Netflix plays things very sneakily with their new shows.
“Santa Clarita Diet” only popped up on my radar a month or so ago with a clever, minimalist ad campaign that gave away just enough to intrigue: this is a show where Drew Barrymore eats people, and Justified’s Timothy Olyphant plays her relaxed stoner husband. Until a second trailer revealed the zombie angle, I was expecting a Blondie take on Hannibal Lecter. What ended up playing out was the unholy child of Marc Cherry (the guy behind Desperate Houswives) and George A. Romero (the guy behind basically any title containing “of the living dead”).
Sheila and Joel Hammond have a decent, if somewhat monotonous life in suburbia. Successful realtors with a daughter in high school (Liv Hewson), the Hammonds basically have the standard definition of the “American Dream.” This all comes disgustingly tumbling down around them when Sheila gets violently ill (just… so much vomit), throws up a weird red ball, and dies. She’s only dead for maybe five minutes, then she’s back — albeit different than she was. Lacking a heartbeat or appetite for normal food, there’s definitely something off.
Thankfully, their daughter Abby is friends with/the obsession of a nerdy neighbor boy (Eric Gisondo) who quickly comes to the conclusion that Sheila is undead (everyone is pretty uncomfortable with the word “zombie”), as well as informing the Hammonds of the undead’s id-driven existence. This leads to Sheila buying a Range Rover and taking the salesman on a terrifying test drive beforehand. It also leads to her chomping off the fingers of her new sexist coworker Gary (an outside-charming-mode Nathan Fillion) before murdering him on the front lawn. Yes, Sheila, like every other zombie that ever existed, needs to consume human flesh for sustenance. Nothing else works, animals just don’t hit the spot quite the same way (though the sight of Barrymore chasing a live rooster in a poncho and repeatedly failing is worth all the trial and error).
This is where the show becomes something else entirely. Where you expect the show to turn right, it turns left. It’s a good thing, and keeps the short 10 episode season from becoming hyper-predictable. Initially, the Hammonds decide to play it like Miami’s greatest serial killer, Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s “Dexter.” The Hammonds are born-and-bred suburbians, with no special after school killer classes to help them out, so this fails. Strangely, Sheila’s freedom from the ego is just as infectious as her zombie bite, and Joel and Abby are soon displaying distinctly out of character tendencies. All this is going down as the family is caught living between two cops, a Sheriff’s deputy and a city cop, or as the latter eloquently puts it, “frame and maim/protect and serve.”
All of this adds up to some unexpectedly hilarious results, though for all the funny, there’s a lot of gross as well. It is a zombie comedy, and between the sunny sides of suburbia there’s plenty of dismemberment and munching on chopped-off legs, plus people-smoothies made of fingers and ears. Oh, and I really can’t undersell the amount of vomit that accompanies these zombie transformations. It’s exorcist-style, but it’s framed from the parody perspective where it’s used as gross-out comedy and not devil-possession.
“Santa Clarita Diet” took what could have been a completely predictable premise (Walking Dead meets Dexter) and made it something unexpected and strangely great. Despite the morally questionable actions of the Hammonds, one never finds oneself rooting against them. They’re a charming little family, in life, death, and murder.