Lack of humanity is the chief limitation of zombies in pop culture. Zombies shuffle in mindless hordes and eat people and that’s about it, as opposed to, say, vampires and werewolves, which are usually cursed by sensual longing and self-consciousness that court the audience’s wish-fulfilling projections. Santa Clarita Diet invests the zombie with these empathy-coaxing qualities, stretching out, over the course of 10 episodes, one of the classic scenes of the zombie narrative: the moment in which a human dreadfully awaits transformation into the undead. But the series is also a comedy, investing horror tropes with a dry absurdism that often recalls Arrested Development.
Santa Clarita Diet begins on a ridiculously WTF note that will come to typify its tone. Sheila and Joel Hammond (Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant), a married couple who’re also partnered as real estate agents, have been together for 25 years, and their routine has grown staid. Joel’s obligatory proposition for morning sex is shot down by Sheila, probably with regularity, and their most stimulating conversation pertains to the effectiveness of Joel’s toaster oven. Sheila and Joel are attractive and seemingly affluent (despite the frequent allusions to their awkwardness as professionals), but they’re imprisoned by the impersonally tasteful etiquette of suburban living in Santa Clarita, where everything is planned and ritualized to the point of nonexistence. Wittily commenting on this tedium from the sidelines is Sheila and Joel’s teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), who, like many people her age, enjoys this life while nursing a hypocritical feeling of superiority to it.
Then, one morning, Sheila vomits gallons of bile, coughing up what might be a small, unidentifiable organ in the process. In the wake of this incident, she suddenly requires to feed on human meat for survival. Sheila’s out-of-nowhere transition into a non-traditional zombie is one of Santa Clarita Diet’s smartest details. She isn’t bitten by another monster and she doesn’t accidentally ingest a mysterious potion. Sheila simply wakes up one morning a medically dead woman with an insatiable sex drive and a propensity for cannibalism, and Joel and Abby take this development as just another bridge to cross while negotiating the perils of modern family life.
The symbolism of this inciting incident is unmistakable: Sheila tires of being a yuppie, recognizing that many of the conformist traps of living as a privileged person are ultimately self-erected. Yet, she’s not truly done with the life, yearning instead for just a hint of adventure to spice up her insulated comfort, which, in her case, includes a series of increasingly farcical murders. The series could just as easily be titled American Beauty and Zombies.
Zomedies thrive on a delicate alchemy between violence and humor. When the balance is off, the results are smug and self-congratulatory, as in Zombieland. But in Santa Clarita Diet, creator Victor Fresco and his collaborators exhibit a flair for slapstick violence that’s staged with a surprisingly light and deft touch. The best bits are nearly impossible to rationalize (its punchlines are tossed off with confident casualness), but the series thrives on its refusal to take even its theme of yuppie conformity seriously, recognizing that it’s so obvious as to be inherently self-critical.
The notion of Barrymore pouncing on a chicken in a backyard isn’t especially promising in theory, but such a scene is hilarious in practice for its matter-of-fact timing. The actress has often played the wallflower, the bright young woman looking to be understood by the right sensitive hunk. But Sheila quickly turns into a zombie hellcat, looking to quell a variety of thirsts constantly and simultaneously, releasing a bitter tension in Barrymore’s acting that’s often latent in her work. One doesn’t expect a Barrymore character to say, for instance, that she feels like a bus station just shat in her mouth. As in her best film performances, Barrymore makes lunatic poetry out of a woman coming into her own, and her timing is, as always, ferocious, constantly locating unexpected angles in potentially familiar punchlines.
By contrast, we most prominently associate Olyphant with Justified’s drawling womanizing stud Raylan Givens, who’s the kind of character of which we’d normally root for a Barrymore heroine to steer clear. Joel is a role that we’d usually associate with, say, Jason Bateman, as he’s a smart guy who’s discovered that he’s lapsed into a life of meekness when he wasn’t looking. Olyphant beautifully underplays as a counteraction against Barrymore’s broadness, his slower, more deliberate rhythms complementing her mania. In their differences, Sheila and Joel and Barrymore and Olyphant find a blissful simpatico, honoring the construct of marriage as a project of teamwork as well as romance. Santa Clarita Diet is a charmingly goofy lark, revealing itself to be a comedy of remarriage hidden in zombie’s clothing.