If Santa Clarita Diet isn’t for you, you’ll know it within minutes.
Netflix’s new comedy initially billed itself as a happy-go-lucky suburban parody, starring the photogenic pairing of Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore at her sunniest. But as the show’s first trailer revealed, Santa Clarita Diet isn’t just a sendup of trimmed lawns and nosy neighbors. It’s also a winking satire of zombie shows, turning mousy realtor Sheila (Barrymore) into a literal man-eater with a penchant for seizing the day and slurping human flesh smoothies while her husband Joel (Olyphant) desperately tries to keep their lives together.
Created by Better Off Ted’s Victor Fresco, Santa Clarita Diet is immediately very strange and viscerally, gleefully gross. Every time shit goes sideways on this show — which is often — you are in for a lot of gore. A typical scene has Joel panicking in the background while Sheila tears out throats, snacks on intestines, coughs up hairballs, and burps blood. She relishes the kill, but not as much as Santa Clarita Diet relishes rubbing our faces in her feral hunger.
(Seriously: If you’re someone who likes to leave Netflix on while you’re cooking, maybe rethink that plan for Santa Clarita Diet.)
In the first few chapters of the show’s 10-episode season, it can feel like the writers, actors, and prop department are battling it out to see who can outdo the rest in terms of sheer weirdness, an exhausting game that only works about half the time.
But once everyone settles into a rhythm of absurdity, Santa Clarita Diet sharpens right up. It just takes a few episodes for everyone to figure things out; once they get on with discovering their inner murderer and making spaghetti and brain meatballs, the show becomes pretty hard to resist.
Santa Clarita Diet starts off as scattershot as its victims’ guts, but settles in once everyone understands its particular brand of bonkers
Sheila and Joel Hammond are your everyday bland (if Hollywood beautiful) suburban realtors. Their teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) sneers at authority and the idea of her (Hollywood beautiful) parents having sex. The family's biggest problem before Sheila dies in spectacular fashion is that Joel can’t figure out how to adjust the toaster oven without burning things.
Then the moment of Sheila’s death arrives, suddenly and horribly. It’s also the moment when I knew Santa Clarita Diet was going to be something far more twisted than advertised (i.e. the moment I got 40 percent more interested in Santa Clarita Diet). The whole process of her demise — and it is a whole process — kicks off while she and Joel are showing a house, singing the praises of its laundry chute. All of a sudden, she unleashes a truly volcanic eruption of vomit on the pristine carpet. She then excuses herself to the bathroom, which she promptly paints yellow with more vomit, plus a bonus coughed up organ.
It’s disgusting, it’s hyperbolic, and it’s like nothing else I’ve seen on TV in recent memory — which, given how much TV is out there, is a feat in and of itself. But it still takes the show a few episodes to catch up to its own ambition .
In fairness, comedies almost always take a few episodes to find their pacing, and Netflix’s general model — which relies on the probability of people marathoning shows — makes room for that, assuming that people will power through the bumpy early episodes and get to the good stuff sooner rather than later.
Santa Clarita Diet might need to count on that, because the first few episodes definitely feel the weight of the actors easing into their bizarre roles, while Fresco and the writers try to balance the show's tired strains of suburban satire with the much more interesting absurdity of Sheila’s condition.
Barrymore and Olyphant in particular take a hot second to suss out exactly how their partnership can best depict the one between Sheila and Joel. Barrymore — who’s been doing comedy for decades — settles into Sheila’s skin earlier, her beaming eyes and matter-of-fact delivery making the horrific things Sheila wants to do feel adorable and adventurous, until you remember that they’re horrific.
Barrymore is completely committed, but she still needs an equal scene partner, and Olyphant takes more time adjusting to Santa Clarita’s particular rhythms. Olyphant has generally treated comedy more like a drive-by novelty throughout his career, so diving into something as overtly bizarre as Santa Clarita Diet has a higher level of difficulty than he can handle at first, making him go wackier than even the premise calls for. (I realized several episodes deep that the role of Olyphant’s neurotic bro Joel was James Marsden’s part to lose, and shall forever mourn that potential version of this show.)
Still: Olyphant gets more comfortable with the show at about the same rate as the show itself does. And the further Santa Clarita Diet and the Hammonds dive into their dark and twisty double life of tearing people limb from limb and attending parent teacher conferences — not to mention determining what Sheila's new status means for their marriage — the better it gets.
Getting past basic suburbia jokes allows Santa Clarita Diet to dig into far more interesting — and bizarre — stories
While Sheila’s death marked the moment I knew Santa Clarita Diet was going to be different, the moment that made me realize I could I fall for the show was when Joel’s first reaction to his wife a) dying and b) craving the taste of human flesh — was essentially, “We can get through this thing together,” as if she had come down with the flu.
Joel’s immediate acceptance of his new, uh, situation is the choice that makes Santa Clarita Diet what it is: a comedy about a couple just trying to keep their lives together, even if it means ending others. And so, after trying and failing to set Sheila on a raw animal diet, the Hammonds go about trying to find people who really deserve to be killed and eaten — a plan which obviously goes horribly awry almost every time.
As new complications arise, Santa Clarita Diet gets more and more interesting in terms of setting its moral compass. Joel and Sheila’s acceptance of their evolution into murderers sets off a disturbing chain of events. They even spark an existential crisis in their daughter, who justifiably can’t understand how she’s supposed to go on with life as usual when her undead mother is making meals out of rude men.
About halfway through the season, Joel discovers the possibility of a cure, and all the strangeness the series set up in its first episodes kicks into hyperdrive. Sheila embraces her new undead confidence (a mode Barrymore clearly enjoys) while Joel unravels (a gear that ends up suiting Olyphant perfectly). Even the Hammonds’ neighbors — including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Mary Elizabeth Ellis — break out of their initial caricature molds to become almost as openly absurd as their secret zombie neighbor.
By the end of the season, Santa Clarita Diet is far more serialized and firing on all cylinders. The basic suburban parody jokes are left in the dust in favor of a scavenger hunt for a zombie cure that just gets more and more twisted with every passing breakthrough. The season even ends on a huge cliffhanger, despite the fact that a second season hasn’t been announced yet.
I ended up enjoying Santa Clarita Diet’s first season enough that I really do hope season two comes to pass. But for now, I’ll satisfy myself with the image of Joel patiently, lovingly shaving a body of its hair so it’ll be easier for his wife to eat, while Sheila grins and sucks the fat off some ribs — both because it’s probably burned into my brain until I die myself, and because it’s the perfect summation of this extraordinarily weird (and ultimately delightful) show.
The first season of Santa Clarita Diet is currently streaming on Netflix.