If there's a modern condition that zombies can't serve as a metaphor for, Hollywood hasn't discovered it yet. Boasting the star power of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet leaps into the undead figurative fray by turning fiction's most resilient brain-munchers into a way to examine, with occasional repetitiveness, suburban ennui and marital complacency, getting a reasonable amount of laughs.
Santa Clarita Diet hails from Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted), whose gift for treating the absurd as mundane is on full display. Sheila (Barrymore) and Joel (Olyphant) are long-married high school sweethearts living in a comfortable rut on a cul de sac in the eponymous bedroom community north of Los Angeles, working with moderate success as realtors. She wishes she could be more impulsive. He wishes he could be more confrontational. Their teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), wishes she could have a car to get far away from Santa Clarita.
Then Sheila becomes a zombie.
When Santa Clarita Diet was initially announced, Netflix kept that part of the plot a secret, so when early promotion concentrated on Barrymore noshing on human flesh, there was a, "Wait — THAT'S what the show is about?" response. There's no real point in being coy, because Sheila's transformation is an abrupt, vomit-filled thing that occurs early in the pilot — probably too early. The series is a before/after transformation story in which our only real sense of Sheila and Joel's "before" life comes from them complaining about it for 10 minutes. Working in a half-hour format, there's little time for development. The show races off on a carefully arced course of zombie acclamation as Joel and Sheila have to adapt to their new circumstances including Sheila's new eating habits and the challenges of fulfilling this new hunger when they have law enforcement figures — Ricardo Chavira's Dan and Richard T. Jones' Rick — living on either side of them. It's iZombie, minus the procedural crime-fighting, brain-influencing character work and culinary ingenuity.
Also, Santa Clarita Diet isn't one of those "Oh, it's a romance that also happens to include zombies" cop-outs. This is a zombie show, even if the exact nature of the "disease" has only been hinted at and much of the mythology has been reduced to person-eating and mantras like "being undead frees us to be who we wanted to be." You've got to hold something for a second season and after 10 episodes, all sent to critics, Santa Clarita Diet feels like it's just getting started.
Directed in its first two episodes by Zombieland helmer Ruben Fleischer, the show boasts appeal that in large part comes from Barrymore's innocent glee at Sheila's new eating habits, which find her frequently bathed in blood, bedecked in intestines or gnawing at exsanguinated limbs. In a TV landscape in which body disposal has become a way for dramas to show their cable edginess, Santa Clarita Diet may be the body disposal-iest show since Dexter, if not ever.
Fresco and the writers contrast the gross-out moments and gags built around Sheila's increasingly feral behavior with innumerable punchlines juxtaposing these extremes with normal spousal disagreements. They don't quite resort to sitcom hackery like, "How dare you leave the toilet seat up?" "Well, how dare you eat people?" but it's close, and whenever you forget the dueling themes of the show, somebody will say, "I know we have to kill somebody today, but we have to be parents every day" a few times. Episodes of Santa Clarita Diet all run between 26 and 29 minutes, but each could have had two or three minutes of redundant underpinnings trimmed.
The thing that enlivens these zombie-ironic relationship conversations is the fine chemistry between Barrymore and Olyphant. Barrymore is playing more to type, a horror-comedy variation on her 50 First Dates role balancing sweetness and exaggerated imperfections, having a ball with the swearing and gore as Sheila's id becomes dominant. Olyphant is in the less instantly convincing position of playing a character repeatedly described as wimpy and indecisive, when his acting instincts tend toward coiled intensity. That means Joel initially didn't read right to me — again pointing to the lack of "before" breathing room in the pilot — but with Olyphant playing him as a manic episode waiting to happen, he makes more and more sense. The series hangs on the believable warmth between the characters, but I would have loved to have seen more on the provocative idea of zombism as stand-in for the challenges of caring for a loved one of diminished capacity — think Michael Haneke's Amour, only with zombies. Maybe that's still on tap for a second season, too.
Because she isn't being kept in the dark on what's going on, Abby is way less dopey and obtrusive than your typical TV teen. Hewson impressively holds her own with her onscreen parents and, with Skyler Gisondo as the nerdy boy next door, is involved in subplots that are sometimes fresher and more amusing than the bawdy body stuff in the A-story. There's also funny supporting work from the reliable likes of Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Thomas Lennon, an unexpectedly light touch from Chavira and Jones and several cameos I won't spoil.
There are comedies that make a complicated tone or a wacky high concept seem effortless — and Santa Clarita Diet is not one of them. The high exertion of getting mirth and metaphor from the morbid often leaves Fresco's cleverer dialogue buried and forces the stars to play the same strained beats over and over. But like zombies themselves, the show is relentless, and by the end of 10 episodes, there was progress towards a happy creative marriage.
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewson, Skyler Gisondo
Creator: Victor Fresco
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)