Ten episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Dark comedy doesn’t come easily. It requires a deft touch, an uncompromising vision, an unflinching disregard for general wide audience appeal. That doesn’t come naturally to Hollywood. Likewise, edgy suburban satires are just as difficult to perfect. The seedy underbelly of American outskirts is ground well-trenched and, well, over-spoiled. Few rise to the standards bestowed by Blue Velvet or The Virgin Suicides, to name a couple, and even fewer find a premise unexplored, or worth exploring, in that confined environment. That’s why it was safe to dismiss Netflix’s residential horror-comedy Santa Clarita Diet at first. After all, what could it bring to the table?
Created by Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted), Santa Clarita Diet follows Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila Hammond (Barrymore), two high school sweethearts-turned-mundane suburbanite realtors struggling to keep their profits high while raising their sarcastic teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) in sunny California. Life is discontent and fairly boring, filled with little excitement beyond Joel’s occasional weed smoking sessions. Worse yet, they’ve got newfound competition from a fellow realtor, the handsome hotshot Gary (Nathan Fillion), who hopes to scoop up their clients. But Joel and Sheila soon find their day-to-day problems replaced by some supernatural ones.
Following some intense vomiting, Sheila is left without a beating pulse. Her veins are bloodless, too, replaced only with an odd tar-like substance. Joel and Abby are flabbergasted by Sheila’s mysterious condition, unable to come up with any logical answer. But dorky neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo) might have an explanation for the wife’s unusual developments: she’s now undead. Defying logic and general believability, Mrs. Hammond is now a member of the zombie community. But she’s not brain-dead or lifeless. In fact, she’s more chipper and rejuvenated now than ever.
How did this happen? Is this a virus? Did she eat some bad shrimp or something? Santa Clarita Diet leaves the specifics intentionally vague. Instead, Joel and Sheila are more concerned with Sheila’s new appetite, which only craves human flesh. Not day-old flesh found at the morgue, and not animal meat, either. Only raw, freshly-prepared human cuisine, often from the recently-deceased variety. As such, Joel and Sheila go from killing retail investments to killing neighbors, strangers and potential clients. It’s the only way Sheila stays alive. Well, kinda alive. You know what I mean.
To its credit, Santa Clarita Diet is a fun, inspired premise. While zombies and cul-de-sac situation comedies have both been done to death (and un-death) separately, when pushed together, they prove to be a surprisingly fruitful combination. Fresco incorporates a cheeky, knowing sense of humor throughout that never lets the black comedy get too serious-minded for its own good. The consistent lightheartedness excuses the complete ridiculousness of the concept, and it infuses a playful, zany tone that isn’t afraid to get all-out absurd at times. What the show lacks in style or polish it can often make up for in infectious giddiness. It’s clear everyone involved is having a blast with the rambunctious plot, and that fun can sometimes be contagious and, weirdly, sorta sweet.
It’s breezy, silly, bubbly and occasionally sensationally gory, and yet, that said, this combo genre sitcom isn’t nearly lively or goofy enough to make the most of its deranged satire pre-emptively. Playing like an NBC sitcom with more foul-mouthed debauchery, or an ABC comedy with more blood and severed body parts flying around, Santa Clarita Diet is frustratingly middle-of-the-road. It’s too appealing to outright dismiss, yet it’s too underwhelming to wholeheartedly recommend. It’s strange enough that some of its inherent mediocrity ends up worthwhile, or, at least, forgivable, yet it’s also too quick to coast on its charming leads and fairly quirky premise to assure that its absurdity lives up to its full, juicy potential. So far, at least. It just needs a little more bite.
After its awkward pilot, Santa Clarita Diet does get wilder and more confident, but it’s still too tediously insecure about its outlandish concept for its own good — to the point where it settles too much or fights to find some sense of normality or relatability in these characters. Scratch that. Santa Clarita Diet should go nuts. It deserves the right to be totally insane, and thankfully, these first ten episodes suggest the last three installments, as well as its likely second season, really go hog-wild in Berserk Town. In the meantime, however, we’re still left waiting for that ultimate payoff.
There’s the nagging sense Santa Clarita Diet is an edgy 2009 Showtime sitcom released too late. Too often does Fresco’s new series feel compelled to be shocking or provocative, hoping that it’ll stand out in Netflix’s original programming, but it rarely finds the time to earn that impact in these first episodes. It’s a bleeding fruit bowl series, cut from the cloth of Weeds, American Beauty, Desperate Housewives, Dexter, The Walking Dead, Hannibal and Breaking Bad, to name a few components. While’s there’s life to be found in this living dead farce, it doesn’t reach its maximum potential.
Thankfully, Barrymore and Olyphant stand out when the writing doesn’t. While they don’t share explosive chemistry together, there’s a friendly warmth to their pairing that’s comforting and believable, even when their actions are not. Barrymore, in particular, makes a good impression. Given one of her meatiest roles in awhile, in more ways than one, her first TV series in decades, minus her recurring guest turn on Family Guy, provides a fun, spunky return-to-the-spotlight for the actress. She’s lively and good-hearted as ever in this first season, and her multiple years of rom-com experience gracefully ease into the specific rhythm of sitcom humor.
Olyphant, meanwhile, is good here as well, as per usual. Though comedy isn’t his specialty, the Justified star fits into his Ty Burrell-esque role with eagerness and willingness to go beyond his comfort zone. Alongside his fellow lead, they provide a warm beating heart to the un-beating heart show. A splattering of supporting performances and noteworthy guest star appearances, from Patton Oswalt, Derek Waters (Drunk History), Tom Lennon and more, also keep the series nimble.
Santa Clarita Diet is a hit-and-miss dark comedy series that showcases room for growth and potential, if not consistency. We’re only periodically given something savory to nibble or chew on in this season, yet the blood dry components behind it are given ravenous new life in a few key moments. Not quite winning or distinctive enough to prove its worth, yet not bland or guileless enough to play as comfort food TV binging, Fresco’s newest TV series is left in a curious position. With room to grow and deflate in equal measures, it’s a sitcom with a pulse but not enough brains.
Despite the bountiful charm of its leads, Santa Clarita Diet is a suburban zombie horror-comedy that leaves Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant a little too hungry for their own good.