‘Santa Clarita Diet’ Review: A comedy about reigniting a marriage, but with gore and zombies
There's a lot that's been written about how zombies are used to represent the inherent fears of America, evolving over time from Haitian lore to current seasons of The Walking Dead. These are generally apocalyptic by nature — in The Walking Dead, for instance, the foundations of modern society have crumbled and gave way to chaos where people with barbed wire baseball bats have full domain. In one of Netflix's strangest original series to date, Santa Clarita Diet is also testing the foundation of another staple in many people's lives: marriage.
Granted, you'll see a lot of comedies and dramas on television that explore the intricacies of marriage, but Santa Clarita Diet is challenging a marriage with plenty of blood and guts. Oh, and one of the spouses is a zombie.
Santa Clarita Diet follows the realtor couple Sheila, played by Drew Barrymore, and Joel, played by Timothy Olyphant, who live in the eponymous California city with their teenage daughter Abby, played by Liv Hewson. From what viewers gather in the premiere, the family has a humdrum existence in suburbia. There's nothing wrong with Sheila and Joel's marriage by any means, but over two decades together has rendered them, well, predictable.
Therein comes a most unpredictable twist: Sheila literally dies after projectile vomiting an obscene amount of bile during a showing of a house to prospective buyers (surprisingly, the house wasn't sold that day). She wakes up and it doesn't take long before she, Joel and Abby realize there's something wrong with her. Another twist? Sheila loves her new zombified self.
She has boundless energy, only needs two hours of sleep a night and reignites her sex life with Joel — who may or may not be a necrophile depending on how you perceive a marriage to a now-zombie. Initially, Sheila assumes that she can consume raw meat to satisfy her cravings, but soon realizes she'll need fresh, human meat.
So Joel and Sheila decide to go the Dexter route: Kill people who deserve to be killed. The issue is, that essentially limits them to a "young, single Hitler." Most of season one revolves around Sheila's constant struggles to find a meal, while Joel desperately searches for possible cures for Sheila's condition. It amounts to some very entertaining standalone episodes and some memorable cameos, including Patton Oswalt as a medical expert who believes Joel might be mentally insane after bringing him an organ his wife vomited out, sealed in a plastic bag with olive oil.
The biggest gripe viewers might have with Santa Clarita Diet, however, is a tolerance for zombie puns. There's only so many times you can hear a "but honey, you're eating people!" or "it really sucks our lives involve murder now" gag before it falls flat.
There's also the issue of the gore. The premiere of the show, in which Barrymore vomits profusely and eats her first victim, is a good litmus test for queasy viewers who are unsure if they can handle a show that is genuinely disgusting. That said, anybody who's watching a show in which there's a literal zombie should probably expect it.
Even the biggest detractors of Santa Clarita Diet would have to admit that it's amusing to watch Barrymore revel in consuming human flesh. As Sheila, Barrymore is surprisingly sympathetic (the most sympathetic zombie on TV, ever? Is that a big list?) as she struggles with her impulses while trying to keep the family together. Olyphant has a tougher sell as Joel, who is complicit to all of Sheila's murders, but ultimately makes the character believable because he — as you would hope — isn't always comfortable with his wife's eating habits. Abby, meanwhile, achieves an important task alongside neighbor kid Eric, played by Skyler Gisondo: They're not annoying teens, which is increasingly rare on television.
Santa Clarita Diet is far from being Netflix's most successful original series, but it's at least committed to its zany premise, even at the expense of grossing out potential fans. That takes some guts — though not as many as the show spews out.
The first season of Santa Clarita Diet is currently streaming on Netflix.