‘Santa Clarita Diet’ Hits the Spot, If You Can Stomach It

By  · Published on February 9th, 2017

The strange, wonderful Netflix zombie show is a cult comedy looking for its cult.

What if one of the couples in the Saturday Night Live skit “The Californians” started eating people and they began rationally incorporating it into their lives? This is the question answered by Netflix’s new zombie-comedy Santa Clarita Diet. It’s an odd and arbitrary question, one that has more to do with the staleness of suburbia and marriage than the trappings of So-Cal, but the show manages to answer it with a diverse range of bizarre entertainment.

Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are a normal married real estate duo trying to close deals and raise their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) right. They live between two cops, Sheriff’s Deputy Dan (Ricardo Chavira) and city police officer Rick (Richard T. Jones), and their respective wives, Lisa (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Alondra (Joy Osmanski). Their conversations are chipper, vacuous, and domestic. The toaster oven has wiggly knobs, the neighbor boy Eric (Skyler Gisondo) has a crush on our daughter. That sort of thing.

Then Sheila has stomach problems during an open house. Stomach problems may be putting it lightly. She makes The Exorcist’s pea soup look like someone tried to pressure wash a driveway with a Super Soaker. She also coughs up a mysterious red orb that may or may not contain the secret to her (un)death. All we know for sure is that she’s got a taste for human flesh and their marriage just got way more interesting.

The show utilizes the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend-like juxtaposition of hyper-sunny aesthetics with dark narrative turns, saturating each shot with a beach tan even when things get bloody. And boy, do they ever. Santa Clarita Diet isn’t a show for the weak-stomached. Its crunchy, gushing, cannibalistic gore gibs its victims into food-like pieces too small and specific to ignore, like a baggie full of fingers for a midday snack (it’s a pun, you see) or a dislodged eyeball once Sheila starts to deteriorate.

The show’s visual flair usually involves its framing of its leads, who’re constantly hamming it up with heightened, weirdly stagey delivery, but every so often (especially in a late episode directed by Steve Pink) there’re some great sight gags to accompany the understated humor. For a show so drenched in bodily fluids, Santa Clarita Diet’s humor is wonderfully dry. The restraint and faith in its oddball scripts (delivered with absolute zeal by the self-assured Barrymore and manic Olyphant) matches with its dedication to its campy feel, giving the show a sketchy, late night EVIL DEAD vibe. It never quite feels like the show truly exists, but for the moment you’re happy you’ve found yourself on its end of the Twilight Zone.

The best part of the show, apart from sinking your teeth into its (constantly F-bombing) comic niche, is its cast. Aside from the leading couple, whose petty squabbles and tender asides feel as real and necessary to the show as their completely silly approaches to Dextering people in murder ponchos, the guest stars and supporting cast lift the show entirely with their faith in its wacky approach to the genre. Ellis and Osmanski are delightful housewife stereotypes, one hypersexual and the other a perfect machine that inputs small talk and spits out brilliant deadpan comedy.

Nathan Fillion stops by as a charming sleaze, Patton Oswalt as a suspicious doctor, Portia de Rossi as a zombie scientist, and Derek Waters as an awkward paranormal guru that just can’t stop peeing when interrogated at a urinal. A breakout star is an actress named Ramona Young that plays a frequently put-upon girl of the same name working at a Rite Aid. Her stony delivery is as weirdly philosophical in its humor as Aubrey Plaza’s is weirdly Satanic.

The kids, who develop a refreshingly platonic friendship, are stellar. Gisondo is a year or two away from being a secret comedy heartthrob, slipping his charm in between his hesitantly delivered burns and quietly relatable strangeness. Hewson is all fire. She’s clever and loud even when her dialogue isn’t, giving the show’s infrequent familial plotlines heart and wit. That the plot grows more complicated yet ties off loose ends as it goes is both satisfying and engaging, always letting us wonder what (or whom) the family will get into after they get out of THIS ridiculous situation. A healthy balance of mythology and mystery keep the stories varied, giving us breaks from the complications of Sheila’s feeding habits with the suspicions of the family’s law enforcement neighbors.

It’s a strange show and it’s not for everyone. It’s not a realistic show like we’re used to with the whole “regular people become murderers” premise. It’s neither dark nor gritty and includes at least one Vanilla Ice joke. All of these things work in its favor. A show with a premise this strange is intrinsically a show for a smaller demographic of people and Santa Clarita Diet’s smartest move is doubling down on what it thinks that twisted little segment would enjoy. If you’ve ever entertained the question of how you’d kill your brother, wife, or boyfriend if they were infected with a zombie virus, Santa Clarita Diet knows just how to whet your appetite.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).