It was the image of Drew Barrymore stuffing human ears into her Nutriblend that first drew me to Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet.” The clip appeared in the show’s trailer and it promised many things. First of all, a zombie show that didn’t bear the potent dread and misery of “The Walking Dead.” Second of all, the unconventional juxtaposition of the undead and a brightly lit kitchen with a marble countertop and shiny household wares carefully hung along the walls: zombies in suburbia. Lastly, humor. It announced, mostly with Barrymore’s satisfied grin resembling that of a housewife who just finished making her morning green juice, that it was a parody of suburbia and of zombie films, and that it would be wonderfully, deliciously absurd.
“Santa Clarita Diet” is essentially a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “Twilight,” with zombies instead of vampires. Its resemblance to the former not only comes through in the plinky background music that scored almost every scene of “Desperate Housewives” (think violin plucks and little dings), but in a shared actor, Ricardo Chavira. He played Carlos, as a douchey neighbor who met a grisly fate, in the mid-2000s series.
Admittedly, it’s a smart and original combination. While supernatural presences in quiet suburban towns have never been scarce in Hollywood, the hybrid of these two classic show themes into a comedy is fresh. It’s executed well at some points, and not so well at others.
The first episode sets up the show’s driving point: Sheila Hammond (Barrymore), a bland and slightly vacuous realtor, and her husband and co-worker Joel (Timothy Olyphant, also a co-executive producer) are showing a house when a comically repulsive amount of vomit bearing an off-putting yellow hue comes spewing out of Sheila’s mouth. She dashes to the bathroom, and her husband soon finds her in a vomit-soaked room, passed out, with an odd red ball at her feet. Sheila, feeling suddenly very alive, begins eating raw red meat and displaying an oddly elevated libido. By the end of the episode, she’s torn apart her first human victim, a co-worker who wouldn’t stop flirting with her.
The show’s subsequent plot line essentially follows the two principal crises that almost all human-turned-supernatural plots must solve (or attempt to solve): the history of and possible cure to the condition itself (a quest Joel takes up largely on his own), and the covering up of the condition’s implications (here, the presence of half-eaten corpses in a freezer in the family’s storage locker). Cutting between the various quests that these two plot lines demand in a way that feels deliberately chaotic and disorienting, “Santa Clarita Diet” touches on a bevy of more serious themes as well, balancing love with a guilty conscience, power dynamics in marriage, child-rearing techniques, and even young love. Not to mention a LOT of blood and guts.
Like every show that focuses on the suburbs and its various tropes (sameness, gossip, manicured lawns, and the like), the neighbors are of utmost importance. There’s Sheriff Rick (Richard T. Jones) and his socially anxious wife Alondra (Joy Osmanski), a parody of the loser housewife who’s the recipient of catty high school bitchiness; Lisa Palmer (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), a boldly flirtatious divorcée whose new husband Dan (Chavira) is both unaware of her antics and the worst imaginable human in the world; and Lisa’s son Eric (Skyler Gisondo), whose nerdy internet obsessions make him the all-knowing source of zombie research, and who also serves as the potential love interest for the Hammond’s daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson).
Overall, “Santa Clarita Diet”’s half-hearted parody of extreme suburbia is entertaining at times; at others, it’s awkward and tedious. The best humor comes from the endearingly nerdy Eric, whose exaggerated version of the “nerd who’s in love with his beautiful and cool best friend” balances the audience’s utmost sympathies with overly uncomfortable moments. With Eric, the show both enacts and parodies this movie and TV trope. While Eric’s verbal fumbling and freckle-covered face wins over our hearts, his ungainliness is often pushed to absurd heights, as the show laughs at the way audiences accept whatever repulsive traits these awkward love interests possess.
The joke that stops working after its first few renditions is the “we were a normal suburban couple and now we kill people so one of us can eat their brains” one. While it’s tempting to rely on it (yes, it is the show’s foundational concept), the plot itself caters to the joke without it needing to be articulated. The more Joel gripes about his new body-dumping and wife-appeasing responsibilities, the more it feels like the show is leaning on foundational concept by simply reiterating it, as opposed to developing its many facets.
It does the same with the more serious themes that it wants to touch on; it never goes farther than announcing the themes, as if it’s too scared to take a side, retreating back into its “zombies in suburbia” gag before any deeper message is communicated.
One exception to this rule is in the show’s interpretation of marriage. While the zombie theme is mainly a source of humor, it also serves as a lens through which to interpret marital issues. Sheila feels empowered, revived, and liberated by her new state of being, while Joel tirelessly searches for a cure and struggles to keep her impulses in check. The high school sweethearts’ marriage also becomes tense when Joel oscillates between wanting to maintain a clear conscience and being there to support his wife, while she’s self-sufficient enough that she becomes the more dominant spouse in handling each obstacle, which only further infuriates Joel. Under the guise of zombie humor (plus a decent number of marriage jokes), the show is actually exploring some crucial gender dynamics that underlie the institution of marriage.
On the one hand, “Santa Clarita Diet” has everything. It’s funny, it’s bloody, it’s serious at times; it’s about family, marriage, gender norms, commitment, and more. It’s also chock-full of celebrity cameos, from Portia de Rossi as the genius scientist who offers to cure Sheila to Patton Oswalt as a doctor who sends Joel to a psychiatric ward. That being said, it seems like the show’s writers have bitten off a little more brain than they can chew. Perhaps if they focused on a few of these many aspects, there’d be just enough meat to dig a little deeper into what’s more important.