Suburban real estate agents and zombies don’t seem like the most obvious pairing. But Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet” manages to combine the two into a fun, fast-paced, sitcom — which is just the first of many pleasant surprises the show has to offer. Creator Victor Fresco wastes little getting deep into some zany humor and even less time trying to explain its premise (a suburbanite turns into a zombie; just go with it). With each episode clocking in at just around 30 minutes, the show is the better for the brevity of backstory. With less time spent worrying about why Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) spontaneously vomits excessive amounts of green goo before finding herself freshly undead, viewers get to spend more time enjoying her and her adoring husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) as they try to figure out what to do about it.
Both Barrymore and Olyphant are genius casting choices. The two bring a charming, manic energy to their portrayals of Sheila and Joel. The earnest way they love each other is a refreshing change of pace from the often bickering and snarky married couples often portrayed in sitcoms.
Sure, the Hammonds rib each other over the various usual missteps of married life, but they are also hilariously quick to (literally) kill for one another without a second thought. Both performances manage to maintain a positivity in stark contrast with the given circumstances. At first, this positivity can be hard to swallow; but then, consider how unbelievable the premise itself is. If viewers are willing to believe in zombies, why shouldn’t they believe in an optimistic couple coping with said zombies by focusing on the bright side of things? Barrymore and Olyphant manage to achieve the right sort of wide-eyed quirk that can oscillate between dropping a litany of f-bombs with a smile, and beating a man to death with a shovel — all before taking their daughter on a family trip to the beach. It’s hard to imagine Andrew Lincoln (“The Walking Dead”’s Rick Grimes) pulling off such a task.
Barrymore and Olyphant aren’t going it alone, though. They both benefit from the sturdy supporting performances of Liv Hewson as the Hammond’s snarky daughter Abby; and Skyler Gisondo’s nerdy, neighbor boy Eric. The cast is further augmented by some great cameos from the likes of Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt, and Andy Richter, to name a few.
While comparisons are sure to abound between “Santa Clarita Diet” and similar shows, it manages to set itself firmly apart from the most immediate of its peers — “The Walking Dead” and “Weeds.” Fans of either of those shows may definitely find something familiar in “Santa Clarita Diet” This show, however, manages to avoid both the heavy-handed bleakness of the former and the well-trodden serio-comic tropes of the latter, while bringing something entirely new to the table. Ultimately, “Santa Clarita Diet” does land firmly on the humorous side of the line where horror and comedy meet; it definitely offers the sort of guts and gore any genre fan might want from more standard zombie fare. Yes, the gore is more often used for sight gags and the situational comedy of much-needed ponchos and painters tarps; but anyone worried that the comedic tone of the show might mean less blood and guts can rest easy.
Horror, as a genre, is often a great litmus test for any given society’s current state of affairs. It’s interesting then, to watch a show like “Santa Clarita Diet” in today’s cultural climate. The underlying theme of “we’ll figure it out” is the sort of mantra trotted out in dark times of change. Whether the horrors are those of Sheila’s sudden-onset zombification, or the U.S. government’s sudden-onset fascism, it’s oddly comforting to watch a family pull together with positivity and love as their lives and the world around them goes through dark changes beyond their control. To watch “Santa Clarita Diet” is to watch the demographically status quo American family spin out as their lives warp beyond recognition. Viewers watch along as the Hammonds find themselves suddenly capable of doing (and required to do) things they never thought possible. Whether it is biting the fingers off of a misogynist who won’t take no for an answer, killing a corrupt law officer who’s abusing their power and authority, or recognizing the humanity of a misguided drug dealer, there are echoes beyond the absurdity that are resonant and timely.
No, “Santa Clarita Diet” isn’t perfect: The first episode or so struggles to establish a consistency of tone, the tenth (and final episode) of the first season is a bit of a cliffhanger uncharacteristic for such a binge-able show. Sometimes there are inconsistencies regarding the stakes of the situation and what it means for the family. Nonetheless, the pace and specific, hilarious weirdness that “Santa Clarita Diet” ultimately achieves makes it a show that is definitely worth spending 30 minutes per episode with.