Victor Fresco has a habit of making wonderful, idiosyncratic comedies with dark wit and stellar performances that nobody seems to watch. While his show-runner record is inconsistent, his A game includes the cult hit Andy Richter Controls the Universe and the criminally underrated Better Off Ted, both of which use unexpected genre tropes to explore the secret weirdness of the mundane. His latest effort, Santa Clarita Diet, moves the setting from the workplace to the suburban hierarchy, but keeps the intrusion of otherness to highlight the inherent oddness of real life. In this case, it’s zombies and gore. And boy, is there gore.
Netflix’s latest comedy, starring Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore (finally getting material worthy of her goofy charm), centres on Joel and Sheila, married real estate agents whose lives take a turn for the horrific when Sheila dies and becomes a flesh-eating zombie. In many ways, the change is a positive thing – she feels livelier, she enjoys herself more, and she has way more sex with her super-hot husband – but then the cravings hit, and there’s only so long you can live in-between two police-officers before suspicions simmer to the top.
Suburbia has always been a hotbed for creative darkness, from John Updike to Desperate Housewives, and much of Santa Clarita Diet touches on the expected beats – fights with the school principle, tensions with the neighbours, problems at work – but the addition of zombies heightens those tensions to enjoyably ludicrous levels. Everything is turned up just a little too much, from the strained smiles to the perfectly coiffed gardens with hidden chopped off fingers amidst the greenery. Shades of Pushing Daisies – one of my all time favourite shows – linger overhead, as Sheila enters a new life of flesh eating with borderline sociopathic glee and blood sprays across the pristine sheen of her poncho.
“Comedy horror” as a genre is often reduced to a comedy film with a few gore shocks, and while horror is definitely not the focus here, the bloodiness comes thick and fast. There are shades of early Peter Jackson in scenes were Sheila blends up random frozen organs to make a hearty smoothie, and gut-churning glee as the pair scramble to clear up a soup of flesh from the dirty ground. This may not be one to watch while you eat (unless you’re one of those oddities who could eat burgers while watching Hannibal. Hi, how are you?)
The focus remains on the family, as they navigate major changes while clinging to the normalcy they hope will keep them safe. Any long-term relationship will hit roadblocks along the way, and Joel is desperate to keep the most important thing in his life together, even as he freaks out about having to murder a few people now and then. Joel and Sheila’s daughter, a sardonic and savvy youth played with charm by Liv Hewson, struggles with the change and looks for distracting thrills with her geeky neighbour, and it’s a genuine joy to see two teenage characters who look and act like teenagers, albeit funnier and more self-aware than the rest of us were at that age.
While Barrymore is clearly having the time of her life playing Sheila, delving into murder and maiming with giddiness that would be cute if it didn’t involve organ munching, the star of the show is Timothy Olyphant. Joel is passionate about his love for his family but also barely holds it together when the weirdness sets in, and Olyphant is so damn charismatic as the reasonably strait-laced husband and father who works hard to do what’s best for his undead wife while allowing for the occasional panic.
There’s enough plot twists to keep you engaged, and the dark-camp tone allows for some pitch-black humour and satirized sentimentality amidst the amoral shenanigans. Sheila can’t help but relish her new state and the fun that accompanies killing her dinner, but she still struggles to cling to her humanity. It’s relatively lightweight stuff but there’s still enough in these charming characters to emotionally invest in. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Santa Clarita Diet is hilariously perverse and perfect binge-watching TV. Make sure you don’t miss out on this one, because some of us are still bitter that Better Off Ted got cancelled.