One of the more typical scenes of Santa Clarita Diet unfolds like this: Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) unload a heavy plastic tub from their car. “Guess what Kelly told me last night? She and Ben are selling their home,” Sheila says. Joel is more concerned with why the tub has no lid, and why Sheila can’t organize their storage better. They bicker amicably for a while, seemingly blasé about the fact that the container they’re squabbling about is filled with the bloody, viscous remains of a colleague whom Sheila has killed and eaten.
That’s basically the whole premise for the new 10-part Netflix show, which debuts in its entirety Friday: the idea that it’s hilarious to splice a cozy marital sitcom with a gruesome, visceral (literally) zombie horror. And a lot of the time, it is, although it takes a while to warm up. The first episode is the most jarring with the shock and gore, testing viewer tolerance for graphic cannibalism and projectile vomiting, among other things, but if you can stick it out there are some, well, killer punchlines ahead.
The conceit for the show, created by Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted) was kept largely mysterious until January, when teasers were released showing Barrymore in character touting the virtues of a new diet, Jenny Craig-style (“I satisfy all my cravings and eat whoever I want”). So it’s not spoiling things to reveal that Sheila is a married realtor and mom who, somewhat unexpectedly, becomes undead. (She’s diagnosed by the teenager next door after the aforementioned projectile vomiting leaves her with no pulse, no pain threshold, and a sudden appetite for uncooked hamburger.) The twist is that Sheila actually likes her new state. Her energy skyrockets, her sex drive peaks, and life takes on a new kind of zest, illustrated by the show’s switch from a muted palette to vibrant color.
The vague drama that unfolds hinges on how Sheila’s zombiehood affects her family, namely Joel and their daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson). After Sheila spontaneously eats a rival realtor (Nathan Fillion at his smarmiest) who won’t stop hitting on her, she discovers her true appetite for human flesh, and the show shifts again into a caper drama, as Sheila and Joel wrestle with whom they might ethically murder and how best to cover up their activities, Little Shop of Horrors-style. (“I hate eating so late,” Sheila pouts after they’re forced to go out at night. “Yeah, there’s a lot about this that isn’t ideal,” Joel responds.)
Zombies, in culture, usually function as a metaphor, whether it’s for slavery or drug addiction or contagion or the decline of humanity. In Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila’s new affliction seems to be an excuse to consider how a midlife crisis might affect a marriage, where instead of having an affair, going on Atkins, or taking up Crossfit, she’s hunting and eating humans. (She buys a Range Rover impulsively, and brags to her friends about the miracle of her new all-protein diet.) And the show’s most sincere moments come as this dynamic is probed, like when Abby wonders if her mom still loves her now she’s undead. But on the whole, Fresco seems to be content using his series to set up increasingly predictable jokes about middle-class zombies. “Got your poncho?” Joel asks. “Keys? Remember your snack?” Sheila nods, holding up a bag of fingers.
For the most part, though, the obvious cannibalism gags are less funny than the show’s sharp grasp on modern culture. (“Pharmaceutical rep hours are super flexible,” a neighbor explains at one point. “That’s why so many of us have time to go on The Bachelor.”) Barrymore is at her zany best as Sheila, gamely gnawing her way through entrails and getting face deep in her various food sources. Olyphant does stellar work with a demanding ask, having to play the straight man to Sheila’s wacky antics while also conveying Joel’s befuddled confusion and loyalty to his ever-more undead wife, coupled with his growing sense of emasculation. “We’re gonna kill people, sweetheart,” he says at one point. “We’re gonna kill them so you can eat them. We’ve been Joel and Sheila since high school. I’m not gonna bail on you now.”
Just as engaging are the scenes featuring Abby and her besotted neighbor, Eric (Skyler Gisondo). Teenagers are enormously tricky for family comedies to get right, but Hewson nails Abby’s sharp intelligence, her cynical affect, and her vulnerability, while Gisondo’s geeky Eric is hugely charming. Santa Clarita Diet’s best scenes often emerge when Joel, Sheila, and Abby scheme to find ways to keep their unit intact—deducing that the family that slays together stays together. It largely makes up for the weak plotting and spotty structure, but whether or not it can hold up a show whose whole existence feels like an excuse to make cannibalism gags depends on your tolerance for (a) gratuitous carnage and (b) the same joke, over and over. (“Sometimes your pot smoking bugs me.” “Well, I don’t like that you’re soon gonna be killing and eating people.”) But if you can get with the gore, there’s frequently a sweet, oddball marital comedy fighting to get out.