All is not well for the Hammond family. A few weeks ago they were living their middle class yuppie lives in Santa Clarita, California. Now, as they arrive for their neighbor’s BBQ, their lives have become a farce spiraling out of control. Sheila is drinking a smoothie made from human flesh. She’s a zombie, and her daughter Abbey is having some serious trouble dealing with it. Oh, and their neighbour is a corrupt cop blackmailing Joel into killing people.
Just as Joel is told by his blackmailer to kill again, their friend Ed shows up. He’s got a bottle of fancy beer for Joel – it’s got honey in it. With a manic grin which barely represses a full blown panic attack, Joel turns to Ed.
“Honey? Jesus Christ, Ed! That’s such fucking good news!”
This is Santa Clarita Diet (SCD), Netflix’ new zombie comedy, though this description does a slight disservice to such an idiosyncratic piece of television. SCD will likely have grabbed your attention, if at all, thanks to Drew Barrymore. Barrymore here plays Sheila, a realtor in suburban Santa Clarita living an extremely boring life with her husband Joel and her daughter Abbey. This is a show about zombies though, so it’s not long before the Hammonds are dealing with Sheila’s reliance on human flesh and an increasingly unsteady Jenga tower of unpleasant consequences.
While Barrymore no doubt receives top billing though, the real protagonist is Joel, played in a career performance by Timothy Olyphant . Joel must come to terms with his wife’s new reality, and as this new reality tests him it’s gratifying to see how his devotion to Sheila defines him as a good person.
Then there’s Abbey, played sardonically by up and comer Liv Hewson. What with the zombie situation at home, Abbey spends most of her scenes with dorky neighbour boy Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the only person outside the family to know Sheila’s undead. Hewson and Gisondo have surprising chemistry, and even as the season goes on and they’re given less interesting stuff to do, the pair find new ways to make their interactions weird and interesting.
SDC’s main storyline, though, undoubtedly belongs to Sheila and Joel. It’s also here where the show’s writing really shines. Whether it’s slipping Joel killer one-liners again and again or finding yet more ways to throw the pair into absurd situations, SDC puts the Hammond’s marriage centre stage. One scene, around the show’s fifth episode, may be the best comedy fight scene since Pineapple Express. Writing this sort of farce, where each situation builds up on the last so effortlessly, is close to impossible. And SCD nearly succeeds.
Don’t get me wrong, SCD is a great show. It’s got some unapologetic gore for the zombie fans, and almost every scene is elevated by its casts’ body language and facial expressions. There are, however, a few issues.
Let’s stick with Sheila and Joel for a second. Olyphant ’s Joel is an immaculate performance, which manages to blur the line between tragedy and comedy. I must admit to being a huge nerd for sad clown characters, and Joel is the best we’ve had in awhile. Sheila, however, doesn’t quite pop so consistently. Certainly Barrymore has her moments, especially when she’s called upon to swear like sailor. Trouble is, her character oscillates so much we never get a firm grip on what makes her tick. Barrymore papers over some of these cracks with her sheer charisma, but there are too many moments where the focus of her character is sacrificed for the absurdity of a moment.
The show’s B-storyline, following Abby and Eric and their self-consciously weird friendship, also has problems. A decision seems to have been made to largely keep the pair away from the main storyline until the final few episodes. This move, though necessary, does leave Hewson and Gisondo coasting for a little while on not much more than their own ability to elevate the material they’re given.
Overall though, SCD is a surprisingly well written farce. There are moments in its early episodes where it threatens to become a zombie pastiche to some of the Coen Brothers’ wackier comedies. Quickly though, SCD lands on its own reality. Meshing suburban American family drama with high concept zombies and murder, the biggest surprise of all is that SCD never quite loses plausibility within its own universe. Lesser shows would have broken under the weight of such an absurd reality.
Credit must go to Olyphant here. His turn as Raylan Givens in Justified proved he could do sly humour well, but as Joel Hammond Olyphant goes for broke. He’s all in. There’s his constant grimace and forlorn eyes. There’s the desperation in his every conversation and surprised exclamation. And holding it all together is just how much he loves his wife, despite his obvious horror at the new world she finds herself in. He’s not a killer, but he’ll still do anything for her. It’s this dichotomy which could have collapsed in the hands of a less gifted actor.
Santa Clarita Diet will not be the best show of 2017. The thing it tries and mostly succeeds at being is too idiosyncratic. It may, however, be the best blend of farce and satire this year ends up offering. That’s not a universal recommendation, but if you’re a fan of dark comedy you’ll be getting a feast of it here.
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