Drew Barrymore feasting on human bodies, as it turns out, is incredibly entertaining.
Such is the joy of Santa Clarita Diet, the new Netflix series in which Hollywood’s “Wildflower” herself plays a suburban mom dealing the best she can with her new life as a zombie, one step (and one meal of human flesh) at a time. The 10-episode first season is available on the streaming service Friday, Feb. 3, giving an added layer to the phrase “binge.”
It’s the kind of show born out of today’s #PeakTV climate, in which cult creators and insane ideas thrive thanks to the celebration of niche audience appeal and the rise of streaming outlets with big budgets and no content restrictions.
Santa Clarita Diet is gross. It’s also very good.
The show looks and feels like the family sitcoms of the ’90s and early ’00s, fostering an expectation for what it is going to be like that is somehow both completely upended and hardly altered by the big, bloody twist. Everything about the show feels familiar, including the gee-golly way this family bands together to deal with these wacky sitcom hijinx.
It just so happens that the hijinx in this situation is that mommy needs to kill someone so she can have dinner.
Santa Clarita Diet is not a satire, per se, of traditional family sitcoms so much as it is a dissection of one.
The first episode introduces every trope we’ve come to know about the genre, but modernizes them in a way you might expect a Netflix sitcom in 2017 to. Dad Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and mom Sheila (Barrymore) sell houses together and have a chummy-antagonistic relationship, full of lively banter about their vaguely discontented lives as they parent their so-over-it teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) in a suburb of L.A.
Joel wants morning sex; Sheila isn’t into it because, in this modern sitcom that is cooler than the ones on broadcast television, she prefers not “humping like that rescue dog did to the little girl at the Rite Aid.”
Joel has to hide his vice from Sheila, but in this case it’s not a beer with the boys. It’s smoking joints in his car. The neighbors are annoying and prying, as they always are in shows like these, only here they curse like sailors and talk about their teenage son’s “spank bank.”
The tropes are all there, from the teen daughter who just wants her own car to the sassy nurse who’s the gatekeeper at the ER. But because there’s no laugh track and it’s shot single-cam style, something about it feels off. Unusual.
It’s set up to make you feel comfortable enough in the format to know how things are going to go, but anxious enough that when things start becoming extremely bizarre—i.e., Barrymore projectile vomits a small brain—the joke of its absurdity lands, but you’re still rooted safely in the constructs of the sitcom world.
Sheila doesn’t want Joel to tell her mother about this because “she’ll blow this out of proportion,” as if it’s a light flu and not potential zombiedom. When it gets to the point of actual carnage, how to dispose properly of the blood and entrails becomes a bickering marital dispute. And as far as figuring out how to go about finding Sheila her, um, food supply, it’s treated as plainly as one of those “on this episode of…” loglines you’d see in the TV guide for Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory.
“We’re going to kill people, sweetheart,” Olyphant’s Joel tells Sheila. “We’re going to kill people so you can eat them…I’m not going to bail on you.” It’s the treacly heartwarming, we’ll-get-through-this-together scene you’ve seen on every sitcom ever, but that can only exist on this one. Because it’s about zombies.
There’s a matter-of-factness, a straight face with which all this wackiness is played that is delightful, and which makes the bloody zombie scenes all the wilder and more impactful. They are disgusting. They are graphic and gristly. I nearly fainted—seriously—watching the first one, that’s how gory they are.
But Sheila and Joel? They just go with the flow, which sweeps you breezily along with them.
Much of that has to do with Barrymore being in the lead.
The series might not work at all if Barrymore, who serves as an executive producer, wasn’t so expertly playing on her America’s Sweetheart image here. Her Sheila is as baffled as anyone else about her newfound zombie status. But it’s Drew Barrymore! You wouldn’t want Drew Barrymore to starve to death, would you? So you’re on board with her eating a human or two, just to get by.
Barrymore has one of those auras that seems like it’s always smiling. When she’s on screen, especially here, she appears to be in a constant state of glee about life. That really works as Sheila’s id takes over, giving her an insatiable appetite for gratification—be it eating people, yeah, but also sex, telling people off, or leasing a new Range Rover.
As Joel, Olyphant nails a tricky balance of skepticism, frustration, disbelief, and ultimately, sitcom-dad gumption when it comes to “fixing” the family’s new issue: that his wife eats people.
In that vein, everyone’s helped out by clever writing, marrying tried-and-true sitcom cliché with a modern self-awareness of those tropes.
“Well, she is dead. And also undead,” says Sheila and Joel’s awkward teenage neighbor, a student in such comic-book topics as the walking dead. “What the fuck!?” Joel bursts. “I’m sorry. What are you saying? She’s a zombie.” “I don’t like the word,” the young neighbor replies. “It’s inherently negative.” How woke of him.
Santa Clarita Diet was created by Victor Fresco, whose sitcom background includes cult favorites like Better Off Ted, My Name Is Earl, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, as well as throwback multi-cam sitcoms like Mad About You and Sean Save the World. The result is an understanding of form and how to carefully play with it.
The show becomes, in a way, like Harry and the Hendersons, or Beethoven, one of those classic wholesome comedies about how this harried family unit is going to struggle through and ultimately embrace this strange creature that has come into their lives and upset their routine. Only the strange creature is Zombie Drew Barrymore, and she’s cursing up a storm.
With so, so, so many options for content, it so often can seem as if clever ideas are being shoved down our throats in order to stand out. But the comic subtlety that, somehow, permeates this show about Drew Barrymore eating people, makes it the kind of diet that you can actually stick to.