I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, Santa Clarita Diet, in one sitting on Friday night, but that says less about the quality of the writing than it does about the likable, easygoing cast and the fact that each episode is under 30 minutes. It’s an easy show to watch, and at times, a very fun one. But it’s not a particularly great show, and if not for the cast, it would quickly collapse underneath the weight of its one joke.
That one joke is this: Sheila (Drew Barrymore) realizes one day after losing her heartbeat and vomiting her entire bodyweight (plus an organ) that she has mysteriously died for unexplained reasons (perhaps, bad shellfish). Death, in this case, is unfortunate, but not debilitating to her career as a real estate agent, her role as a mother to Abby (Liv Hewson) and wife to Joel (Timothy Olyphant). In fact, being dead has its many benefits: Her libido is off the charts, she feels more liberated, and she can get a lot done with less sleep. Basically, she is being controlled by her Id.
The downside is that she has to eat people. There also may be some unfortunate decomposition.
With Joel, Abby, and Abby’s best friend, Eric (Skyler Gisondo) at her side, however, these are mere obstacles rather than severe impediments. Sheila and Joel, in fact, are able to strengthen their marriage by bonding over murder. They’re moral people, of course, so they only choose to kill people who deserve to die (or are prone to incidents of road rage, or are douchebags like a rival realtor played by Nathan Fillion at his sleaziest). In fact, when they attempt to kill good people, they’re usually undone by their consciences.
Santa Clarita Diet is, undoubtedly, a fun show, but it’s also repetitive: There’s only so many times Joel can express shock at his circumstances by announcing aloud, “But I’m a realtor!” and there’s only so many times Sheila can extract a laugh out of eliciting sex from her husband. Thanks to Olyphant and Barrymore, however, those jokes have a lot more mileage than they should. What’s even more ironic is that — especially with Olyphant — neither actor is particularly well suited to the role. Olyphant has made a career out of playing cool cucumbers, and here he plays against type as a doting, affectionate husband who feels somewhat emasculated by the ease of his wife’s ability to kill. I think it’s part of the joke that it’s Olyphant playing this character, but he’s not as good a comedic actor as I might have hoped. His timing always seems to be off by about half a beat, and his reactions often feel rehearsed. And yet, it’s also part of Olyphant’s charm. Olyphant, in this role, is kind of like a good Dad joke: It’s bad, but that’s why it’s funny.
Barrymore, on the other hand, is more one note, and that note can get a little grating over the course of ten episodes, as that’s as much a function of Barrymore as it is her character. She’s likable, but almost in spite of herself. Barrymore can get by with only being adorable over the course of a 90-minute comedy, but in an entire season of television, it’d be nice if she could find another gear. The real standouts here, however, are Hewson and Gisondo, who seem more like they were cast because they were perfect for their roles and less because of their name recognition. They’re funny; they have great chemistry together; and their timing is much better than their more famous co-stars. The cameos from Fillion, Portia de Rossi, Thomas Lennon, Ryan Hansen, Andy Richter, and Patton Oswalt also help bolster the comedy, which runs dry from time to time.
Ultimately, it’s an entertaining show, and one that I enjoyed watching. However, while the premise is great, the show does surprisingly little to expand upon it aside from sporadically searching for a cure for the zombie virus. The series also ends on an unfortunate cliffhanger, which should be verboten on any series in which we have to wait a year for additional episodes. In some ways, that cliffhanger sours the fun, but while the show’s one joke occasionally gets old, for some reason, watching Olyphant deliver it never does.