Suburban life, as countless series and films have told us, can be deadly dull. Or so it seems. Within the stucco-lined walls of perfectly lovely beige homes with perfect lawns, husbands and wives are not only making dinner and checking homework but low-key spying on their neighbors or managing terrible secrets too. Of course, if you've watched sitcoms or dramas within, oh, I dunno, the last 25 years, this is not a new idea; many, like Desperate Housewives or Suburgatory, have taken on this notion and reworked it in surprising, provocative ways.
On Netflix's new black comedy Santa Clarita Diet, created by Better Off Ted's Victor Fresco, that premise is given the zombie treatment: Realtor Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) suddenly learns that she's undead and must resort to eating people, roping her business partner/husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) into her terrible new predicament too. And that, folks, is by and large all there is to chew on.
What works? The often shocking gross-out gore, including gallons of fake vomit and blood that's fun to watch just for the sake of the outrageousness. Sure, we see plenty of goo and guts on The Walking Dead, but there we're supposed to be slightly unnerved. And on Ash vs Evil Dead, we're supposed to roll around in it like kids at a waterpark. On Santa Clarita, the ick nast is contrasted against the understood norms of middle-class civility, which makes it funny.
Then there's Barrymore, who's fun to watch, especially with Olyphant. Also great: their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson), who straddles both teenage angst with actual admiration for her parents in a way that's kind of lovely and not too cliche. You'll laugh as Sheila and Joel continue to find ways to cover up their unusual situation.
What will feel, ahem, not alive in places is the structure supporting the main running joke. It's probably not fair to demand a show have multiple themes and social commentary and provocative discourse going on as it entertains, but here we are in this vast ocean of content and in this stage of TV zombiehood too. The idea of a supposedly perfect California mom under pressure to be fit and fabulous and eco-friendly, diet-conscious, a friend to her daughter etcetera etcetera, while hiding a massive, awful secret and attempting to keep her marriage together, seems like an opulent gate for insights about us, women's roles and more to triumphantly ride through. She's literally dead, and pushing through to keep up appearances! And yet, the sort of nuanced, layered thing you expect never comes.
Which is fine if you want to just enjoy an escapist story about a crazy family doing crazy things. If you want a comedy that sends you into an open-mouthed, wide-eyed captive because it sucks everything out of you in the best way possible, this may not provide the fix you need.
Santa Clarita Diet premieres Friday, Feb. 3 on Netflix.