6:20am PT by Hilary Lewis
'Santa Clarita Diet' Creator on Future of Zombie Comedy Amid Netflix's Three-Season "Templates"
[The following story contains spoilers for the third season of Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet.]
The third season of Netflix's Drew Barrymore- and Timothy Olyphant-led zombie comedy, Santa Clarita Diet, ended with Olyphant's Joel Hammond finally making a decision about whether he wanted to become undead like his wife and fellow realtor Sheila (Barrymore) so they could spend eternity together.
Joel lets Sheila turn him by biting him, and he greets her with "hello" in the closing seconds of the season-three finale.
But whether viewers will be able to witness more of what an undead Joel is like remains to be seen. The series, from creator Victor Fresco, has yet to be renewed for a fourth season and its third season, which dropped Friday, has arrived at a time when Netflix continues to carefully review its internal data as it makes renewal decisions. (The streamer, like Amazon and Hulu, famously doesn't release viewership information.)
When asked about the show's fate on Friday, Fresco said that he and his team didn't "know anything" and that nothing had been decided about whether the show would be renewed or canceled.
"We're aware that the show gets more expensive every year; we're aware of what seems like templates of [Netflix's] studio stuff now. It looks like mostly three-season stuff," he says, seemingly confirming a recent report that the streamer now appears to have a two- or three-season business model for many series. "We know they like the show. I like to say the humans there seem to love the show; I don't know how the algorithm feels about us, and the algorithm makes a lot of decisions, ultimately. So I just don't know."
If there is a fourth season, Fresco says it could be the last one but that he'd envisioned a five-season run or, ideally, even more.
"I could see a scenario where the fourth year is the last year," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I sort of imagined it going five years — that seemed about right to me. I think the relationship is interesting and fun and emotional and loving enough that you could want to stay with the Hammonds for a long time because they're wonderful, so there's always stuff there for us to mine. The rest is just story work, which we can certainly do. I think we're introducing a huge new storyline for season four if we come back, and our challenge would be to come up with another one for season five, but I have no doubt based on these characters and this life that that would be something we could do. I don't have specifics for what that would be yet, but I have no doubt that we could come up with something really juicy."
Fresco and his team crafted the season-three finale not knowing what the future of the show is, he says, adding that if that episode turns out to be the series finale, "We wanted to leave it hopefully satisfying if we don't come back but also promising something that could be really interesting to explore if we do come back."
Few comedies at Netflix have lasted beyond three seasons, with American Vandal, All About the Washingtons, Haters Back Off!, Lady Dynamite, Disjointed, Friends From College and Love all ending after three seasons or fewer. Perennial awards contender Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt earlier this year aired its fourth and final season, an ending that was announced ahead of time. Other longer-lasting comedies include Grace and Frankie, the streamer's longest-running live action scripted comedy series, which was renewed earlier this year for a sixth season; Arrested Development, which recently debuted the second half of its fifth season and was picked up from Fox and only aired two new seasons on the streaming platform, the first of which dropped in 2013; and more broader skewing fare like The Ranch, which was renewed last fall for a fourth season, and Fuller House, which is set to end with its upcoming fifth season.
Netflix recently axed critically acclaimed comedy One Day at a Time, which has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Santa Clarita Diet's 89 percent freshness rating among critics and 87 percent audience score.
But while One Day at a Time and the Marvel series Netflix dumped earlier this year came from outside studios, Santa Clarita Diet is a Netflix production.
So if the streamer chooses to pull the plug on its own series, it's unknown if Fresco could take the comedy that Netflix owns elsewhere.
"I can't see how it could be shopped elsewhere since Netflix is the studio. I haven't explored that and that would be something that would be easy to figure out in a phone call if that's even possible to take it elsewhere. But I just don't know if it is since they own it outright," he said.
Speaking with THR, Fresco breaks down season three's big storylines and how he and his team dealt with a number of changes, including losing some key guest stars to other series, which forced them to recast one role, and deciding to move on from the timely Nazi targets of season two to another real world-inspired victim in a men's rights supporter.
Three of your guest stars who were involved in key storylines at the end of season two were cast in other shows. Natalie Morales was around for three episodes and Zachary Knighton was in the first episode before passing his Knights of Serbia duties on to Tommy (Ethan Suplee). But with Nathan Fillion, you basically recast his character, Gary. Why did you decide to recast that role?
We couldn't get Nathan back, so our choices were get rid of that character or recast, and we just loved that character. So it was a challenge for us to figure out a way to use that character, and then, of course, it occurred to us that we could just make that character deteriorate more — we had that luxury in our world — and get a different actor to play the role, which is what we ended up doing. So really all of these characters that we don't have a hold on, when we end up losing them — like five of them have pilots this year because they're all really talented — then it's just a challenge for us to figure out what we can do. For some of them, like Zach Knighton was generous enough to give us a day so that we could transition that storyline from his character over to Ethan Suplee's. We couldn't get Nathan at all. And Natalie was generous enough to give us three episodes. but we couldn't get her past that. We push as hard as we can to get them for as much as we can, and then we get our final answer, whether it's no episodes or one or three, and we start breaking our stories and figuring out what we can do. We're a little lucky in that we know pretty far out at least how much we're going to have them for so we can start breaking stories after that. If we were to lose them suddenly after our stories had been broken, it would be a disaster. We really liked Gary and we thought, "Oh, what other show can do this and what other role could actually do this and have that luxury of recasting?"
How did you end up with Alan Tudyk as the new Gary?
We on the show have just always purely been fans of his work, and he does voice work, and he's a funny guy, and his name was on a very short list. We chased him and were able to get him. He was a total joy to work with; he's such a pro. It's two days and it's a long two days of getting in that hair and makeup and also his head has to be completely stabilized. He can't move his head because we're going to eventually burn the face onto a model of a face. It's very hard for an actor to work because you don't realize how much you move your head. It's very hard for an actor to emote without moving their head.
Another thing that happens this season is the Nazis are on to Joel and Sheila, so they have to find a new group of bad people to kill, and one of their most prominent victims ends up being a guy who's a domestic abuser and a vocal misogynist, and they lure him to a fake men's rights meeting. How did you decide on having someone like that be a target for them to kill?
We looked at the landscape. We don't want them killing innocent people, so we just kind of look at the landscape of what else is out there. The men's rights stuff is intriguing to us because men have a lot of rights, and I think it's sort of a cover for a lot of misogyny, so we thought that would be an area to explore. We didn't want it to be too cartoony. We wanted it to be something that actually exists. So I think we had a couple of candidates of other possibilities of who this guy could be, but we thought it would be funny and fun in our show to have Drew play an anti-woman woman. We thought that would be a fun thing to watch.
There's a line in that scene in which the guy, Bob Zekeman (Matthew Glave), says "the world is so unsafe for men right now." I feel like that's something that was said in the real world amid the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. Was that at all connected?
Yeah, yeah, I mean I love targeting those guys. This guy goes further because he's a physical abuser. But that kind of stuff is just such crap, I think, and that white men are oppressed is just crap, and I love calling it out if we can. Because as the dominant race and sex, we can't cry foul. So I like calling it out, and this gave us an opportunity to do that.
This year viewers didn't see Joel and Sheila focusing on one group the way they did with the Nazis in season two. Do you see them targeting men who've attacked women as another group for them to go after?
Yeah. I mean I found that for the show to stay interesting, it has to keep moving. So the Nazi thing, we do it in the first episode, and we screened it last night and Joel's got a line that's "now there are more of them than ever," and we shot that a year ago, and it's still sadly relevant. It's really a sad comment on where we are. We wanted to get off that because we've seen it. Now we've done the men's rights guy, who's an abuser. [Sheila] needs a steady supply of people, but we didn't it to be a show about, "Who are we going to get next?" I think we covered that in the first season. So this season just moved into a different area, and the killing — there's just a lot less of it because it's not as interesting to us anymore.
One of the things that does come up in this new season is this idea of Sheila granting eternal life and, as you tease in the trailer, she asks Joel to let her bite him and then they can spend eternity together. He makes a decision at the end of the season, and she bites him. How long had you considered the possibility of turning Joel and where does the dynamic between Joel and Sheila go from here?
We considered it probably about midway through the season. We weren't entirely sure what our endgame would be. We knew we were going to have this idea of immortality be a big piece of our story this year. You know, Sheila's only turned about a month ago. Each season's about two weeks, so it's still pretty recent. It never dawned on them that this could be an issue. Of course when they realize it, it's like, "Duh, yes that is an issue." And then it turns into, "How much do you love me? Do you want to be with me forever?" So it came to us a little bit later. Funnily, we've been on the show for three years, you would've thought it would've come to us sooner, but there's been so much stuff going on in their world — trying to stay alive and stay fed and all of that — that the bigger questionings didn't start to happen until season three. We don't know. We like where it ends and if we're back for a season four, we would love to explore this whole other dynamic now that would just be really interesting in their marriage and what is Joel going to be like. I look at this stuff as setting a table, and you don't have to know exactly all the answers yet, but you're just setting a table and hoping doors are opening and there's enough that you're setting up that's just going to be really interesting and fun to explore. And that I think our ending of season three certainly gives us for season four.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.