Netflix’s The Santa Clarita Diet was cancelled this year, and it’s a shame, because it’s surprisingly delightful. I can see why it didn’t survive, though: it’s got an enormous marketing handicap. A suburban zombie comedy with a title that amusingly leans into, uh, cannibalism? Possibly an unwise advertising strategy, and frankly the show is rife with disgusting, graphic visuals. The Ick Factor is likely to put off what may be the show’s true target audience: people looking for a breezy, hilarious family comedy about the challenges of keeping a marriage going. I’m guessing there are more appetizing ways to explore the day-to-day domestic conflicts of a loving family, but The Santa Clarita Diet does that better than most, wringing a shit-ton of comedy mileage out of its clashing contrast of mundane suburban minutiae with gruesome, high-stakes zombie lore.
Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) are the Hammonds, a husband-and-wife realty team in Santa Clarita, California. They couldn’t be a more generic couple, high-school sweethearts who never parted, still crazy about each other after all these years. They’re raising a spunky teenaged daughter named Abby (Liv Hewson) and more or less living a run-of-the-mill SoCal life…until Sheila gets violently ill, dies, wakes up, and sort of accidentally eats a co-worker. Mysteriously, Sheila is now undead, and while very little has outwardly changed, her pulse has been replaced by an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Becoming undead also unleashes her repressed inner self, transforming her from a meek, unassuming realtor into a brash, ambitious go-getter.
Naturally, Sheila’s need for a steady diet of people introduces urgent new challenges to the Hammonds’ lives, but therein lies the genius of the set-up. Nerdy straight-man panic aside, Joel is not dissuaded from his love for Sheila, and commits whole-heartedly to supporting her new “direction” as a zombie. When Sheila’s murdery instincts get overzealous, for example, Joel intervenes as the duo’s human conscience, encouraging them to work together in a series of madcap plans to obtain “ethically sourced” body parts and avoid exposure for their reluctant killing spree. Fortunately, after initial attempts to keep Abby in the dark, they eventually bring her into their circle as well—which is a good thing, because the adult Hammonds aren’t particularly good at anything, and most of their wild schemes backfire spectacularly. Abby, on the other hand, quickly proves to be reliably badass.
It took me a while to find my way to The Santa Clarita Diet, because it looks like a very particular kind of show: a lowbrow, gross-out horror comedy. But while there are elements of that in play, it’s actually a cleverly written domestic sitcom that for all the absurd monster hijinks never loses sight of its characters’ day-to-day struggles with navigating a normal modern relationship. Even as our heroes try to identify people deplorable enough to kill and labor to conceal their secret from neighboring police detectives, they’re also tiptoeing through household dramas: clashing parental styles, passive-aggressive communication issues, annoying modern inconveniences.
The humor is sold by a stellar cast, led by Barrymore and Olyphant, who are both exceptionally funny. Barrymore goes all-out as the newly liberated zombie mom, while Olyphant is a riot as the nervous, charmingly shallow husband reacting to each new dilemma with a comic mix of exasperation and loving resignation. As the “adult” voice in the room, Hewson brings a vivacious, snarky presence to her every scene, reining in her elders’ childish antics. She’s aided and abetted by her smitten, earnest next-door neighbor Eric Bemis (Skyler Gisondo), a hopelessly awkward dweeb whose dysfunctional family compels him to adopt the Hammonds as his own, despite their monstrous secret. All four of these leads deliver comic performances that are criminally overlooked, but there are also terrific recurring guest stars throughout the run, including Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Nathan Fillion, Linda Lavin, Maggie Lawson, Thomas Lennon, Joel McHale, Natalie Morales, Andy Richter, and Jonathan Slavin, among others. For the right audience (which, yeah, definitely requires a strong stomach), The Santa Clarita Diet provides uniquely winning comedy for a few well clocked seasons. It’s unfortunate the show won’t get a chance to wrap up its compellingly zany narrative.