When Santa Clarita Diet first opens its doors, you may initially be eyeing the exit. Gags about suburbia, married life, and the perfect American family are hardly new or exciting territory at this point. You might even wonder why this show is airing on Netflix’s risk-taking platform in the first place. But then the murdering starts happening and the show takes off its gentle comedy sheep suit and reveals itself for the supernatural horror comedy wolf that it truly is.
Netflix’s newest comedy introduces you to Joel and Sheila Hammond (Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore), a husband and wife realty team who have gotten pretty comfortable with their saturated California lives. There’s the minutiae of toaster knobs or beer with honey in it and a low sex drive isn’t seen as a problem but rather an accepted inevitability. It’s kind of great that at its core Santa Clarita Diet is a show ultimately about being bold, learning to stand up for yourself, and the power of love and the limits that people will go to for each other. All of these make for great ideas to juxtapose with the whole angle of Sheila’s unexpected “condition.” Oh, and what is that condition? She’s sort of become undead and acquired a mean taste for human flesh. So needless to say, things suddenly get a little hectic in the Hammond household.
Suddenly the show becomes about realtors dealing with the most unreal situation possible, which is exactly the sort of symbolic, tongue-in-cheek joke that Victor Fresco finds hilarious and would explore in his previous series, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Better Off Ted. There’s a self-aware, cartoonish perspective here. Fresco’s intelligent, critical eye is certainly present. You just need to squint a little harder to see his vision at first. Much like Fresco’s other efforts, Santa Clarita mixes genres as effortlessly as the blenders advertised in the QVC infomercials that plaster the televisions of the neighborhood.
Admittedly, zombies aren’t my favorite sub-genre to explore—I think they’ve been mostly mined and explored across titles like The Walking Dead, Maggie, and beyond. While the Santa Clarita Diet is dealing with the “undead” rather than zombies per se, it still explores a lot of new theories with the concept. However, some of the moments that leaned heaviest into the undead tropes were my least favorite from the season.
Watching Sheila and Joel troubleshoot their new lives as a team resonated a lot more for me than the moments that were just another shot of a bloody-faced Sheila snarling into someone’s arm. It’s material that still works but we’re almost numbed to it as a culture by now. Again, fortunately this show doesn’t bank on the shock of its content alone, but if it were to, this would be a much hollower, less successful show. It doesn’t hurt that Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland fame directs a handful of episodes, too.
The humor offered up in the series is certainly a mixed bag. There’s an outrageous scene in the pilot involving projectile vomiting that I really wasn’t sure what to make of, but then later there’s Sheila laying down some “foreplay” with Joel that made me laugh out loud and is so goddamn shocking. That’s the sort of stuff I expect from this show and thankfully after a few opening hiccups the series delivers and sticks these incredulous landings.
Sheila’s undead-ness leads to some very unusual visual gags that will have you wincing between laughs. The gore is also so over the top and delightful and mixes with the suburbia elements perfectly. Often this show felt reminiscent of the dark, dark comedy that accompanied the first few episodes of Breaking Bad. Fresco finds a wonderful balance here that is a ton of fun to watch. It tonally feels like Pushing Daisies mixed with Breaking Bad, with a dash of Dexter thrown in, too.
Joel inevitably is given the plots where he’s researching Sheila’s condition and the occult-ish areas that surround it, while Sheila is just more concerned with living life and blending in. Her condition naturally exposes itself around the neighborhood in the most pleasant of ways. It becomes a bit of a predictable basic structure at times, but it’s one that very much works for the show and is a relaxed feel that’s easy to get behind.
Watching Joel and Sheila’s lives get further complicated as Sheila’s condition worsens makes for great serialized television and something that Fresco is able to excel at here. Each episode nicely pushes along a story that becomes increasingly chaotic by nature. It’s the perfect sort of thing to binge through, like someone tearing a corpse to pieces.
Santa Clarita Diet weirdly—albeit, thankfully—digs into moral dilemmas and poses some bigger questions amidst all of this broader craziness. This fuller perspective certainly doesn’t hurt the show in any way.
The idea of people being more layered than you might think and this leading to complications in finding/murdering individuals presents a give and take of empathy that makes for a reliable generator of humor. It’s also just consistently crazy to see that this is the shot in the arm that the Hammond’s marriage has needed after 23 years, crazily enough. They’re probably more in touch with one another and a better couple than they’ve been in ages.
In terms of the performances, Olyphant truly shines here, with Santa Clarita Diet acting as a reminder of how strong of a comedic actor he is (RIP The Grinder, I miss you every day). Joel constantly losing his mind and endlessly being the straight man in this absurd situation is so much fun to watch. This is a great role for Olyphant to inhabit.
The gesture in which he ends the first episode on is just perfect and shows the work of a comedian who knows exactly what he’s doing. Barrymore’s performance is a little grating at first, but she slowly grows on you and gets to a competent place with the role. I still couldn’t help but think that anyone else would be just as good in this role, with a former Fresco collaborator like Portia DiRossi (or even Mary Elizabeth Ellis, who’s also in the show) really killing it if given the opportunity. I get the appeal of having Barrymore in a project like this, but she’s never quite rising to Olyphant’s level.
Watching Sheila’s new found confidence blossom is a great angle for the series, but she also goes down a fairly dark path. Watching her make these bad, dangerous decisions is a really tense direction that the show tows very nicely. Watching Olyphant’s exuberant enthusiasm towards finding a solution and cure to his and his wife’s problem is also so much fun to watch, especially when paired with Sheila’s growing reluctance to change what she’s become.
Santa Clarita Diet makes a hearty meal of the mystery that is its premise as matters escalate in a highly disastrous, addictive way. There’s a manic energy in place at all times that makes this series so infectiously fun and it has you eager to consume more.
The season also ends on a great note that pushes everything to a new extreme for the next season, while still making you more eager than ever to get the big answers. Santa Clarita Diet may not be the perfect meal, but it’s a more than enjoyable palate cleanser to unwind to that only shows more potential moving forward.
Let’s just hope that the Hammonds have enough freezer space.
Santa Clarita Diet’s entire first season begins streaming February 3rd on Netflix. This review is based off of all ten half-hour episodes of Santa Clarita Diet’s first season.