There has never been a weirder show about self-actualization than Santa Clarita Diet. The new Netflix comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant was first presented as a story about a pair of realtors in Southern California, a fine enough premise to get a greenlight from the content-hungry streaming service – which seems to give the go-ahead to anything so long as it has a premise. Months later, though, the first advertisements for the series suggested something else was afoot – and that something was interested in eating a foot, or any other body part that might come her way.
As it turns out, Santa Clarita Diet is the latest high-concept series born under the auspices of Netflix, and it offers an outlandish and very funny take on the zombie genre by tossing it into a blender with suburban malaise, mid-life crises, and the promise of self-actualization through positive thinking and, of all things, a change in diet. Like George Romero’s Dead films, an undercurrent of social commentary runs just below the surface. Subtler is some ways, and remarkably less so in others, the series pokes fun at the endless consumptive ferocity of human beings, and how their need for more has resulted in a cottage industry of fad diets and self-help gurus, the actual help of which is difficult to quantify.
The series revolves around Sheila and Joel Hammond, high school sweethearts with a teenage daughter Abby, played by Liv Hewson. A run-of-the-mill, upper-middle-class family, the Hammonds are moderately successful realtors, but their discontent is showing. Sheila’s uptight and Joel smokes weed in his Honda SUV before showing a house. The first episode is the model of efficiency in delivering the broad strokes of who these characters are while setting about turning Sheila into the undead in spectacular (and spectacularly gross) fashion.
There are few set pieces outside of The Exorcist that feature such impressive volumes of pea-green vomit as memorably as Santa Clarita Diet initiates Sheila’s death and rebirth. Barrymore spewing gallons of the stuff in front of her husband and two potential homebuyers comes out of nowhere, and the audience is mercifully spared explanation until much later. The shift away from unnecessary details of Sheila’s transformation makes room for a far more interesting display of how she’s changed, or, in this case, self-actualized through death and the eating of other human beings to live her best life. And suddenly this family is no longer trying to cope with the problems of ordinary life; they’re tackling the extraordinary in a very suburban way.
The series thinks big, but is best when it stays small. And by small, Santa Clarita Diet keeps things mostly between the Hammonds and their cul-de-sac neighbors. That includes Skyler Gisondo as Eric Beamis, a pop-culture obsessed teen with a crush on Abby. Eric also has an oversexed mom played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Mary Elizabeth Ellis and a belligerent stepdad in Desperate Housewives‘ Ricardo Chavira. While Abby and Eric know about Sheila’s condition, everyone else is kept in the dark – except for the people she eventually eats, like Nathan Fillion’s conniving Gary – lending necessary tension to the goings-on without being wholly reliant on Sheila and Joel keeping a secret from everyone as a means of driving the plot.
Ostensibly a family comedy, openness is the key to the success of Santa Clarita Diet. Throughout the first season, the interplay between characters is where the series lives and breathes, so to speak. Some of the best exchanges only tangentially rely on the fact that Sheila is undead and has to eat people, meaning she and Joel have to kill others for her to continue living (or not living, as the case may be). Most of the time, these conversations run wildly off track and digress into a familiar and caustic sort of nitpicking over what the other person said. This being the case, the biggest laughs most often result from Barrymore or Olyphant’s facial expression at what the other said (underlining just how nice it is to see a couple on TV who not only gets along but likes one another). It’s an extreme example of the way people talk, immaculately scripted at times, but it grounds the series in genuine human emotion – something a certain other zombie show has a lot of difficulty with – and that authenticity grants the writers greater leeway in terms of the outlandishness of the show and where the series is going.
Creator and writer Victor Fresco and director Rueben Fleischer – who helms the first two episodes and has been on a run lately with smart situational comedies like this and Superstore – establish the titular locale as a real place that’s really just another nowheresville, an endless expanse of strip malls, non-descript drug stores, and cookie-cutter housing developments that smack of the very mass-produced sameness afflicting Sheila and Joel at the start. In one episode, Olyphant and Hewson stare out at what once was a barren landscape but is now dotted with tract houses and new construction, shrewdly noting that this development is happening in the middle of a drought-ravaged desert incapable of sustaining human life. The personality-deprived landscape makes a perfect foil for Sheila’s self-actualization and the irrepressible id that’s part of the undead package.
Santa Clarita Diet isn’t necessarily aiming for social commentary, but like most good genre fare – even those that throw more into the mix – such observations are welcome nonetheless. Despite unfolding in a heightened version of reality, the series exhibits an often-hilarious understanding of the mundanity of everyday life. Life sucks, and then you don’t die.
Santa Clarita Diet season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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