Netflix’s newest original series Santa Clarita Diet was released last Friday to surprisingly little fanfare. While hits like Stranger Things and The OA take up most of Netflix’s pop culture real estate, Diet snuck through the backdoor. I’ve seen some tweets and a review here or there, but it’s not the commanding force of something like, say, Orange is the New Black. Which is a shame, because Santa Clarita Diet is honest-to-god great.
Don’t let the squeaky-clean leitmotifs (which sound right out of a Wes Anderson movie) and glean of silliness fool you – Diet is dark. It’s also gory as hell, which took me by surprise. I knew from the amazing viral ads that the show was about a soccer Mombie, but I wasn’t expecting the Sam Raimi-level eruptions of vomit, or a Breaking Bad-esque body in a bucket gag. There’s a scene where Drew Barrymore’s Sheila devours a man and chokes up a chest hairball that had me dry heaving, and an equally disgusting moment where she eats an old foot while riding shotgun.
Barrymore, by the way, is great. She puts her rom-com training to good use, and makes Sheila both charmingly adorable and surprisingly sexy. Her transformation from a by-the-numbers real estate agent to a high-functioning zombie with an impressive libido is full of great physical gags (like casually munching on fingers as if they’re carrot sticks) and excellent deadpan delivery. (“I don’t wear fur, and I won’t eat people’s buttholes.”)
Timothy Olyphant as Joel is a little less great, but fun all the same. He’s a good actor whose comedy chops are frankly pretty hit or miss. He’s better at facial reactions than he is at line delivery, and his over-eagerness can come off strained in places. But it’s no fatal flaw. One of the funniest parts of the whole series comes in episode two, when Joel and Sheila attempt to bury what’s left of her first victim. As a car approaches, Joel tells Sheila to “act natural,” even though they’re in the middle of a field covered in blood and guts. The pose they strike when the headlights blast them is priceless, and Olyphant adds a nice little touch by waving just slightly. It’s truly great.
But the biggest surprise for me was Joel and Sheila’s daughter Abby, played by Liv Hewson. Teenagers in these sorts of shows usually suck, but Abby is a bright spot, and Hewson (who is Australian, which I honestly can’t believe – her accent is perfect) is an amazing find. Abby is dry and playful - a troublemaker dealing with the sudden shift of her mom from normal people-pleaser to rambunctious flesh-eater. Their relationship is delightful, and gets at the heart of why I think this show is something special. Instead of separating them, Sheila’s transformation brings them closer, and together they destroy the gender norms that have limited their lives until this point.
Not everything works. The show’s take on nerd culture is Big Bang Theory levels of insufferable, and there’s an ongoing lesbian joke in the last few episodes that feels dated and unfunny. But while much of Diet appears surface-level, it’s actually quietly subversive, offering up a darker look at the weird competitiveness between married couples, and the subtle ways men undermine and underappreciate their wives and daughters. Really, it’s as much about the cultural fear of transgressive women as it is about the undead.
Creator Victor Fresco was also behind Better Off Ted, so if you’re a fan of that underrated show, you’ll find plenty to adore about Santa Clarita Diet. (You’ll also appreciate Portia de Rossi as the doctor attempting to cure Sheila’s condition.) With only 10 episodes, all around the 30-minute mark, it’s a breezy watch, but an enjoyable one that’ll stay with you. To make a lame joke, Santa Clarita Diet will leave you hungry for more.