It sure is the sweet life in suburban Southern California – sunshine and dietary trends rule the day in this land of plenty (aside from water, of course). In the new Netflix comedy Santa Clarita Diet, a new dietary trend is all the rage, replacing non-GMO organics and items of the gluten free variety. This dietary craze that is taking over Santa Clarita is limited to one woman, but she certainly dives in head first to her new restrictive diet. What’s the secret ingredient of the Santa Clarita Diet? Human flesh. This horror-comedy hybrid created by Victor Fresco is quick in establishing its quirky tone that mixes the mundanity of suburbia with some graphic bloody cannibalism. Over the course of its first season, Santa Clarita Diet never really transcends its concept beyond just a quirky little comedy of suburbanites with ample amounts of gore, but that’s fine as the show is simply a perfectly passable piece of entertainment and nothing more.
Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are a couple of mundane suburbanites living with their teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) in their lovely home in the heart of Southern California. The issues that affect this couple seem quaint, as shown by Joel’s frustration with the nobs on a toaster oven. Their home is sandwiched between two law enforcement officers – one is a Los Angeles County Sherriff Dan (Ricardo Chavira) who lives with his wife Lisa (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and stepson Eric (Skylar Gisondo), the other is Rick (Richard T. Jones), a Santa Monica Police Officer who lives with his wife Alondra (Joy Osmanski) and their newborn baby. There are all sorts of odd dynamics at play on this quiet little street, such as a one-sided rivalry between Max and Rick, and Eric’s longstanding crush on Abby. Meanwhile, the wives try to get together to gossip on odd occasions, sometimes going out for drinks together.
On the professional side, Sheila and Joel work as realtors, working as a team showing off the posh suburban homes to prospective buyers. One day while showing a home, Sheila feels a terrible sickness coming on and proceeds to vomit profusely in front of a couple of potential buyers. Her illness isn’t easily diagnosed, and it’s soon realized that she has become one of the undead as she has no pulse and begins craving raw meat as her only form of sustenance. In only a matter of time, though, raw meat doesn’t satisfy her cravings and the only things that sate Sheila’s appetite is human flesh. Despite her ghastly dietary habits, Joel and Abby are supportive of Sheila and soon Eric is also brought into their circle of trust in the hopes of keeping Sheila’s affliction under wraps in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy in this quiet suburban community. However, finding human flesh for Sheila isn’t so easy and it’s not long before the unusual happenings begin raising suspicion.
A big source of the humor within the first season of Santa Clarita Diet comes from the fact that Sheila sheds her inhibitions as her id takes over. She abandons her impulse control and that creates an array of problems for herself and her remarkably sympathetic husband. Taking it even a step further, Sheila goes through a form of reinvigoration that includes an accelerated sex drive, which of course Joel is quite welcoming of despite the fact that it’s probably still necrophilia if they’re only undead. Over time Sheila’s newfound exuberance rubs off on her neighbors and they soon begin making their set of rash impulsive decisions much to the chagrin of their spouses.
Complicating matters for Sheila and Joel is the fact that they need fresh bodies for Sheila to feast on otherwise she’s likely to lose control and just leap upon whatever living being is nearby. This sets forth a number of scenarios where the loving couple must go off on trips to commit murder, leading to a number of absurdly comic scenarios where these hapless suburbanites are trying kill. Neither is particularly adept at killing and the couple stumbles and bumbles about.
As she becomes aware of the horrific nature of her mother’s condition, Abby begins to rebel. Once Abby encounters her parents trying to dispose of a body that her mother has eaten a significant portion of, the teenager drops all semblances of normalcy in front of her parents and begins swearing like a sailor in their company. Her rebellion continues to manifest itself. At first in rather benign ways such as skipping school, but soon Abby starts looking for more and more thrills that escalate as the series progresses. Soon Abby is roping Eric into her acts of rebellion, and the nerdy science fair teen reluctantly abides with her wishes due to his long-lasting crush on her.
Drew Barrymore seems much more secure in her role as the wife and mother that finds a new lease on life as a member of the undead. It’s funny watching Barrymore shed the layers of quiet apprehension and become brash and often crude. Conversely, Timothy Olyphant is really playing his role as the exacerbated husband to 11. Olyphant is a fine actor but here he seems to be overplaying his hand as if being extremely exaggerated is supposed to be extra funny. But there’s a fascinating dynamic that Victor Fresco and his team of writers are able to craft between the couple, one that plays as an absurd take on the typical sitcom notion of marital dysfunction and adds a whole new twist to it. These two characters truly do love each other, and the understanding that Olyphant brings to Joel in these most startling of situations often adds more humor than his emphatic performance.
Aiding the leading cast is a fairly impressive roster of supporting players that weave in and out of various episodes of Santa Clarita Diet. Comedic talents like Thomas Lennon and Patton Oswalt appear in minor roles and lend their comedic credibility to the series, as do other brief roles by Nathan Fillion, Andy Richter, Natalie Morales, and Portia de Rossi. Victor Fresco has also assembled a fairly impressive roster of directors to helm episodes of Santa Clarita Diet, including Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, Half Baked director Tamra Davis, Hot Tub Time Machine director Steve Pink, and Galaxy Quest director Dean Parisot.
Santa Clarita Diet also plays close to the vest as to reasons why Sheila became a cannibalistic member of the undead. It’s a smart decision by Fresco and company, never bogging down the series with needless backstory and instead focusing on the various issues that arise because of the Sheila’s affliction. The show moves at a brisk pace and introduces a number of complications and twists that result all because of Sheila’s new life as a flesh-eating living corpse. Episodes conclude with twists and revelations that make Santa Clarita Diet a very enticing show to binge watch as long you aren’t too repulsed by the foul language and gruesome gore effects.
In its first ten episodes, Santa Clarita Diet proves itself to be an entertaining subversion of suburban sitcoms by adding a ghastly horror twist to the nuclear family. It has a solid premise and builds upon with each successive episode but never crosses over into full brilliance. The show still works because Santa Clarita Diet is a madcap piece of storytelling even if it’s not always as funny or horrific as intended. There’ll certainly be a fanbase for this kind of show and everything is left open-ended enough for a second season. With the twisted sensibilities on display in the first season, a little more of Santa Clarita Diet will be a welcome meal after the inaugural season has simply whet your appetite.
Santa Clarita Diet
The latest Netflix original, Santa Clarita Diet blends comedy and horror in this entertaining subversion of the suburbanite nuclear family prevalent in sitcoms only with a mom that’s undead with a hankering for human flesh.