I decided to eat my lunch while beginning SANTA CLARITA DIET. BIG MISTAKE. But I mean, if you’re unbothered by excessive amounts of projectile vomit and gory human entrails then by all means, order your Thai food and dive right in (might I suggest skipping the curry, though?).
Santa Clarita Diet is Netflix’s newest dark comedy, starring Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, an uptight suburban mom turned flesh-eating zombie – oh I’m sorry, “undead” – and Timothy Olyphant as her devout but jittery husband, Joel.
Episode one, “So Then a Bat or a Monkey”, begins with Sheila and Joel, a repressed husband and wife realtor duo, in the middle of showing a house to a nervous couple. Things take a turn for the worse when Sheila begins to throw up…. everywhere (it’s so nasty, ya’ll). While Joel tries to salvage the rest of the showing, Sheila rushes to the bathroom to continue expelling all of her insides. Joel finds her collapsed in a green goo covered bathroom, where a red “organ” looking mass that Sheila has thrown up raises concern for the both of them.
While the doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with her, Sheila, a once safe, and boring suburban mom, now finds that she has fewer inhibitions, her libdo is off the charts, and she has an insatiable taste for raw meat. Not a terrible deal, right? Welp, once she gets her first taste of human flesh – which happens after she impulsively bites the fingers off of a man who’s hoping to steal her from Joel – she realizes that nothing else can satisfy her. It doesn’t take long for everyone to figure out (everyone being Joel, Sheila, their daughter Abby, and the neighbor’s nerdy son, Eric) that Sheila is undead.
A large chunk of the show becomes about satiating Sheila’s hunger. After realizing that nothing else can replace the taste of human, Sheila and Joel decide to kill people for her to eat – but only bad people who deserve it. They face a few stumbling blocks along the way, as some of the people they originally set out to kill aren’t as “bad” as they thought, and their guilt prevents them from completing the mission. Their first official “kill” (technically Sheila’s second) happens in episode 3, aptly named “We Can Kill People.”
While the Hammonds are satisfied that Sheila has a body to grub on for a while, their nosy sheriff’s deputy neighbor, Dan (who is also Eric’s father), becomes increasingly more suspicious of them. Eventually, in episode 4, “Man Eat Man,” he finds a man’s finger in their backyard. Being a crooked cop, Dan blackmails Joel into killing a particularly difficult criminal for him. Without much of a choice, Joel and Sheila agree. Unfortunately, the attack fails, and the man, Loki, runs off with a BITE from Sheila. But don’t worry, the infection doesn’t get the chance to take over the planet, as Sheila and Joel end up killing him when he attacks Joel in a jealous rage for Sheila’s heart. Spoiler alert: This show will kill someone off in a heartbeat.
The season ends with Joel in the mental hospital, Abby being left with the instructions for a cure from a virologist, and Sheila beginning to deteriorate and turn feral – which if she completely turns there will be no cure for her.
We end the season with no real explanation as to how this happened to Sheila, other than speculation from Eric that it may have come from a bat or a monkey, as a result of humans desecrating their habitats. Something like that.
I will say for me, it took a few episodes to fully get into the series. Why? I was watching the show with a bit too much logic. You have to get past the fact that the characters in this show “go with the flow”, which adds to the comedy of the show’s premise. After Sheila and Joel return from the hospital in episode one, they attempt to go back to normal, with no further explanation or exploration into Shelia’s symptoms. Once it’s confirmed that she’s undead, aside from a quick hypothesis from Eric, no one seems to care how it all happened, but instead obsess with getting back to normal. It’s painful to admit that it took me a few episodes to understand that the humor and fun of the show is the lack of f’s these characters have to give. This show doesn’t spend much time on getting the audience acclimated to situations, and the fun is getting thrown into the bizarre situations that our characters face.
That being said, the show’s humor is DEFINETLY NOT for everyone, ya’ll. Yeah it’s a sitcom, yeah we’ve established that these are “yes, and characters”, and yeah it’s clear through the dialogue that the writers and actors are purposefully being ridiculous — but it’s still an offbeat brand of humor. Imagine if an SNL skit began going off the walls and you’re sitting there watching wondering if the skit is supposed to be that ridiculous or if it’s just a bad skit. You wait for the cast to begin laughing at themselves or give you a hint that you can laugh at how bad it is. That was me, because ridiculous, over the top humor, normally isn’t my thing. However, even the actors in Santa Clarita Diet don’t seem to be taking acting that serious and seem to wink at the audience in a way that says, “we know this is ridiculous.” So that helps. I feel like while Santa Clarita Diet understands that it’s not going to be for everyone, having its characters acknowledge to the audience that even they are just there to have fun, may open up this brand of humor for some.
It’s weird, because being someone that loves zombies and gore, Santa Clarita Diet kind of took me off guard. When Sheila’s toe falls off and we see her trying to glue her toe back onto its stump (“How Much Vomit”), I nearly passed out. There’s something about how the overall airy and whimsical tone of the show makes the zombie/bloody elements even more uncomfortable. In shows like TWD, the characters acknowledge that their world is terrifying and gruesome, but in Santa Clarita Diet, no one bats an eye at Shelia eating her neighbor in the bathroom or finding dead people in a bathtub. I thought that it was surprising to see how highly sensitive I was to the blood and guts of the show, versus how nonchalant I am during TWD or…any other horror film. I guess there’s nothing scarier than “normal” and relatively kind people like Shelia and Joel who have the capability to kill and gorge on human flesh with a smile.
I want to believe that the show’s supposed to be a metaphor or allegory for… the banality of the “ideal” American life? Joel plays a pivotal role in that belief. He’s a guy who admits that he essentially settled into domesticated life, and now finds that he’s not living the life he ever wanted for himself in order to support his family and their lifestyle. Couple that with having now to wait hand and foot on his wife lest she kill and eat someone, Joel is like a modern day, supernatural Willy Loman. Am I thinking too much into this? Well that’s my issue. I feel like there are hints of a deeper message, but only hints. We see glimpses of Joel wishing to evolve and claim back his sense of “masculinity”, but they’re kind of overshadowed by the show’s antics. I get it, watching the zombie stuff is way more fun, but ya’ll, I was getting a little tired of them wondering who they were going to kill next. Just like Sheila and her need to taste human flesh, once I get a taste of a deeper meaning I can’t let it go. Maybe that isn’t what the show is supposed to be, but they’ve set up opportunities for character growth for the next season.
As far as the pacing goes, while it’s a very binge-able show, it has its slow moments. Episodes two through five are almost completely centered on the “who can we eat next” plot, and that got a little boring. After the ball got rolling, which I would say really happened once their neighbor Dan blackmailed them in episode 5 (“Man Eat Man”), the show’s plot became a slippery slope of action/ consequence, and I really enjoyed how this show wasn’t afraid of sharp turns. I never would’ve imagined that Joel would kill Dan, let alone that Sheila would try and eat him to hide the body (“Strange or Just Inconsiderate”).
While I loved the combination of family sitcom and supernatural gore-fest, there was something missing for me. Plot wise, while sometimes a bit repetitive, Santa Clarita Diet was really enjoyable and I liked the characters. Character-story wise however, while I think there is a lot of potential with Joel, I hope that there is a little more substance in the next season for our characters. I admit, that feeling may just be a personal preference. To be fair, in most sitcoms, we don’t really see character growth and we get wacky antics that our people must get out of in 28 minutes or less. However, Santa Clarita Diet has to deliver a bit more than that because it is a binge-able show, and I hope that next season we can get inside these characters a little bit more, and see how their arcs affect other characters. Right now, although Joel admits how he feels, he doesn’t act on his internal struggle – frankly no one does. I hope that that is incorporated a bit more during the next season.
Season 1, Episodes 1-10 (S01E01-10)
Santa Clarita Diet streams on Netflix
Writer based in LA. Just trying to write good stuff while deep conditioning my hair.
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Vanessa Jay | Contributor