For those wondering if the odd horror-comedy hybrid Santa Clarita Diet is worthwhile, a caveat: Stay with it for a while, as the main course and dessert far surpass the bland appetizers. Remember The Walking Dead? After a knockout pilot, the writing in the first season was a bit clumsy, expository, even predictable. Solution? Fire all the writers! Or, hire more of them. Diet creator Victor Fresco has written quirky comedy in the past: My Name Is Earl, Better Off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. But the first two episodes of his new Netflix series, written by Fresco and directed by Zombieland's Ruben Fleischer, are uneven.
Santa Clarita Diet is like The Walking Dead standing on its head in pastel yoga togs. Horror-comedy isn't an easy genre to pull off – we used to call it "black comedy" (think Bob Balaban's Parents, even Brian de Palma's Carrie) – the more hyphens the better, in our hyper-mediated TV landscape. And Zombieland was a gem, but Fleischer doesn't manage to hit the sweet spot right away.
Denizens of a picture-perfect California suburb, the main characters, Sheila and Joel Hammond (Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant), work as realtors. After she sweetly rebuffs his offer of morning sex and drinks a green smoothie, Sheila complains of stomach pain, but brushes it off, and they head to the office. There, she's scolded by her boss (Andy Richter), and meets Gary (Firefly's Nathan Fillion), a new agent who's immediately attracted to Sheila. While showing a house to potential buyers, Sheila vomits copiously. It's shocking and gross, and at first Joel thinks Sheila may have died. But she soon feels better, despite having purged a small organ the size of a kidney.
But something's different. Sheila's ravenously hungry, but can only eat raw meat, and her libido is off the charts (Barrymore's facial expressions when she silently requests oral sex from her husband are priceless). Teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson, perfect from the get-go) is troubled by Mom's changes, and suggests they seek help from neighbor and schoolmate Eric (adorable Skyler Gisondo), who has a heart-meltingly awkward crush on Abby. Abby comes to savor Sheila's new penchant for impulsive behavior, apparently brought on by what Eric determines is her undead state. Joel is freaked out but wants to help make things work. When Sheila's appetites become increasingly horrific, their lives become about reinvention and coping, and, eventually, dark hilarity ensues.
A suburban couple must find a way to navigate horrifying physical and emotional changes that happen out of the blue. If this were a dramatic horror series, we could look for metaphors and tropes around illness, aging, maybe even menopause (just as Rosemary's Baby and Carrie portrayed the horrors of pregnancy and menstruation, respectively). But you have to go back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a TV series rich with subtext beneath its horror-comedy exterior.
Barrymore and Olyphant seem out of place in this genre at first, their characters mugging through one-liners instead of struggling with genuine emotions. But by the fourth episode, as Joel begins to seek the causes of Sheila's condition, the writing becomes increasingly clever and intricate, and with it, the (considerably talented) actors find their footing. Olyphant's comedic timing starts to feel authentic and not just pantomimed, and Barrymore, ever the cherubic weirdo, digs in, to delicious effect.