You are what you eat: ‘Santa Clarita Diet’ is a charming, dark comedy

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

I’ll be honest, at this point I’m pretty much over the zombie genre. “The Walking Dead,” with all its crushing nihilism and gratuitous violence has sucked all the fun out of it for me. Still, I’m a sucker for a good sitcom, so I was willing to give “Santa Clarita Diet” a chance. I’m mostly glad I did.

The new Netflix series created by Victor Fresco stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as Sheila and Joel Hammond, a husband and wife realty team living in suburban California. The Hammonds live a typically humdrum life with their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) until Sheila unexpectedly falls ill and turns into a zombie. But in a departure from zombie tropes, Sheila is not an ambling, brain-eating corpse. Rather, she maintains her humanity, albeit with less impulse control and an insatiable urge to eat human flesh.

Barrymore brings her trademark bounciness to Sheila. She embraces her new situation with a naive optimism that glosses over its severity. She revels in her newfound confidence — ironically, in death, she has never felt more alive — and for a time, at least, attempts to keep things as normal as possible for her family.

Olyphant stretches his comedic muscles as he plays supportive spouse Joel. His transition from an awe-shucks good guy to an increasingly manic accomplice as he processes everything that’s happening is fun to watch, if somewhat broad at times.

Abby, meanwhile, adjusts to the new status quo by acting out in school and embracing a devil-may-care attitude that mirrors her mother’s absent impulses. She is accompanied by her nerdy next-door neighbor and classmate Eric (Skyler Gisondo), who plays smart-guy troubleshooter to the Hammonds.

As the Hammonds adjust to the demands of life with a zombie, they quickly discover it’s not a pretty sight. Feeding Sheila means getting comfortable with murder and dismemberment. This awkward, comedic transition from white-bread realtors to cold-blooded killers feels similar to early episodes of “Weeds,” which also played with maintaining façades of suburban normalcy.

While all the death makes for some mildly gory scenes, the show doesn’t take all this dark material too lightly. Fresco, who serves as showrunner, has a knack for sun-drenched dark humor. He was also behind the criminally underrated “Better Off Ted,” which parodied soulless corporations with a similar lightness. Here there is a farcical quality that never makes it feel like the stakes are too high.

However, that lack of stakes also makes “Santa Clarita Diet” feel somewhat inconsequential. The first season was charming and breezy, but it almost immediately fades from memory. This is a fun, well-written show that, nevertheless, fails to rise above being mildly amusing.

CHECK IT OUT

The “Santa Clarita Diet” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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