At their best, zombies are a physical manifestation the ills that plague our society–anything from crass consumerism to our fixation on meaningless violence. But Santa Clarita Diet has a new, hilarious take on zombies, and it’s aimed at making you think twice about America’s latest obsession: meaningless self-fulfillment rhetoric.
Like all pretty white suburban protagonists, Sheila Hammond ( Drew Barrymore) is living a life of quiet desperation. She loves her family and the real estate career she’s built with her husband Joel ( Timothy Olyphant), but she’s also a bit of a doormat and wishes she could be bolder, like Jennifer Lawrence when she got that shorter haircut. Unfortunately, that’s Sheila’s only frame of reference for bravery. I wasn’t kidding about the desperation. All of that changes, however, when a sudden unexplained illness changes her outlook on life. Sure, her heart appears to have stopped beating, but she’s got more energy, an insatiable sex drive, fewer inhibitions… and very distinct cravings. Nobody wants to use the dreaded “Z” word (that term is “inherently negative,” according to the nerdy kid next door), but she’s definitely undead, and, as it turns out, extremely hungry for human flesh.
One thing to get out of the way: this show is not for the faint of heart. Five minutes into the series, Sheila is projectile-vomiting more her own weight in viscous pus-yellow fluids (emetophobes, beware!); by the end of the first episode she’s ripping open her first victim. The gore isn’t quite as omnipresent as it is in your average zombie flick, but that makes the visceral moments all the more upsetting, especially because the show has such an upbeat sitcom aesthetic. Honestly, if it weren’t for the blood, cursing, and sex jokes, this wouldn’t feel all that different from your average half-hour network series.
But Santa Clarita Diet isn’t about watching Drew Barrymore launch herself at the throats of men twice her size (although that’s certainly a huge draw); it’s more about how she and her family adjust to their “new normal.” After all, how do you instill positive values in your truant teenage daughter when you’re murdering criminals and eating them? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you cover your tracks when so many of your neighbors are cops?
Barrymore isn’t the first actress you necessarily think of for grotesque physical comedy (in the past she’s left that to Adam Sandler), but clearly that’s a mistake on all our parts. She absolutely shines as Sheila embraces her newfound zest for life, and all the aggression, goofiness, and refreshingly bad behavior that comes with it–traits we don’t get to see very often out of women on television, if I might be J-Law levels of bold. If you’re a fan of Olyphant’s work on Justified then he’ll defy your expectations, too, because frazzled, dorky Joel is pretty much the exact opposite of Raylan Givens. Meanwhile, their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson, who reminds me of Julia Stiles circa Ten Things I Hate About You in the best way possible) spends most onscreen moments in a sweet but routinely unrequited romance, interspersed with acts of rebellion that make a wonderful foil for newly irresponsible mom.
More importantly, the comedy is top-notch, which is to be expected given showrunner Victor Fresco’s earlier work on My Name Is Earl and Better Off Ted. Zingy one-liners abound, and you should expect to see a lot of familiar faces, like Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt, and Tom Lennon, plus a spectacular cameo from a Better Off Ted alum.
Speaking of Fresco’s earlier work, I’ll admit that at first, the overtly positive vibe of Santa Clarita is a little jarring. After all, most zombies are either emotionless or rabid or both, and for the most part Sheila is neither; instead she’s become the vivacious, take-charge woman everyone wants to be. But it’s clear this was intentional, especially once the show really digs into its particular brand of zombie metaphor. Let’s face it, groaning hordes in shopping malls are a bit overplayed as a condemnation of middle class America. Lately, we’re much more into embracing our capitalist, antisocial impulses by disguising them as steps towards self-actualization. Go ahead, buy that new car, because you deserve it! You can only live your best life by being assertive! Don’t just tell off the guy who cut you off in traffic, claw out his larynx. Embrace your inner Oprah!
It’s only natural that Sheila would be this kind of zombie, growing confident and achieving her true potential at the cost of her humanity. But as is the case with any good monster, we’re just as down to root for her as we are to be disgusted by her. Dexter killed bad guys and Hannibal ate the rude–why can’t Sheila do both?
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos
All episodes of Santa Clarita Diet will be available to view on Netflix starting Feb. 3.