NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the debut season of, “Santa Clarita Diet.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who haven’t yet watched the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Netflix’s original sitcom catalogue has had some truly standout hits so far, most notably Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman and Master of None, but they seemed to struggle with replicating that success across the new comedy shows of 2016, where the streaming platform’s new sitcom offerings such as The Ranch, Fuller House and Haters Back Off ranged from merely decent to outright awful! While offerings like Lady Dynamite and Love were solid, and Flaked found a decent-sized audience despite its mixed critical reception, you would be hard-pressed to call those shows legitimate sitcoms, since they often veered pretty hard into dramatic territory, to the point where some even had rather downbeat endings to their first seasons that challenged the case for considering them real comedies at all, at least for now.
Fortunately, that pattern of disappointing sitcoms seems to have already been firmly broken by Netflix from the very start of 2017. The streaming platform managed to deliver a surprisingly great reboot series of classic family sitcom, One Day at a Time already (to the point where most critics considered it to be overall superior to the original show from the 70’s/80’s!), and even the kid-friendly A Series of Unfortunate Events managed to be a legitimately outstanding comedy series for viewers of all ages. Now that January is done and we’re into February, the revised sitcom momentum on Netflix appears to be keeping up as well, since Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix’s newest original comedy series, is another winner in its own first season, one that is both very funny and highly original.
At first glance, Santa Clarita Diet feels like a familiar suburban comedy. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play Sheila and Joel Hammond, a fairly ordinary suburban married couple in Santa Clarita, California, where both work as husband-and-wife realtors, while their rebellious teenage daughter, Abby, played by Liv Hewson, goes through high school. Not long into the first episode though, Sheila has a violent vomiting episode during a house showing, culminating in her expelling a strange red organ-like substance. After this bizarre event, she begins craving raw meat, doesn’t seem to have any reflex response, heartbeat or blood, and after a pushy slimeball crosses her the wrong way, she devours the man alive, much to the horror of her husband after he discovers the gruesome scene!
For all intents and purposes, Sheila has somehow become a zombie, though she’s basically one of the more light-hearted, quirky and still-recognizably-human takes on a zombie that you would see in something like, say, The CW’s iZombie, rather than the monstrous flesh-eaters of, say, AMC’s The Walking Dead. Much like iZombie’s Liv Moore however, Sheila must nonetheless dine on human meat, and unlike iZombie’s Liv Moore, who can get by on merely consuming the brains of the recently-deceased that come into her morgue, Sheila can only be sustained by fresh human meat in general, and will seemingly go feral if she’s not allowed to kill and eat living people. This, naturally, puts quite the twist on Sheila’s and Joel’s formerly aggressively mundane existence.
It sounds like a very grim, dark idea for a Netflix sitcom, but then again, so did Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt at first. Surprisingly, the way that Santa Clarita Diet successfully makes light of Sheila having to be a bloodthirsty cannibal, and Joel having to be roped along for the ride while Abby comes apart at the increasing dysfunction of her family, is quite effective and enjoyable. The show’s writing is very sharp across all ten episodes of its first season, and while the cause of Sheila’s undead state is frustratingly never truly explained, there’s just enough of a sense of zombie lore in the show to avoid Sheila’s character existing as a pure contrivance.
It also helps that both Barrymore and Olyphant give standout lead performances too. These two are definitely the heart of the series, and Barrymore’s cheery, lovable demeanour quickly grows irresistible, even as she’s literally ripping out people’s throats. Likewise, Olyphant, who is best known for playing quite a few tough-as-nails characters in offerings like Live Free or Die Hard, Justified and Deadwood, is allowed to play against type by becoming a distraught, overwhelmed husband that is desperately flailing for a renewed sense of control in his life and marriage. Olyphant has a decent-sized sitcom history, even if his most well-known roles are for serious characters, but this could be one of his best comedic roles to date, on account of Joel feeling relatable while also being demonstrably over-the-top and witty. The fact that Olyphant so easily keeps up with Barrymore in every scene, whom he has outstanding chemistry with, is another big part of the reason why Santa Clarita Diet is so ceaselessly entertaining throughout its first season.
As entertaining as it is however, Santa Clarita Diet, ironically, does demand a pretty strong stomach, which was made apparent in the series’ proper trailer, after its cute early marketing eventually unveiled the show’s true colours. As much as it’s part of the humour, not everyone is going to feel comfortable with the very over-the-top amounts of gore in certain scenes. The gore effects are surprisingly detailed and lifelike too, making Sheila’s kills all feel very squeamish and stomach-turning. If you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, then you may want to exercise caution with Santa Clarita Diet, and have your remote’s/touch screen’s/game controller’s fast-forward function at the ready. Santa Clarita Diet could have dialed back a few gore-driven scenes, which it seems to uncomfortably linger on to the point where it sometimes disturbs the show’s light-hearted nature, but if you have the stomach for it, at least it shouldn’t be an active problem that aggressively hurts your enjoyment of the show.
Considering the outrageous premise, it’s also true that a few story turns in Santa Clarita Diet feel pretty forced. This is most evident with Abby’s character, who befriends the anti-social, highly awkward neighour kid, Eric, played by Skyler Gisondo, since these two teenagers have to try and force ways to be just as ridiculous and over-the-top as Joel and Sheila, a task that they quickly strain to accomplish. Hewson and Gisondo still give great performances, but the writing isn’t quite as strong in storylines dedicated solely to them, with both of their best scenes actually being the chance where they get to play off of Barrymore and Olyphant, rather than get into situations that would never happen to any real-life teenager in Santa Clarita, or most anywhere. Joel and Sheila get into a few head-scratching situations too, and some of those can also occasionally be difficult to swallow, but for the most part, their characters don’t lose the heart and surprising pathos behind the show.
The very clever contrast of the metaphorical ‘zombiehood’ of modern suburban life with quite literal zombiehood is something that television has, amazingly, not capitalized on to quite this degree before now. Nonetheless, Santa Clarita Diet makes for a great sitcom binge for Netflix subscribers, whether you seek out great zombie media or great sitcoms alike. The modest ten-episode length of the first season makes it pretty easy to binge through in a weekend, and you’re bound to laugh and smile through the vast majority of Santa Clarita Diet, so long as you don’t mind the handful of highly gory scenes. It’s morbid, but charming, and twisted, but cute. Like many great Netflix Original shows, there’s nothing else quite like Santa Clarita Diet, especially on traditional network television, and I hope to be invited to the Hammonds’ next cheeky bloodbath soon!
- Barrymore and Olyphant consistently steal the show
- Funny blend of zombie humour and suburban humour
- Clever, original concept that balances charm and morbidity
- Some may be uncomfortable with the outrageous gore in some scenes
- A few contrived story turns, especially with the teens