Netlfix’s new zombie comedy, “Santa Clarita Diet,” really benefits from binge-watching.
I say that because the premiere episode is not good. If the show, which premieres on Friday, were on some kind of weekly schedule, I wouldn’t be back for for the second episode. Thankfully for “Santa Clarita Diet,” Netflix is about binge-watching and there’s a marked improvement from the first episode to the second, which are both directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), and that may hook viewers. Smartly, Netflix sent critics the entire first season of 10 episodes to review.
Created by Victor Fresco (“Better Off Ted”), “Santa Clarita Diet” stars Drew Barrymore, who is also an executive producer, as suburban wife and mum Sheila; Timothy Olyphant as her husband Joel; and Liv Hewson as their teen daughter Abby. They live in the cookie-cutter city of Santa Clarita, a suburb about an hour north of Los Angeles for those who want to escape the urban jungle and raise their family.
Reserved and skittish when we first meet her, Sheila begins to feel ill. As her illness escalates, so does her impulse to act on her raw desires. She’s diagnosed as undead by the geeky boy across the street, Eric (endearingly played by Skyer Gisondo). Sheila pulls her family into the spiral of finding ways to satiate her hunger for human flesh while upholding the appearance of normalcy that defines Santa Clarita.
The problems with the first episode include a search for the right balance between a gory zombie show and family comedy. Barrymore and Olyphant don’t help matters. She seems a little too flippant about her zombie transformation and Olyphant, a veteran of dramas like “Deadwood,” is way too intense in moments.
Plus, if we’re to make the connection between being undead and the monotony of suburban life, then we need to get a better feel for that life. Are they unhappy with their marriage? Is the sex bad? Will Sheila lose it after one more PTA bake sale? How bad are their jobs as real-estate agents? The opening episode has to establish Sheila’s malady (in a whole lot of disgusting ways) so quickly that we don’t really get a sense of any of that.
Things begin to fall into place on the episodes that follow as Barrymore and Olyphant sink into their roles. She gets to play to her goofy and irreverent side and Olyphant’s inclination for severity begins to fit the situation better. That’s not to say that the show’s problems get ironed out, but there’s great improvement.
Through it all, Hewson as daughter Abby is a pretty solid player and makes the most sense in the context of the show. Like a teen who decides nothing really matters when there’s trouble at home, Abby begins to withdraw from school and follow her wilder side.
Fans of the zombie-comedy genre will enjoy the show’s more gory and disgusting elements. Sheila vomits… a lot, tears into people with her teeth, and does things like point to part of a man’s severed arm and say, “This is the filet mignon for humans.” The show is vague about what exactly caused Sheila’s transformation, so zombie aficionados may enjoy theorizing about that.
In the end, “Santa Clarita” is both a zombie show and a comment on suburban life, though it never quite nails either tone. It’s best when it plays to the comedy/heist/murder elements of both keeping Sheila’s hunger at bay and hiding her strange secret from the neighbours.
Watch a trailer for “Santa Clarita Diet” below:
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