Don’t sleep on the utterly twisted and insanely smart ‘Santa Clarita Diet’

If you had told this reporter five years ago that one of her favorite TV shows in 2018 would be a suburban comedy about Drew Barrymore as a zombie, she’d order you a sobriety test. Yet Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is the type of rare TV comfort food that hits home.

The show premiered in 2017 and tells the story of the Hammond family: Joel (Timothy Olyphant), Sheila (Barrymore) and their teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson). Joel and Sheila are a real estate power couple until something makes her so violently ill that she dies and becomes undead. Now they spend their days trying to satisfy her taste for human flesh while covering up the string of (somewhat) unintentional murders trailing behind them.

Like Sheila’s unique appetite, the show isn’t for everyone, but if you happen to have the requisite palate, you won’t be able to resist.

It subverts and enriches multiple genres

Technically, Santa Clarita Diet is a zombie show, but so is The Walking Deadand they’re nothing alike. So it’s a zombie comedy, but what kind of comedy? A sitcom, perhaps, since it’s about a family in the suburbs, but with f-bombs and a TV-MA rating for explicit scenes of Barrymore tearing apart the flesh of another human being.

Yes, Santa Clarita contains multitudes; it’s everything above, and it treads that previously-invisible space between the genres brilliantly. This is a show where the sense of humor is as much part of the premise as time, location, or relationships – the way Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fast-paced writing informed the speech patterns of every character on Gilmore Girls. Every character on this show is self-deprecating, keenly aware, and vocal about their lives with a meta-quality that on most shows would make commentary redundant. 

When you watch SCD and think how stupid it is for the characters to be talking in the street when they should be running away, someone on screen will point it out before you can. If you still want to comment, you have to dig deeper and analyze what you’re seeing; the show pushes its viewers in that way.

Shenanigans!

Image: saeed adyani/netflix

A cast with killer timing

Olyphant used to be known for dramatic roles like on Deadwood and Justified, but he’s always been immensely skilled with comedy and gets to really showcase that here. Jokes are spread throughout the cast, but Joel gets a heavy heap of one-liners. And the beauty of Santa Clarita is that a one-liner is rarely a punchline; more often than not, it’s Joel or someone else commenting on the absurdity of the situation or impracticality of a plan. 

With Olyphant on the hysterical husband beat, Barrymore tackles the bulk of the physical comedy, often as Sheila in attack mode. Hewson is all dry wit as their daughter Abby, and Skyler Gisondo is pure awkward charm as the Hammonds’ nerdy neighbor Eric. 

And the beating, undead heart of the show is Joel and Sheila’s marriage, a truly admirable relationship that is one of the few I would actually be comfortable to label #goals. The husband and wife are in constant communication and provide each other with unconditional support. They’re also clearly fumbling through both parenting and zombification – which Abby never hesitates to point out – but always with affection.

Just a quirky family comedy!

Image: saeed adyani/netflix

It’s genuinely smart as hell

Adopting the general sheen of a family comedy lets Santa Clarita deliver lines about bile and dismemberment the way other TV families talk about household chores (when Joel misremembers Sheila’s favorite appendage to eat, she gives him a classic “Do you even listen to me?”). The dissonance and irony beget comedy gold – the best laughs are always unexpected.

You won’t find any of what could traditionally be labeled social commentary on Santa Clarita Diet, but it’s clear where the characters stand. In Season 1, Joel and Sheila describe their ideal kill as a young, single Hitler. In Season 2, they find a group of Nazis that Sheila wants to snack on like her own personal lobster tank. When one of them turns out to be in a wheelchair, the Hammonds panic; Is it a hate crime to kill him? Has he committed a hate crime? Would it be discriminatory to not kill him when they’ve chosen the Nazis as their targets? The moral dilemma plays out in furtive whispers in their “kill room”; again, irony strengthens the whole scenario and leads to a satisfying conclusion.

None of this feels like a lesson, just like when Joel has to question his gender assumptions. First he assumes a police officer he hasn’t met is male; then he vindictively refers to a bunch of clams as bitches (long story). He’s quick to say that he admires sensitivity but they really don’t have time for this – and that’s true, but doesn’t stop him from trying to speak inclusively about the clams from then on (just watch the show and it’ll make sense!).

Facts are facts: There’s only so much you can and will binge, and Santa Clarita Diet is an objectively bizarre show nestled into Netflix’s growing roster of originals. But if you happen to love any of its many genres or feel even a mild interest in its cast and premise, put your trust in this show. This weirdo watched all of Season 2 in one day, and it was glorious, so come have a taste.

Santa Clarita Diet is now streaming on Netflix.

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