santa clarita diet

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The zombie subgenre needs to die, and much like the undead flesh-eaters depicted in these increasingly insufferable tales, it just fucking won’t. I believe that despite the best efforts of every nerd-adjacent, Max Landis-sympathetic screenwriting major, zombies are so heavily saturated in the current pop culture realm that it is impossible to describe any zombie-related IP as “fresh” or “relevant.” Zombies are inherently versatile monsters, as they can represent a lot of things and be used in properties that range from pulpy and cartoonishly violent, to Nolan-esque brooding with faux-deep philosophy, to whatever WARM BODIES was. In fact, modern zombie narratives, it could be argued, are being used to exploit the nastiest parts of our collective subconscious, particularly our heinous xenophobia and nationalism.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Netflix’s horror-comedy, SANTA CLARITA DIET, isn’t going to knock your socks off or make you any less tired of zombies (if you were tired of zombies, of course), but it’s a damned good attempt. A clever marketing team was able to hide the show’s zombie elements in plain sight, and thanks to them the premise is — at least initially — surprising enough to spark genuine interest. Unfortunately, DIET can’t quite nail down a cohesive idea about what it wants to be during its first season, and feels undercooked and unsure of itself throughout.

santa clarita diet drew

Oh! Drew Barrymore. You know, I like her, she’s just… she’s FUN, you know?

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SANTA CLARITA DIET concerns Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Drew Barrymore), a married couple who are by every standard your typical Southern California suburbanites. They sell houses together and seem to be pretty good at it; they are conventionally good looking in every way, even in middle age; Joel smokes pot; and they have a perfectly pleasant middle class life with their teenage daughter. Then, they find their life gets flipped-turned upside down when Sheila becomes violently ill all over the nice carpet of a house they’re trying to sell. Long story short, she dies and becomes what we would refer to as a “zombie.” SANTA CLARITA DIET differs some from other zombie shows in its rules, as Sheila seems completely normal at first, until Joel realizes that her heart isn’t beating, she cannot feel pain, and her “blood” has turned into some tar-like substance. After consulting with the weird kid next door who happens to be super into the paranormal (a surprisingly charming portrayal by Skyler Gisondo), they decide that she’s some sort of undead creature.

santa clarita diet yes

Yes, what DO I do about my murderous creature of a wife, neighbor child whose stepfather is a cop and spends way too much time on the internet?

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To my great surprise, SANTA CLARITA DIET actually does manage to introduce a new idea to the long-exhausted well that is the zombie genre — it’s one of our first looks at zombie psychology! Unlike most zombies we’re familiar with, Sheila looks and functions a lot like a normal person — with the exception that she wants to eat people — but her death and un-death changes who she is as a person. While it’s implied that she was on the type A side before becoming a zombie, the new Sheila is impulsive and has a far more laissez-faire attitude toward life. Her change and development as a character is by far the most interesting thing the show has to offer, and seeing how this affects her relationships as well as the people around her is unexpected, providing some unexpected sources of social commentary that differ from the usual stuff you’d find in a zombie story.

santa clarita diet fuck

Also — this time, the zombies FUCK!

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The main issue that we run into right away is the attempted marriage of tonal structures clearly not meshing as well as one would have hoped. Creator Victor Fresco brings a comic sensibility similar to his previous project BETTER OFF TED, in which the humor is mostly grounded in the absurdity of the predicaments Joel and Sheila find themselves in and on their characters’ relatively amoral approach and reaction to these predicaments. More than a few scenes are based on the same comic premise of “unexpected/unwanted visitor must not see the object Joel and Sheila are hiding,” and/or “Timothy Olyphant is exasperated by what the other character just said.”

More dishearteningly, it’s just difficult to be detached enough to appreciate an ironic joke while watching someone get devoured by Drew Barrymore, with highly realistic blood and guts everywhere. The gore and violence inherent to the premise of this show are a clunky fit with this style of comedy — it feels as if Fresco is trying to get Sam Raimi-loving fans of cartoonish horror to laugh at middle-brow major network-style humor, and even though it has its moments where it works, it’s hard to believe that there could be a solid audience for this product. To be fair, it’s grade-A gore though.

santa clarita diet far

Seriously, this is far from the worst of it. This show is not for the faint of heart

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In another unfortunate twist, this show has an amazing comic ensemble at its disposal, and it’s almost completely wasted. This starts with the leads, unfortunately. Barrymore has the most opportunity for comedy and leaves it largely untouched, while Olyphant has to make do with surprised facial reactions and repeating “What?” after something weird happens. The secondary leads are Joel and Sheila’s teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) and Gisondo’s Eric. Their characters are the most likable on the show, but they aren’t particularly well written, with Abby being the least developed. With the exception of the excellent Mary Elizabeth Ellis, who is a lot of fun as Eric’s party animal mother, the supporting cast isn’t able to save the show’s performances, despite big name guests like Patton Oswalt, Nathan Fillion, Portia de Rossi, Andy Richter, and Thomas Lennon. Olyphant’s misuse feels the most disappointing, because he has paid his dues, dammit, and yet he is still reduced to a frustrating and inconsistent one-note character.

santa clarita diet cool

But he’s a Cool Dad Who Smokes Weed, so he’s cool in my book

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SANTA CLARITA DIET feels like a gigantic missed opportunity for all involved, and very well could improve in coming seasons. The first ends on an effective cliffhanger that indicates that the show could change in a positive way for season two (if it comes), and the first season very well could appeal to the fans that keep these zombie franchises alive. But, as it stands, the tepid and underworked nature of DIET’s characters, plot, and, well, everything, undermines the boldness of its premise severely, and even if it’s not a terrible show, viewing it is a constant exercise in disappointment. Like BETTER OFF TED, DIET could well find a cult audience that can appreciate it, but it’s hard to imagine this show finding a large enough audience to subsist itself.

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

Adam Cash lives in the woods and grew up playing music in barns with other strange woods children. Fortunately, moving to California showed him that the rest of the world largely ignores Toby Keith, and thus, life is worth living. Adam also writes about video games on Top Shelf Gaming.

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