When the announcement was made a few months ago that Netflix would be shepherding a new series entitled The Santa Clarita Diet, I didn’t exactly mark my calendar, because that name is terrible. I was even less inspired when it was announce that the show would be a zombie comedy, a concept whose freshness was about 15 years gone and didn’t seem likely to find new purpose in a streaming setting. Once the cast announcements were made, I started to develop at least a mild interest, since Drew Barrymore is always down to clown and Timothy Olyphant has developed a surprising assurance as a comic actor since his earlier tough-guy roles. But somehow it had escaped me until I sat down to watch it that the show was the brainchild of Victor Fresco, and this has made all the difference.
Fresco, a veteran writer from a TV family, was the man behind the short-lived but excellent Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and the short-lived but excellent Life on a Stick, but is probably best-known for the short-lived but excellent Better Off Ted. Perhaps you’ve noticed that these shows all have something in common: yes, Victor Fresco is truly awful at coming up with names for his television series. But beyond that, he seems to have a gift for writing very funny high-concept sitcoms that inspire a fervent but tiny cult following and then disappear forever after a season or two. He’s sort of the comedic version of Shaun Cassidy, only without the insulation of a period of teen heartthrobbery.
If anything is likely to break his streak of well-scripted, well-acted, well-received comedies that are total ratings disasters, it ought to be The Santa Clarita Diet. He’s got his usual cast of expert laugh-getters, a crackerjack writing staff, a fun premise that’s realized in an interesting way, and, best of all, a second-season order from a network that doesn’t demand the kind of week-by-week grinding away that sinks a lot of good TV shows. Diet will be allowed time to mature in a way his other projects weren’t, and has already seen an order for a second season. That’s exactly what the show needs to develop from its current form, which is surprisingly good but with a lot of rough patches, into the kind of promise it shows in its best moments. The fact that it ends on a solid cliffhanger tells me that Fresco’s already begun to learn the lessons he needs.
The concept behind The Santa Clarita Diet is quite simple, but not as simple as the ‘zombie comedy’ log line would have you believe. Drew Barrymore, looking a tad frowsy but utterly charming, is Sheila Hammond, part of a husband-and-wife realtor team with her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant). Through an as-yet-unknown process, possibly involving bad clams, she becomes one of the walking dead: alive yet not alive, driven by uncontrollable urges to devour the flesh of her fellow human beings. But Sheila is no drooling, insensate shambling monster; she retains her full intelligence, mobility, and even her old emotions and sex drive. She takes the ‘zombies are just like us’ trope to its extremes: aside from her dietary requirements, she is indistinguishable from her exasperated husband.
And therein lies the genius of the show. Fresco’s conceit is that being a zombie doesn’t just turn you into a flesh-eating monster with vague memories of its human past, sometimes channeled into shallow consumerism and the perverse reification of living habits; it suggests that zombies are nothing more than human beings with their id entirely dominant. They still want to — and need to — live a normal life, but their brake lines have been cut, leaving them with no sense of a place in polite society: they only want to feed, to fuck, but beyond that, to say whatever pleases them, to be shitty parents because they aren’t interested in responsibility anymore, to let their ids run absolutely wild because unlike in other zombie fiction, they have no governor.
Since, for most of the first series, Sheila is the only zombie we encounter (the other one is a pretty funny surprise that I won’t spoil), we not only learn to identify pretty strongly with her, thanks to Barrymore’s appealing performance, but manage to avoid a lot of the most predictable zombie-fiction tropes. The dialogue is as funny and well-written as one would expect from Fresco, but he also introduces a lot of clever plot elements to keep things from sagging: Olyphant has to play the worn-out straight man to all this, but he’s a bit of a tragic figure himself, an easygoing guy who coasted on his good looks and realized too late that it wasn’t enough, a man who genuinely loves his wife and finds himself willing to do anything — even murder — to be a part of her life, or lack thereof. Giving the Hammonds two neighbors who are cops is an enjoyable complication, and all the twists we expect get presented in interesting ways, particularly as, when things escalate to murder, the notion of who deserves to die and who doesn’t gets a real test.
Some critics have objected to The Santa Clarita Diet‘s level of gore, which is pretty extreme for a comedy. But it fits the overall violently campy aesthetic Fresco is going for, and I can’t fault the show too much for it, especially as it makes for some truly shocking and funny moments. Much more concerning is a tendency of the plot to seriously sag at moments; I’d love to see the show last more than Fresco’s typical two-and-done, but it’s going to have to think of ways of keeping its meat fresh in terms of the premise. This was already becoming a problem in the last few episodes, which were getting to be pretty low on the plot plausibility meter and were largely rescued by the appearance of the fantastic Portia de Rossi (one of many high-caliber comedic guest stars here, including Derek Waters, Patton Oswalt, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Thomas Lennon, a hilarious Grace Zabriskie, and a surprising heel turn by Nathan Fillion). But it kept to a tight ten episodes, not long enough for things to get too flabby, and wrapped up the absurdity with a pretty slick bit of story that promises a new director for season 2. It’s a show that’s guaranteed to deliver at least a half-dozen great laughs per episode, and at today’s exchange rates, that’s a bargain. Give The Santa Clarita Diet a try; the ugly fat you lose may be your own.