Netflix has made an astounding number of successful shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Daredevil, Bojack Horseman, and The Crown, and this is just a brief listing of Netflix’s immense catalog of original content. Recently Netflix released the first season of Santa Clarita Diet, another successful show for the steaming giant. The show stars Drew Barrymore as a suburban mom who is mysteriously turned into a zombie, Timothy Olyphant as her husband, and Liv Hewson as their daughter. There are also several notable comedy stars who show up along the way like Portia de Rossi, Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt, Derek Waters, and Thomas Lennon. What sounds like a typical zombie comedy actually reanimates the slowly dying zombie genre in a way that hasn’t been done since Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead.
Taking place over the course of 10 episodes, Santa Clarita Diet takes advantage of it’s zombie focused story by using all of the cliches in the book, but adds to them in a way that is fitting of the story. Barrymore and Olyphant play Sheila and Joel Hammond, two real estate agents living in the suburbs of Santa Clarita, California. Without any explanation, Sheila dies and is turned into a zombie. Together the two must figure out what caused the mysterious change and how to to change Sheila back. Luckily, the neighbor’s son is a nerd and knows everything to know about the undead. The story adds another level of complexity when it is revealed that the neighbors on either side of Joel and Sheila are police officers. One is a laid back family man, but the other is as watchful as a hawk. When Sheila develops a taste for human flesh instead of the raw meats found at the local grocery store, Joel and Sheila must figure out how to feed Sheila before she loses her human faculties and decays into a monster.
The show humorously deals with complex issues like the morality of killing and whether it is ok to kill people if they’re terrible people, and whether we are the same person if we go through a dramatic change that alters our personality. Joel acts as the moral compass to Sheila’s newfound lack of self control as a zombie. The two become foils of each other after the small change in Sheila’s diet. As a zombie, it is discovered that she no longer has any self control, and wants to fulfill each of her deepest desires and cravings. Which forces Joel to take up the responsibility of watching Sheila’s urges, and cleaning up any messes she leaves behind. I don’t know where Timothy Olyphant has been hiding all of my life, but he is really funny. I’m more familiar with Drew Barrymore’s dramatic and comedic roles, and Olyphant easily matches her prowess. I thought that their dynamic together really sold the idea that they were a married couple dealing with such a crazy situation. While Barrymore and Olyphant take center stage in the story, Liv Hewson and Skylar Gisondo also add their own comedy to the show. As Joel and Sheila’s High School aged daughter, Abby, Liv Hewson plays up the sarcastic, know-it-all, teenager like she was born to play it. Her acting does come across as over-exaggerated at times, but I think that fits with the overall style of the show. Skylar Gisondo plays the nerdy, neighbor kid, Eric, who conveniently knows everything about zombies. When the season starts his character establishes the rules of what Barrymore’s zombie is going to be like, and after that he acts as a friend and pseudo-romantic interest for Abby.
Everything that happens is just an over-exaggeration of what would happen in a traditional zombie story, while also maintaining an level of intimacy by keeping the story focused on the family drama. The show is less concerned with a zombie outbreak, and more concerned with Barrymore’s individual zombie, how her family deals with her erratic behaviors and newfound diet, and how she effects the world around them. The show does hint at further outbreak at one point, which adds a layer of mystery to the whole story. In fact, the entire show excellently balances the mystery of the zombie transformation, comedy and drama of everything else going on. There is always the possibility of Sheila and Joel getting caught trying to kill people so Sheila can eat, and with two police officers living on either side of them, the tension is always present. But, the show manages to add comedy to everything, and this is portrayed not just with silly situations, but the comedic timing of Barrymore, Olyphant, and the rest of the cast.
Santa Clarita Diet manages to craft a zombie story that is not only funny, but feels intimate and realistic (as realistic as it can be). The audience makes discoveries at the same time Joel and Sheila do. It is obvious that neither of them have any clue what is going on, which is what makes the entire story funny. They make mistakes, which ruins plans, which leads to more mistakes as they try to fix all of their problems. Together, Joel and Sheila seem like real people dealing with a situation that no one would even know how to handle. The story creates a dark comedy that is both funny and logical as it operates in a world that seems to familiar to us, but is so mysterious and exciting. Normal people deal with issues like finances, and what car to buy, and how to interact with neighbors, but this show asks, how would normal people deal with an abnormal situation. It also asks, to what lengths would you go for the one you love, and to what degree would you be successful?