Zombie Comedy ‘Santa Clarita Diet’ Force-Feeds Viewers Its Premise

The title enclave of Santa Clarita Diet is a familiar setting for a contemporary comedy about the pitfalls of modern marriage. The first episode introduces us to Sheila and Joel Hammond (Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant), a cheerful husband-and-wife real-estate team that lives in sunny Santa Clarita, an affluent, largely white suburb of Los Angeles. But this Netflix original, which debuts on Friday, would like you to know this is not your typical white-people-problems sitcom: The Hammond couple’s biggest issue is not their fading spark but the zombie virus strain that Sheila has apparently contracted. It’s a point the show makes with all the subtlety of its central character vomiting gallons of green sludge all over the pristine white bathroom of an open house. (Pro tip: Don’t watch this show over dinner.)

Santa Clarita Diet drops us right in the middle of its vomit-stained premise and spends its first season exploring the fallout of Sheila’s condition while she and Joel attempt to figure out what’s happened to her. They’re joined in their efforts by their teenage daughter, Abby (a very cute Liv Hewson), and Eric (the charming Skyler Gisondo), the next-door-neighbor who pines for her.

The casting alone is indicative of the show’s “who, me?” shtick. As Sheila, Drew Barrymore dials up her saccharine naiveté, turning in a performance that’s almost a spiritual successor to Never Been Kissed’s Josie Geller in its earnestness. Timothy Olyphant, who’s best known for playing tough, gun-toting vigilantes on Deadwood and Justified, plays against type as Joel, and the strain shows; as the dorky nice guy struggling to help his wife adjust to her new life as a flesh-eater, Olyphant gets more and more annoying as the season goes on, while Barrymore gets funnier.

Over the ten half-hour episodes of its first season, Santa Clarita Diet doubles down on the apparent contradiction at the heart of the series — the contrast between the cheerful, workaday life of the Hammonds and the exaggeratedly icky reality of keeping a pseudo-zombie well-fed and off the neighbors’ radar. The sun-bleached pastels of the Hammond’s cookie-cutter cul-de-sac act as a decoy for the show’s aggressive gross-out humor; a cheerful rendition of “Good Morning” plays while Sheila fills a blender with raw meat; Sheila and Joel use a lot of ironic terms of endearment as they discuss how they’re going to dispose of a dead body or find another victim. “We have to kill somebody today so you can eat them, sweetheart,” Joel reminds his wife. “I know we have to kill someone today,” she replies, “but we have to be parents every day.”

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Occasionally these jokes land, but after a couple episodes the combination of aggressive levity and inflated intensity starts to grate. “Look how kooky I am!” the show insists, ad nauseam. But Santa Clarita Diet’s absurdist streak does little to hide a fairly conventional story about a dissatisfied but relatively well-off white person who breaks bad and finds that the gamble pays off. As Sheila and Joel continue to search for a cure, Sheila starts to wonder whether she might not be better off as a flesh-eating murderer than a boring real-estate agent; her friends admit that they used to find her so bland, they didn’t always invite her to their gatherings.

But now, she’s the life of the party — and her marital relations have never been better. Sure, she can’t feel a heartbeat, no longer bleeds, and her appendages have started falling off, but Sheila and Joel are having “spectacular sex” now that she’s a people-eater. Like Breaking Bad — which concluded its pilot episode with its newly rebellious hero taking his wife by surprise in bed — criminal violence here inevitably leads to great sex.

“This is not who you are,” Joel objects in the first episode. “Maybe it is,” Sheila replies. “Maybe it’s who I want to be.” Sheila’s infection loosens up the whole family — suddenly, she’s cool with Joel’s clandestine pot-smoking habit, and on a whim, takes Abby along to test-drive a Range Rover. “Twenty-three years and you still find a way to keep life exciting,” Joel tells his wife fondly.

At the heart of Santa Clarita Diet is a story that’s ickier than the half-masticated bodies the show shoves under its audience’s nose — a story about white people who upend their unsatisfying if comfortable lives in favor of sexy chaos. And the show’s game of ironic contrasts leads it to iffy moral ground. Sure, Sheila gives into her bloodlust in wild and destructive ways, killing innocent people in the process, but she can’t help it, and anyway, she’s really nice, promise!

In a way, Santa Clarita Diet represents the pinnacle of the contemporary streaming comedy, in which the everyday problems of affluent white people are blown up to matters of life or death. The mayhem Sheila’s infection unleashes destroys innocent lives, but more importantly, it fulfills her. It gives her confidence. It’s a feel-good bloodbath — she may leave a trail of dead bodies in her wake, but boy does she feel alive.

 

Season 1 of Santa Clarita Diet is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 3.