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‘Santa Clarita Diet’ Pulls Off a Tricky Tone & Reinvigorates a Tired Subgenre

Created by: Victor Fresco
Premieres: Friday, February 3rd on Netflix
Entire first season watched for review

“I refuse to be defined by the one time I murdered somebody.”

Overarching, serialized plotting is rarely a chief concern of sitcoms, even in the current age of most shows dropping the episodic format. Most comedies, if they carry through story at all, define that plotting through dramatics. You’re the Worst, say, will continue to tell the story of depression or PTSD throughout episodes or seasons. But the humor of many of those series is derived from the moments around the story, rather than having laughter generated by the beats of the tale itself. Santa Clarita Diet is explicitly going for comedy, with drama residing in isolated scenes or in metaphor. And yet the series manages to wring pearls of laughter from the story itself. The serialized situational comedy may be a rare creation, but Diet proves that it’s far from impossible.

That may not even be the most impressive thing about Santa Clarita Diet, however. Somehow, in the year 2017, the series manages to revitalize the zombie subgenre, contextualizing it within a sharp, unique tone. Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) begin the show as an average, well-meaning suburban couple complete with sarcastic daughter Abby (Liv Hewson). They’re realtors, and after getting chewed out by her boss, Sheila works her damnedest to procure a buyer for one of the couple’s listings. Everything is going fine, particularly usual, until Sheila upends the master bathroom with an excessive amount of vomit, accompanied by a small (or medium-sized, depending on your perspective) red stone. After that, she’s lost her heartbeat and her blood but gained a new impulsive attitude towards life.

The remainder of the series sees the family run through tasks that pull from both zombie lore and more general “supernatural transformation” tropes. There’s an attempt to mine a cure, the realization that food will be more difficult to procure, and endless efforts to hide the truth from those around them. How each of these events are linked together is handled so nimbly, however, that it never feels like Diet is simply running through the motions. Creator Victor Fresco has been in the TV game long enough to know how to properly build to and release from a cliffhanger. At times the show can feel like an overlong movie, but the writing just manages to make the argument for this format by embracing the wobblier nature afforded to ongoing storytelling. TV allows for more indulgences of ever-changing fortune, and Fresco knows precisely how to manage that balance without running off the rails. There are discursions that may be unnecessary, but for the most part Diet sticks to a plot as well maintained as any of the suburban lawns on display.

That sense of plotting is only one-half of the equation, and it wouldn’t matter nearly as much without the beautifully bizarre tone that Fresco manages to conjure throughout. He’s had some experience; his previous creation, Better Off Ted was similarly aloof, and here he has an expert handling on pitting the absurd against the mundane. Much of the humor that doesn’t stem directly from the plot occurs when the series plays the lunacy of being a zombie against the simplicity of trying to be a whole, healthy family in unison. Joel is insistent on maintaining as usual of a life as possible, and each time he dismisses clearly insane circumstances for the sake of that normalcy is hysterical. That juggling act on behalf of the writers could grow tired over time, but Diet generally has a hold on how much and how often to play up the dissonance at its core. There’s just enough humanity underlying the campiness that it never goes out of orbit; some genuine emotion always lunges us back towards earth.

The tone would be impossible to hold, even with expert writing, without the immense skill of the two actors at the head of the show. Barrymore is beguiling in her new, awakened yet undead state, embracing a strain of personal reinvention that is both crazed and fully realized. She throws herself fully into the performance, picking out the strands of sadness that entangle themselves around the physical antics and sarcastic patter. Olyphant utilizes every skill available to him, from his ability to contort his body in discomfort to playing against his handsome, serious type. His exasperated expressions, treating murder like the annoyance of a broken vase, is constantly electric through to the final scene of the season. And Hewson more than holds her own; Abby’s story is the most generic on display, but the actress manages to find the moments of expression within the deadpan teenager in rebellion (she recalls, most of all, Jane Levy in Suburgatory, which isn’t a minor compliment at all).

Even if most of the serious material only emerges in glances, the entire show is structured around what appears to be a fairly clear metaphor for mental illness. Zombies, of course, are one of the ever-changing symbols of genre fiction. Diet leans into this not explicitly, but rather by showing the troubles that can arise when someone in the family grows ill and stops acting like themselves. There are physical manifestations of the disease, but for the most part Sheila’s change is mental and emotional. In one scene, Joel and Abby wonder if this woman is the same person they’ve always known. That’s heavy stuff, but Fresco never weighs the material down too much. This is an outsized show, even if the subtext feeds into authentic and painful discussions of loved ones suffering from broken, damaged brains. Santa Clarita Diet doesn’t always nail that precise balancing act (when it leans on gross-out jokes it tends to miss the laughter part of the equation). Yet it manages to succeed throughout most of its inaugural season because it knows that the humor derived from the story and the subtle interactions don’t have to be two separate pieces. Those comedic sensibilities, alongside the dramatic flairs of metaphor, are mostly in sync, and the performances perfectly embody that harmony. Santa Clarita Diet manages to uncover some incongruous flavors that taste wonderful when assembled in just the right way.

Grade: B+

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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