Wild, wacky and just plain weird. Funnily enough, these same words could just as easily be used to describe the show’s leading lady, the effervescent Drew Barrymore. Barrymore is the most recognisable face in Santa Clarita Diet’s lineup, having previously played iconic roles on the big screen in movies like Charlie’s Angels.
Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is a brand new take on the good old zombie genre – tweaked, of course, for comedic effect. Sheila (Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) play an ordinary married couple who spend their days in the mundanity of real estate agents. They have a teenage daughter, they live in a nice part of town, replete with the usual complement of neighbours; you know, the norm. Everything’s peachy, of course, until Sheila, for reasons unknown, develops an overwhelming hankering for human flesh.
Netflix does not shy away from the gore, and it’s perhaps this juxtaposition between the mess and the general normalcy in which the scenes are set that really gives you that punch to the gut. It’s hard not to be grossed out when Sheila is projectile vomiting all over the sparkling clean bathroom of a house she’s showing. This, incidentally, is also the mystifying event (when she throws up a shriveled-up organ of some sort) that turns her into Santa Clarita’s version of a zombie.
Don’t get me wrong – Sheila isn’t your typical mindless, George Romero flesh eater. Apart from her new penchant for cannibalism, she really isn’t all that different from her old (human) self, albeit much less inhibited. According to her, she also feels better and more energised. At first, she gets by on raw beef – until she discovers even packaged meat isn’t fresh enough for her palate.
“Sweetheart, you bought a car and now you’re grinding on the neighbours. This is not who you are!”
While ostensibly still a comedy (and yes, it definitely still has its moments), it’s when Sheila makes her first kill that things take on a darker tone that persists throughout the rest of the season. It’s hard not to feel bad for the hapless Joel, who eventually agrees that in order to keep his wife fed, they’re going to have to start killing people. Bad people, of course, but still.
While we’re supposed to be rooting for Sheila – she’s fun now! Look at her living it up and doing all these crazy things – I found myself sympathizing more and more with Joel with every episode. Clearly devoted to his wife and daughter, he goes all out in his quest to search for a cure, even as he manfully tries (and fails) to help her with her killings.
We’re treated to several breakout moments that are almost bittersweet in their intensity as we watch Joel try, try, and try again to keep his family together while maintaining the façade that nothing is wrong. Santa Clarita Diet’s almost-implausible premise is practically pushed to the wayside as we’re treated to scenes of unexpected emotional depth, such as when Joel and daughter Abby end up freaking out together about the entire zombie situation.
It’s a completely normal reaction, if we’re being perfectly honest (in real life, anyway), but not one you’d expect to see in a light-hearted comedy where the characters’ own suspension of disbelief is integral to the actual plotline. This, of course, is just one example of the show transcending its original campiness to deliver a scene that is oddly thought-provoking.
Timothy Olyphant definitely stands out in this regard, almost overshadowing co-star Barrymore as he brings a surprising amount of depth to his role as the frazzled, increasingly desperate husband and father. We’re reminded, almost painfully so, that when things go wrong, the ones who are left to pick up the pieces end up suffering unbearably as well.
While it still delivers on the blood, guts and dead people front (I, for one, had trouble watching certain scenes without cringing), what really sets the tone for the entire first series is its focus on the relationships between the characters. Ultimately, Santa Clarita Diet is less about the zombies and more about the struggles of an ordinary family, and is (in my humble opinion) a better show for it.