As Netflix continue their plans for streaming and world domination by either making or buying all the movies and TV shows, inevitably there will be things that fall by the wayside. Some shows are hotly hyped and don’t live up to that, while others premiere with not even a minor notice. These things simply can’t be predicted, and with Peak TV in no danger of ending anytime soon, a lot will miss its moment in the sun. With the comedy Santa Clarita Diet, starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, it seemed like another case of big names and a high concept failing to inspire anticipation. The first season was received warmly enough but it wasn’t exactly getting Stranger Things write-ups. The consensus seemed to be ‘it’s fine’, but for those of us on its wavelength, the newest comedy from Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted) was a genre-mashing delight.
Joel and Sheila Hammond (Olyphant and Barrymore) are married realtors living the picturesque suburban life: Beautiful house, tight-knit family, aspirational work, and the occasional morning quickie. Their lives are reasonably content until Sheila vomits, dies, then wakes up with a hunger for flesh. Where season one found the family dealing with the aftermath of her newfound zombie un-life, season two sees the Hammonds fall deeper into the pit of suspicion with their neighbors, friends and authorities. On the bright side, Sheila’s feeling great!
Victor Fresco’s strength as a show-runner is in his ability to inject the mundane with just the right amount of crazy. He takes the expected tropes of sitcoms and blends them with high-concept genre ideas. Better Off Ted reimagined the workplace sitcom with a comic book style evil corporation setting, while Andy Richter Controls the Universe deconstructed the entire format of sitcoms with some nifty literary aspirations. Santa Clarita Diet is essentially a good old-fashioned American family comedy, only here there’s enough blood to drown a cat.
The zombie genre is currently over-saturated with the same clichés, but it’s also dominated by one wildly popular property, The Walking Dead. Where Santa Clarita Diet succeeds is in the way it harnesses the zombie tropes you expect — plus the ones seen in every network sitcom — while making them simultaneously mundane and exciting. The domestic zombie isn’t unique to this show, although it’s certainly at its funniest here. It helps that the series, thanks to the freedom of Netflix, is allowed to get incredibly bloody. Some may take umbrage with the sheer amount of blood and organs, but the near melodramatic sight of a dismembered head singing ‘Mack the Knife’ and Drew Barrymore chewing off one of her fingers is one to behold.
Season 2 sees Sheila frozen in her zombie state. She won’t get any worse, but there’s no guarantee of a cure either. That leaves her in a near-permanent daze of flesh-craving vivaciousness: Living her best life but still desperate to chew on someone’s face for a few minutes. Being a zombie is an Oprah-esque life improving state for Sheila. It makes her more lively, bolder in her daily life, and her sex drive is through the roof! Rarely has being undead been so life affirming.
The season offers more of her internal conflict with her new life, torn between loving the freedom it offers and the inevitable danger of living on a human-only diet. Zombie life starts to further infringe on their regular lives, as Sheila deals with her super sexist boss and the family can’t throw yet another cop neighbor off their scent. The plot kicks into high gear too, between the search for the zombie virus’s origins to daughter Abby’s conflicts over her feelings for weird neighbor Eric. Both Liv Hewson and Skyler Gisondo are delights as two of the more interesting teen characters in TV comedy. The pair manage to convey the awkwardness of teen friendship that seems perpetually on the edge of romance, and luckily the weird creepy teen boy stuff of the previous season has been dropped. Now, Eric is just weird but in a good way that feels relatable. Oh, and now there are Nazis to deal with.
Drew Barrymore, whose season one performance always seemed more in tune with a different sitcom, is having the time of her life in the role of a woman who gets to gnaw on eyelids and then fuck Timothy Olyphant night after night. Olyphant remains the scene stealer, perfectly embodying the role of an earnest dolt who can’t hide his nervousness, even when his life is on the line. Thankfully, this season also offers more of him dancing, and there’s something to be said for a sitcom that lets the husband be the worrying busybody while the wife has all the madcap hijinks. Generally speaking, the show is fascinatingly feminine in its approach to both the family comedy and zombie horror. Rarely does the monstrous have this kind of perspective without losing its edge.
Beyond the blood and kidneys and one super dark scene involving a degloving, what keeps Santa Clarita Diet grounded is the Hammonds themselves. Joel and Sheila have a loving, complex and often abrasive marriage built on true love and affection, which helps them to weather the ceaseless strangeness of their current predicament. Abby is sardonic and increasingly cynical about her life, knowing it will never be normal again, but it doesn’t stop her from caring about her parents and trying to do some good in the world. It never crosses their minds to abandon Sheila or leave her to do all the dirty work. They may be one of the most loving and loveable families on TV. Their sturdy foundations help the series juggle its weird mish-mash of tones and television approaches: Imagine if Bryan Fuller didn’t leave all the human eating for Hannibal and put it right into Pushing Daisies. This is Romero meets Leave it to Beaver with a decidedly 21st century sensibility.
If you missed out on Santa Clarita Diet or were unsure about its first season, jump straight into season two. The jokes are plentiful, the pacing is tighter, the family dynamic better developed, and it’s just weird enough to make it unique among a crowded comedy field. Watch it, if for no other reason, to see Timothy Olyphant reminding the world that he’s a comedic force to be reckoned with. Come for the gags, stay for the heart, which I hear is very tasty when pulled straight from the chest.
Both seasons of Santa Clarita Diet - 20 episodes in total - are available to stream now on Netflix.
Have you watched the season yet? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.
(Header image from Netflix - Photo credit Saeed Adyani)