Christina Applegate could radically change disability representation on screen

Christina Applegate in Netflix’s ‘Dead to Me’  (Netflix)
Christina Applegate in Netflix’s ‘Dead to Me’ (Netflix)

There’s a lot riding on season three of Dead to Me. For one, it carries the burden of giving a decent send-off to one of Netflix’s most successful series in years: a dark comedy about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between acerbic widow Jen (Christina Applegate) and a glass-half-full artist named Judy (Linda Cardellini). It also follows two acclaimed runs – full of death, disaster and double pourings of white wine – that glugged down critical accolades and five Emmy nods. For Applegate herself, though, there is an added pressure: it marks her first acting project since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition that disrupts the communication between the brain and the body. As a result, the actor finds it difficult to walk unaided and says she’s gained 40lb (18kg), making her appearance a little different than before.

“This is the first time anyone’s going to see me the way I am,” she told The New York Times earlier this month. Applegate admitted to worrying whether viewers will look favourably on the season as a result, and whether they’d notice the differences in her character’s physical abilities compared to earlier episodes. She needn’t worry: Applegate’s performance this season is just as charismatic, magnetic and moving as it’s always been. It also bursts with potential. While Applegate may not have realised it just yet, Dead to Me season three could prove to be a landmark moment for disability on screen.

Applegate had experienced years of tingling and numbness in her extremities but only received her official MS diagnosis in the summer of 2021, early into filming on season three. She immediately told her Dead to Me colleagues, with production on the show subsequently suspended for five months. She began medical treatment but also had to come to terms with what her future could look like. “I needed to process my loss of my life,” she explained, “my loss of that part of me.”

Though show bosses gave her the choice to not resume filming, Applegate was determined to finish. She used a wheelchair to get to the set and has called the experience “the hardest thing that I’ve ever done”. The third season sees Jen and Judy recovering from a car accident that took place in the season two finale. Whether or not they were initially planned, Jen’s injuries mean that she has to hold onto Judy as she walks from room to room. In one scene, her love interest Ben (James Marsden) carries her up the stairs when her ribs hurt too much to move. At other points, Jen is seated while delivering stern asides, or leaning on the counter while standing in the kitchen.

Because we’re aware of Applegate’s real-life requirements, it’s easy to interpret these moments as the production adapting to an actor’s physical needs. But even if we weren’t to know such things, we’re given insight into how easily disability can be portrayed on screen with or without it being a plot point.

Though the change to Applegate’s physicality is acknowledged on screen, it’s worth noting that if Jen didn’t happen to be recovering from an accident, the story would work just as well. Regardless of her character’s injuries, Applegate still should have had the ability to resume filming without her physical changes being a part of the story at all. Because shouldn’t we as an audience be trusted to accept them? It’s definitely possible: in 2021, the Royal Shakespeare Company received praise for pioneering a job-share arrangement for pregnant performers, and those returning from maternity leave.

Actor Hedydd Dylan discovered she was pregnant soon after she was cast as Adriana in the company’s run of The Comedy of Errors. Though she’d initially feared that she’d have to forfeit the role, Dylan was able to share the part with Naomi Sheldon, who had recently given birth herself. Despite Adriana not being written as pregnant, she was portrayed with a noticeable belly regardless of whether Dylan or Sheldon was performing – and that’s simply the way it was, with the audience given the job of noticing it or not. As well as appreciating that the part-time job allowed her to spend time with her newborn twins, Sheldon noted that it was “really nice to see pregnant people on stage in surprising roles”.

Jen (Christina Applegate) leans on Judy (Linda Cardellini) for support in season three of ‘Dead to Me’ (Saeed Adyani)
Jen (Christina Applegate) leans on Judy (Linda Cardellini) for support in season three of ‘Dead to Me’ (Saeed Adyani)

It’s a kind of inclusivity that’s far easier to do than you may think. There’s also been precedent with MS, too. Earlier this year, Selma Blair – Applegate’s co-star in the 2002 romcom The Sweetest Thing – competed in the most recent season of Dancing with the Stars, becoming their first contestant with MS. Blair was diagnosed in 2018 and used her cane for stability during some routines. During a rumba, Blair also wore a blindfold to combat sensory overload caused by her condition. Both accessories were just part of those performances – no major acknowledgement necessary. She ultimately withdrew from the competition after concerns from her doctors but her appearance in the first place served as a long-overdue statement: the entertainment world can easily adapt to make all performers feel welcome and valued, regardless of their physical abilities.

Applegate has stated that this season of Dead to Me might mark her last job as an actor, as she continues to get used to her body and what it feels comfortable doing. After over four decades in the industry – appearing in series including Married… with Children and Friends, as well as the Anchorman movies – she’s more than earned her time off to rest and explore her other passions. But if her decision is borne out of feeling as if she might not be able to keep up with the demands of filming, then it’s up to the industry to move the parameters for what disabled actors can do.

Physical differences should not, after all, limit a performer’s opportunities. While Dead to Me is a great example of how workplaces can adapt to their employees, it’s time for the accommodations given to Applegate to become the norm.

‘Dead to Me’ season three is streaming on Netflix from 17 November