Santa Clarita Diet: Netflix show is Desperate Housewives-meets-Dexter-meets-The Walking Dead
If you thought zombies have been done to death, or ahem “undeath”, you’re in for a surprise with Netflix’s latest offering — Santa Clarita Diet.
Saturated with countless movies, innumerable comic books, and seven seasons of a little TV show called The Walking Dead, our society’s zombie tolerance levels may be at an all-time lowest, but networks and streaming services still keep finding new ways to present them to us: from the quirky, indie badassery of iZombie to this latest Netflix attempt. Santa Clarita Diet is essentially Drew Barrymore being a zombie with a dominant id resorting to cannibalism, which takes some getting used to for those of us who’ve grown up watching her grow up from a cute blond kid in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial to a bonafide star of romantic comedies like Never Been Kissed and other forgettable Adam Sandler features He’s Just Not That Into You.
If you’re expecting deep meaningful arguments about nihilism, ethics, and humanity in a post-zombie apocalyptic world, ….Diet is not for you; conversely, if silly, gory, almost-overacted goofball comedies about suburban monotony that’s brought to life by a jolt of rabid zombieism appeals to you, then ….Diet is your jam! Food pun intended.
Sheila Hammond (Barrymore) and her husband Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant of Justified and Damages fame) are your normal suburban real estate agents. They live normal suburban lives with their 16-year-old daughter Abby (Liv Hewson), in their normal suburban home. Sheila is a reasonably mild-mannered woman — the kind who wants to take chances and do crazy things but is too bogged down by life and her personality to ever actually do anything about it. Joel is kind of like the not-exactly-dumb-but-close-enough TV dad who’s surprisingly deep and articulate when you least expect him to be. You know, average stuff. Abby is a standard teenager — slightly impressed, slightly embarrassed by her parents.
The Hammonds’ normal suburban existence takes a drastic turn (is it for the worst? We can’t say yet) during a house showing that Sheila and Joel are at. In the midst of explaining the property’s many great features to the prospective buyers, Sheila suddenly starts spewing the mother of all vomits (seriously, there’s never been anything like this on television before; it goes on for like 15 seconds!). Besides throwing up a yellow curry-like substance, she also throws up what looks like a red organ (could it be human?) and, well, dies. Joel feels her pulse and realises there isn’t any. As he begins to overact the groveling, Sheila suddenly wakes up (or rather, comes back to life), setting in motion a stumbling-at-every-point ride into uncomfortable territory — she’s now a zombie who needs to eat humans. And not just their brains, a la Liv Moore in iZombie.
While the family tries to wrap their heads around this new development without coming to the attention of the authorities or their neighbours (both of whom are combined in the form of their next door neighbour Dan — an overly-nosey and annoyingly suspicious deputy sheriff), they’re also left to grapple with a host of immediate worries. In decreasing order of importance in the aftermath of zombieism:
1. What would Sheila eat for sustenance? Animal meat just won’t do. Sheila needs human flesh.
2. What caused her to turn into a zombie? They don’t know, we don’t know. There’s some reference to a dish she ate at a restaurant the night before, but it’s quickly discarded. We all know that’s not how you become a zombie!
3. Are there others? There may be, and during the course of the 10 episodes, we see another person turn — from a drug dealer to a zombie.
4. Is there a cure? There might be. It involves Portia de Rossi as a virologist.
4. How exactly is she different now? As the undead, Sheila is the epitome of irony — she’s more alive than she ever was when she was actually alive. Drew Barrymore as an impulsive zombie is quite amusing! Even when she’s ripping people’s organs off and devouring them..
Unlike iZombie, where Liv is actively against killing humans for her sustenance, Sheila (and by marital association, Joel) don’t seem to have too many qualms about killing humans and eating them. Sure, they’re not looking forward to doing it; but while Joey is suitably squeamish at the thought of Sheila eating a human hand, they’re also partners in crime the whole time. This is interesting for two reasons — (a) the need to eat humans but not necessarily wanting to kill good folks, results in one of the funniest iterations of Harry’s codes (Dexter fans will love this bit!) and (b) Joel’s willingness to kill for his wife, or at the very least, lend her a helping hand, is a terrific sitcom-study into the lengths people very often go to, for their loved ones.
The funniest scenes of the show are clearly the ones in which Sheila and Joel desperately try to follow Harry’s code (I know that’s a Dexter reference, but hey — inspiration, imitation, it’s all good), and fail spectacularly. If this stuff happened to Dexter, we would’ve had only one season of that mind numbingly good show!
Take these three tenets of Harry’s code for example, which the Hammonds also follow:
1. Killing must serve a purpose, otherwise it's just plain murder
When they generously decide to only kill “bad” people, you’d think the process Sheila and Joel follow would be something similar to Dexter’s. But unlike Dexter, our suburban real estate agents don’t have access to police records and unsolved case files. Finding out that the pot dealer who is dating your underage daughter’s underage friend, is only dealing because he’s the sole breadwinner in his family (paying the bills for his recently divorced sister and her kids) and was lied to by said underage friend about her age (she told him she was older, duh) is a pretty useful bit of last-minute information to have — especially when you were going to make the pot dealer your next meal!
2. Blend in — maintain appearances
Possibly the most frustratingly funny part of the show is how desperately the Hammonds try to maintain their peaceful, average suburban facade. Their argument about a container’s missing lid while they’re trying to bury a human body (cut up and sitting in a blood juice, in said container), is the definition of suburban normalcy.
Even the nonchalance with which Sheila packs her human-ear-and-other-parts infused smoothie in her workout flask while she’s out speed-walking with other suburban housewives, is brilliant!
Dan the neighbour does manage to snoop enough to know they’re up to something; he even begins to blackmail Joel after he finds a finger in the Hammonds’ backyard (eeks). Whose finger is it? Good question — this brings us to the third tenet.
3. Control urges, and channel them
I have 15 words for you: Nathan Fillion. Guest appearance. Gets eaten by zombie Barrymore. Uncontrollable zombie impulse. Hilarity ensues. Ha!
The show sets the tone for these scenes from the very start — from the moment we know and they know that something is up with Sheila, and Joel casually brings up the “Z” (zombie) word. It’s this kind of casual riffing and irreverence that makes Santa Clarita Diet a fun binge-worthy show (Netflix, you’ve done it again!).
There are downsides, of course. If copious amounts of gore, unearthly amounts of vomit, farting cadavers, and the sight of Barrymore coughing up furballs of bodily hair, are not for you, then don’t even bother with …..Diet. But if you’re looking for a half hour show with a wacky sitcom vibe, deliberately overcooked acting (which is spot on), and a kooky existential story set in suburbia, or if you just love zombies (because, let’s face it — even after all these years, who doesn’t?), then make this your next weekend binge. Maybe just refrain from watching it while you’re eating!