Critic's Notebook: In Praise of Netflix's Oddly Invisible 'Santa Clarita Diet'

One of the amusements of Netflix's mystery-driven algorithm is never quite being able to predict what below-the-radar offering is about to become a cultural touchstone — be it the latest star-free rom-com or tawdry true-crime documentary or Israeli domestic melodrama — and what A-list-driven, heavily promoted original is about to become culturally invisible.

I don't know that Santa Clarita Diet is completely culturally invisible. I'm certain, or certainly hopeful, that it has a dedicated audience. It's plausible that Santa Clarita Diet is actually a huge hit, because who would ever know with Netflix? I do know that the third Santa Clarita Diet season premiered this week and reviews are sparse (but also enthusiastic, which is what happens when a show reaches a point at which only the critics who like it are bothering to review). I also know that the "Awards" page on the IMDb page for Santa Clarita Diet is limited to a lone nomination (though all praise to the WGA for recognizing series creator Victor Fresco's hilarious second season finale).

Maybe Santa Clarita Diet is one of Netflix's stealth hits? Probably "stealth" isn't what you aspire to, though, when you make a series featuring America's Sweetheart Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, who probably doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves as one of the true heroes of our Peak TV era. Santa Clarita Diet isn't a stealth show. It isn't some quirky, auteur-driven indie meant to be cherished by a tiny, elitist audience of critics like me. Though sometimes even shows in that niche can become invisible. The enthusiasm burnout experienced (and caused) by the Netflix seasons of Arrested Development is one of the odd TV-related tragedies of our time. If you'd told me five years ago that a new slate of Arrested Development episodes would be available and my attitude would be, "Eh, I'll get to them when I get to them," I'd have looked at you in confusion.

Santa Clarita Diet is a big, broad horror comedy. Yeah, Santa Clarita Diet doesn't lack for suburban satire and mocking of Southern California vacuity, but it's a thoroughly wacky zombie show. It's edgy and clever and precise in its comic delivery, yet rarely subtle. It's a show driven by exaggerated blood spray, a snarky severed head and the presence of a freaky meatball-with-spider-legs appropriately called Mr. Ball-Legs.

Where did Netflix and Santa Clarita Diet go wrong in terms of establishing cultural relevancy? Right at the beginning!

I think Netflix mis-marketed Santa Clarita Diet to an audience that was never going to embrace the show for what it is and never found a way to sync up its appeal with the very real audience out there that would love this show.

I remember watching 10 minutes of Santa Clarita Diet a month before premiere and not having a clue what it was. That's around the point that Barrymore's Sheila begins aggressively projectile vomiting in the middle of a real estate presentation and, before you know it, she's eating raw meat and craving human flesh. Netflix didn't pretend Santa Clarita Diet wasn't a zombie show — if it's not that, it's nothing — but the streamer played it coy and I think many critics and, doubtlessly, quite a few viewers got the impression that the show wasn't all-in on its zombie identity simply because the promotion wasn't all-in. 

My own review, which was quite positive, questioned whether Santa Clarita Diet should have spent more time developing its characters before springing the zombie twist and suggested that more time could be spent on the zombie-as-metaphor subtext. It's not so much that my quibbles there were "wrong," just that they were quibbles addressing a show I was misdirected into thinking Santa Clarita Diet wanted to be, when it clearly didn't.

And I'm writing this column because on its own terms, Santa Clarita Diet is a very good show. It's rarely a great show. It's never an important show. It's a fun show. A tremendously fun show. A tremendously fun show that I'm confident more people would enjoy if they approached it on its own terms, which are colorful and silly and purely enjoyable.

I tore through the 10-episode third season in two days, wedged into gaps in viewing PBS' very solid new adaptation of Les Miserables as an unintentional study in contrasts. The characters in Santa Clarita Diet are well aware that they're in a society that's coming apart at the seams — either the decline of our moral and ethical fabric or just the rise of the undead — and yet it's a sunny and eternally peppy show. I could be misremembering, but I don't think there are more than a half-dozen scenes this season set at night and most of those are in overlit suburban interiors, because even if the end of the world is in sight on Santa Clarita Diet, it's a bright and optimistic end of the world. It's so optimistic that even if Sheila is among the walking dead, she's making plans for an eternity of un-living and trying to convince Olyphant's Joel to accept a zombie love-bite and join her. That and the emergence of an ancient undead-fighting order known as the Knights of Serbia are the season's major arcs, along with the normal paranoia of being discovered.

Santa Clarita Diet is not really a show you watch for its plot lines, which are decidedly repetitious. The three seasons of the show have taken place over less than a month and it's almost exhausting to think of the sheer volume of farce the Hammond clan has experienced in that limited window.

The cast was sold as the primary draw from the beginning. I was initially convinced that Olyphant was miscast as the passive Joel, perhaps because he's spent so much of his time on the small screen with his jaw clenched in determination. Here, he's built Joel around an increasingly manic smile, the artificial jollity of somebody dedicated to a life of sales who has decided he needs to sell himself on everything he does. Barrymore's disposition is wonderfully unforced in contrast. He rationalizes, she embraces, each approach fueling unique and loopy line readings aplenty and the characters meet somewhere in the middle, usually in a room spattered with blood.

The cast's revelations have been Liv Hewson as Joel and Sheila's eager-to-be-involved daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as the eager-to-be-near-Abby neighbor Eric. I'm less interested in the will-they-or-won't-they romance between Abby and Eric than the show seems to be, but I'm completely invested in the odd couple pairing as friends that makes them the rare cable/streaming teens who are frequently more appealing than their show's marquee stars.

Olyphant and Barrymore are big enough names that they could have been insecure about ceding focus to supporting characters. Instead, they've left it open for Fresco to assemble a ridiculously good ensemble. In addition to regular and returning treasures like Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Natalie Morales as the couple next door and Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as rival realtors, the cast just keeps growing and improving. Goran Visnjic shows off previously hidden comic chops as a newly arrived Serbian national, Ethan Suplee brings gung-ho energy as a former Army sniper with a new mission and Linda Lavin pops up as a cancer patient who doesn't buy Sheila's cheery attitude. I jokingly compared Santa Clarita Diet to Michael Haneke's Amour only with zombies in my original review, but this season was much more willing to explore the series' caretaker metaphor than the show has been in the past.

Jonathan Slavin's turn as Ron, Joel's former mental asylum buddy, is expanded this season, and Fresco adds at least one other Better Off Ted veteran in a guest role, as well as one of Olyphant's former Deadwood colleagues. The risk with a cast this big and this good is that a recurring player might become unavailable due to another gig, and the handling of Nathan Fillion's exit was a true comic gift.

To some degree, Netflix almost seems to be steering into the lack of hype or buzz around Santa Clarita Diet. This season was released the same weekend as HBO's premiering Barry and Veep, comedies with an almost gravitational draw for critics. Those shows got the rhapsodic reviews and extended features, leaving Santa Clarita Diet (and On the Block) for the quieter approval of established fans.

There have been recent stories about Netflix's newfound tendency to cancel comedies after second and third seasons, with One Day at a Time standing as the highest-profile victim. Without knowing who's watching, only how little I hear about who's watching, Santa Clarita Diet could be in similar danger. The finale gives no indication that Fresco plans on ending things here and I hope that my sense of the show's invisibility is only reflective of my bubble, because I think Santa Clarita Diet is a gory lark.