On paper, the idea of Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, and Victor Fresco teaming up to do a comedy for Netflix called Santa Clarita Diet seems exciting. It’s Barrymore’s first regular TV series role in a long time (since 2000 Malibu Road way back in 1992), though she’s been a terrific SNL host, Olyphant’s often incredibly funny when asked to be, and Fresco created one of the most underrated comedies of the last decade in ABC’s Better Off Ted. Put those three together with the relative creative freedom of Netflix, and how could things go wrong?
In practice, though, Santa Clarita Diet is an unfortunate collection of mismatched parts, and gory humor that quickly becomes numbing. I watched all 10 episodes of the first season, which debuts Friday, almost entirely out of the disbelief that all these talented people couldn’t make something better.
Let’s start with the premise, though I’m reluctant to divulge it (even though Netflix has long since spilled the beans), given that my biggest laugh from any of the episodes came from my realization late in the pilot at exactly what the show was about. So for the moment I’ll just say that that Barrymore and Olyphant play Sheila and Joel Hammond, long-married former high school sweethearts who work together as realtors in the eponymous California community, trying to keep the spark in their marriage from fading while fending off the arrival of an aggressive new realtor named Gary (guest star Nathan Fillion). And then Sheila begins projectile vomiting massive amounts of bile in the middle of a house showing, which turns out to the be the first stage in her transformation from boring suburban mom into something much scarier and more disgusting, even if it still looks and talks like Drew Barrymore. (If you want to know the rest, scroll down to the very end of the review.)
Barrymore has plenty of experience playing women (and, before that, girls) who aren’t exactly what they seem, and she throws herself into the role with her customary enthusiasm. But it’s a broad performance that pretty much stays in one key, in a way that might work fine if this was a 90-minute movie and not a 5-hour first season of what’s intended as an ongoing show. It’s fun at times early on to see her playing a Sheila no longer bound by the rules of polite society, but she keeps doing the same thing over and over again, to diminishing returns.
Still, she’s used better than Olyphant, who isn’t so much cast against type as miscast altogether. Olyphant can do overconfident alpha male, and he can do handsome flake, but he seems at sea as a befuddled, exasperated nebbish, bugging out his eyes at every opportunity and yelling every third line. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to hire Raylan Givens to play a repressed Matthew Broderick type, but here we are.
Which brings us to Fresco. Yes, he gave us Better Off Ted, and it’s as great as its reputation. (Netflix has the rights to that show, and you’re better off just trying it — season one’s magnificent “Racial Sensitivity” in particular — rather than this new project.) And he’s worked on some other good comedies, notably the short-lived Andy Richter Controls the Universe (whose star pops up in a cameo as Sheila and Joel’s boss at the real estate firm). But his resume’s a lot more checkered than you might think, including creator credits on far lesser sitcoms like Sean Saves the World, Life on a Stick, and The Trouble with Normal. Admittedly, all of those were traditional multi-camera sitcoms, where Santa Clarita is a single-cam show like Ted and Andy, but there’s a flop-sweaty, self-satisfied tone more typical of the weaker Fresco comedies. Every now and then there will be a moment, or a guest performance — familiar faces popping up include Better Off Ted alum Portia de Rossi, Patton Oswalt, Thomas Lennon, Ricardo Chavira, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, and Natalie Morales(*) — that takes the show beyond its fundamental wackiness and familiar suburban satire, but they’re too often derailed by gross-out humor or a new round of panic for Sheila and Joel.
(*) A scene featuring Olyphant, Ellis, and Morales together made me sad all over again that The Grinder was canceled. But what if it wasn’t?