in Netflix's Dead to Me.
Linda Cardellini is no stranger to the television landscape. Freaks and Geeks, her first major television role, and her character of Lindsay Weir are two of the most iconic creations in the TV pantheon. She followed up Freaks and Geeks by joining the cast of mega-hit ER, and years later, returned to the small screen and critical prominence with an Emmy-nominated turn on Mad Men. She then did three seasons on the starry Netflix drama Bloodline, where she shared the screen with Sissy Spacek, Sam Shephard, and Kyle Chandler. Cardellini currently stars on Netflix’s Dead to Me as Judy Hale, a mysterious woman who becomes entangled with a recently-widowed woman (Christina Applegate.)
Since its premiere last month, Dead to Me has earned a second-season renewal and some major buzz, thanks to the shocking twists and turns within its ten episode run. Much of the performance buzz on the show has gone to Christina Applegate as the tightly-wound Jen, and for good reason. It’s a revelatory performance, and quite the showy one. In the first episode alone, Applegate gets to scream, cry, laugh, and shred any trace of her warmer screen roles on Married...with Children and Samantha Who? But amid all that justified Applegate praise, we mustn't forget Cardellini, where she will be vying for a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series alongside heavyweights such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rachel Brosnahan, and Applegate herself. It would be an absolute shame if Cardellini’s performance were to be ignored, because it’s one of the trickiest, deepest, and all-around best performances on television this season.
To divulge too much about Cardellini’s character would be to cause some massive spoilers, so for those who haven’t watched Dead to Me yet, let’s just say that Judy Hale is a woman of many layers. For the first half of the pilot episode, Cardellini delivers a poignant and generous performance as a woman grieving the death of her husband. We know from the get-go that this is a woman desperate to connect, hoping for some relief from the mountains of pain you can see behind her gentle smile. For all her troubles, we like Judy, we feel safe with her. Until we don’t. By the end of the episode, everything we think we know about Cardellini’s character is turned on its head, making us re-consider her motivations . That’s what makes Cardellini’s performance so riveting. It combines the natural, affable kind of charm that we've come to expect from so many of her past performances with something darker and more unnerving.
From the start we know that this is a deeply broken woman, and watching Cardellini try to pull Judy from the most impossible of circumstances is often as moving as it is frightening. There are so many moments where the camera lingers on Judy’s defeated face, knowing that she’s sinking further and further down her own rabbit hole, but then Cardellini flashes that huge grin of hers, suggesting that perhaps it might all work out in the end for her. This is to say nothing of the expert comedic timing that she brings to the role. Cardellini is always aware of the tragedy but also absurdity of Judy’s situation, and is essentially giving two performances throughout the whole show: one in which she is living completely in Judy’s circumstances and anothre in which she is commenting on it.
Cardellini's Judy is one of those great, subversive performances that don’t come around too often. One in which a performer takes the persona they're usually associated with and uses that to their advantage. It’s a tight-rope walk of a performance that Cardellini makes seem so completely effortless.
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Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik