Premiered 3 Feb 2017
Created by Victor Fresco
Starring Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewson, and Skyler Gisondo
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Killer comedy is an acquired taste.
My first reaction to hearing about Santa Clarita Diet was, “Do we really need another zombie show?” Probably not. But I’m glad we got this one. I don’t remember why I chose to watch it when I wasn’t interested in the premise. The reason is probably why most people watch things on Netflix—it’s there. I was pleasantly surprised; I ended up binging the whole first season in one night. It was clever, interesting, and, surprisingly for a comedy about a suburban zombie who goes around killing people with her husband so she can eat them, sweet.
One reason this show works is the casting of Drew Barrymore as Shelia Hammond, a diffident realtor who turns into an id-driven, flesh-eating zombie. Barrymore is just so darn likable. “Oh, look! The little girl from ET just disemboweled that guy! Isn’t she a dickens? So cute.” Not only does she help to make the material palatable, Barrymore’s amiability being so incongruous with the idea of a flesh-eating zombie increases the humor of show.
Any comedy based on the bizarre antics of one party is enhanced by the presence of someone to react to that behavior. Timothy Olyphant as Sheila’s put-upon husband, Joel, is a revelation. Previously known for serious dramas—Deadwood and Justified—he shows an unexpected gift for comedy.
The marriage between Sheila and Joel is joy to watch. They are loving and supportive. Occasionally, they argue and work through it like mature people who love each other. Joel is always there to help Sheila hide remains or clean up evidence even if he just wants a normal day where he can build bookshelves in peace. I never would have imagined that a zombie comedy could be so romantic. In family sitcoms, the focus is often on the adventures of the children; the parents are usually blandly happy. In this series, the parents’ lives haven’t stopped because they’ve had children. The romance doesn’t end with marriage. Sheila and Joel are continually growing and finding new ways to love each other.
The Hammonds’ precocious, 16-year-old daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), rounds out the family unit. I’m not sure what to make of Abby. She’s far more competent than the adults in the show. The precocious child character is one that usually drives me nuts. I don’t find Abby particularly irritating. However, her best moments are those when she reveals her vulnerability. She may tear gas a drug dealer, but she still crawls into bed with her parents when she gets scared.
Abby’s partner in crime is Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the nerdy boy next door, who also provides much of the exposition about zombieism to the Hammonds and the audience. Like Abby, he takes the revelation of Sheila’s transformation with curious equanimity. It’s a conscious choice of the show to minimize the reactions of the child characters to the outrageous situation. And, that’s something that the viewers have to suspend their disbelief about. Yet, one part of Eric’s response to the situation rings out as genuine—the pride he feels in his intelligence and weird knowledge being suddenly useful to people he admires. He’s finally found a place where he fits, and his pleasure at that feels right.
The rest of the world of the series is populated by eccentric characters with whom the Hammonds interact on a daily basis: the vindictive high school principal, the paranoid sheriff next door, the oversexed neighbor, the obnoxious boss, the severed head in the basement. Well, maybe that last one is a little more eccentric than the rest. One standout is Ramona Young as a strange drugstore employee who speaks in a complete monotone.
One common criticism of the series is the amount of gore. While it’s certainly not a show to watch while eating, I don’t find it gratuitous or excessive. The point is not simply to gross out the audience. Instead, the gore serves a dual purpose. The shock value creates humor through cathartic laughter, and the extensive carnage contrasts with the ordinary, otherwise banal lives of the Hammonds. The family may live in a big beige box with an open floor plan and cool neutral walls, but they have blood dripping from those walls, a partially eaten body in the bathroom upstairs, and a severed head in the basement. One of basic foundations of humor is incongruity, and this series thrives on it.
Incongruity is why creator Victor Fresco chose Santa Clarita as the setting for the series. He said, “the planned community and the organization of that community, which I think plays well against the complete chaos that happens with our couple, I just like how perfectly groomed the place is. And their lives are also perfectly groomed until this event happens, and then it goes off the rails, and it just was a fun area to juxtapose with this kind of energy.” The show is imbued with a strong sense of place. It doesn’t take place in Anytown, USA, or even vaguely suburban Los Angeles. It captures the rhythms of life specific to Santa Clarita. The series title is a play on the popular fad “South Beach Diet,” but whatever the reason for the inclusion of “Santa Clarita” in the title, it belongs there, as it’s an important part of the show.
Santa Clarita Diet is not for everyone. It’s gross and dark. It’s also charming and romantic. Ultimately, it’s very funny, which is the most important thing for a sitcom to be.