Binge or No? Netflix's The Santa Clarita Diet

Zombies are the new vampires, that’s for sure. So it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to make them more physically attractive, grant them spacious homes in suburbia, and give them white-collar jobs. The Santa Clarita Diet is about as pro-zombie as a TV series can get, minus the gag-inducing scenes filled with vomit, and the occasional image of a limb grossly detaching itself from the human body.

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The ten-episode thrill-omedy, which premiered on Netflix February 3rd, stars Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a west coast suburban realtor whose recent infection with a zombie virus has given her a renewed zest for life and a passion for eating men’s balls off, literally. (This isn’t your mother’s “Mmm, Braiiiiiinnnnns” type of zombie. Sheila is way less wasteful when it comes to munching on parts of the male anatomy. Oddly enough, no females were harmed in the making of the first season of the series. Is that sexist?)

Early promotional spots for the series actually skirted the whole “Sheila is a zombie” issue entirely, and instead cleverly featured the cast touting the benefits of a “new diet” that offers its participants “tons of energy,” and “makes them look great.”  Sheila herself is a testament to this, as Drew begins the series looking rather frumpy (and with something disturbingly weird going on with her eyebrows), then subtly becomes more glamorous with each passing episode (well, until the last two, but that’s another story).

In fact, if it weren’t for (1) Sheila’s new zombie-like dependence on her id making her increasingly impulsive, hungry, and reckless, and (2) the whole “murdering people is wrong, and disposing of bodies is hard work” thing, zombie-ism, at least as portrayed in the series, would seem like a pretty workable lifestyle.

As for Sheila’s supporting cast, we have Timothy Olyphant playing waaaaaay against type as Joel Hammond, Sheila’s mild-mannered nebbish of a realtor husband whose supportive faux-cheeriness (as the body count piles up) borders on frenzied and manic. Basically, this is the kind of role you’d expect to see Matthew Broderick playing, if this series came out about ten-years ago.

Rounding out the main cast are: Liv Hewson as Abby, Sheila’s and Joel’s rebellious daughter (who is way cooler about the fact that her mother occasionally murders the neighbors and feasts on human flesh in her spare time than I would be); Sklyer Gisondo as Abby’s nerdy and way too-loyal friend/paranormal enthusiast Eric, and Dan Palmer and Richard T. Jones as Sheila and Joel’s feuding cop neighbors, Rick and Dan.

The Santa Clarita Diet also features Nathan Fillion in a cameo that’s either truly thankless, or patently hilarious, depending on how you view it.

As for the series itself, I think it takes a few episodes to find its footing. The show seems to struggle early on, at least in my opinion, to strike the appropriate balance between comedy and horror.  For example, in one scene, you might see Sheila and Joel bathed in blood and guts as they try to bury the gnarly organs of a body that the former just devoured in the woods without being discovered by the cops…

…and then, in the scene immediately following that, Sheila will be depicted, clad in a garbage bag, chasing after and unsuccessfully attempting to wrestle a rooster, like she’s a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

The series also takes its sweet time in finding the unique voices of its characters, in ways that go beyond them just spouting cheesy zombie and murder puns to one another for 25 minutes. The writing for Sheila in particular suffers in the early episodes, as we’re told that the realtor mom’s personality has changed drastically since she was infected, but have to take the rest of the cast’s word for it, as she begins showing signs of infection within the first five minutes of the series.

I was actually planning to give up on the show after the first two episodes, but I soldiered on, and found myself completely hooked around episode four. Around that time, the writing for the series becomes tighter, the jokes get funnier, and the main characters become more consistent and relatable in their personalities.

In particular, I found the acting of the teen characters on the show, Abby and Eric, very strong. Their storyline adds a sort of sweetness, and a touch of realism to the series that I think would be lacking otherwise.

Another important point to note before you venture into The Santa Clarita Diet is that it’s pretty friggin gross. As in, don’t watch it while you’re eating, ever. Maybe folks who love watching The Walking Dead and really dig body horror will be totally cool with this. But I found myself averting my eyes from the screen pretty much any time one of the characters projectile vomits (soooooooo much vomit on this show), or a painted toenail pops off and rolls under the coffee table, or Sheila is seen slowly and messily gorging on an arm, while looking much like a baby eating her first spaghetti and meatballs dish. These kinds of scenes amount to roughly a quarter of each episode’s run time, so be warned.

As for trademark zombie lore and the series’ central mystery, i.e. how Sheila came to be infected with the zombie virus in the first place, there isn’t really much here, at least in the first season, which focuses more on the inconveniences and unintentional hilarity of suburban zombie living than any sort of complex zombie rules and/or zombie origin stories. The mythos that is presented is rather vague and superficial, though I suspect that aspect of the show will be built upon, should The Santa Clarita Diet be picked up for a second season. Still, this might annoy some paranormal enthusiasts out there who tend to like a bit more world-building with your blood, guts, and gore.

In short, if you are someone who: (1) likes a good laugh, and a unique take on an old reliable horror movie stable, (2) doesn’t mind lots of gross shots of vomit and disemboweled corpses, (3)  doesn’t care too much about origin stories, and (4) is patient enough to get through a rough first few episodes, The Santa Clarita Diet might be the lifestyle change you’re seeking. And by “lifestyle change”, I mean “five hours seated on your couch watching a show on Netflix, while not eating.” (Did I mention that you shouldn’t be eating while watching this show?)

Verdict: Binge it, with discretion.

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  • Thank you for this. I will never watch it because the gross out factor makes it too difficult for me to even read the recap, but at least now I know that I will never watch it. Also zombies will never be vampires. Vampires are hot, and never gross. Vampires are MAGIC.

    • Julie Kushner

      Vampires ARE magic! Though I fear they’ve fallen out of pop culture fashion in recent months. They’ll make a comeback though, for sure! Because who the heck wouldn’t love the idea of immortality, timeless good looks, unlimited mind control abilities, and socially acceptable neck biting, as future aspirations for old age? What do zombies get in comparison? Brain eating and the ability to be (possibly) more adept at Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance than anyone else. NO contest!

  • I agree that it took some time, but once it got rolling, I wanted to binge (also without eating) the rest of it. Though I enjoyed it, if it doesn’t pick up a second season I might feel differently. Seeing how it kind of ends on a disappointing cliffhanger makes it harder to recommend since things aren’t resolved.

    • Julie Kushner

      I agree that the season ending cliffhanger of the series was lackluster. Like you, I also wished the series would finally offer more insight into the origin story of the protagonist’s “infection.”

      That said, I predict Netflix picks “Santa Clarita Diet” up for a season 2, based solely on it’s middling-to-positive critical reviews and ratings. Think about it. Apart from the understandably sizable salaries of Olyphant and Barrymore, this show likely costs way less to produce than the hour-long, way CGI-flashier, superhero series that have become it’s recent trademark.

      Also, I think this particular show’s cliffhanger is an easy fix, expectation wise. Here’s an option: Joel gets himself removed from a psychiatric hold, after admitting that his recent seeming traverses into Crazy Town (with all his talk of suburban zombies) are merely a part of his ploy for marketing the initial chapters of his yet-to-be published fantasy horror novel. He comes home. He releases Drew’s character from her prison-like confines. The couple then continue to work to find a cure for suburban zombie-ism together, possibly with the help of Portia de Rossi’s scientist character, but probably not (because season 2 of the series, with its tampered down budget, can no longer afford her.)

  • Wez Za

    A show where it’s ok to eat shit loads of men and females are off limits no even 1 has died funny if it was the other way around at how much stick men would get. This is another double standard show Timothy Olyphant deserves better