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?
The highlight by far is Liv Hewson as Sheila and Joel’s daughter Abby. Adult shows with prominent teenage characters usually screw up by making the kids into obstacles to what their parents are trying to do, because they’re kept out of the loop of what the series is really about. Santa Clarita smartly lets Abby in on the secret very early, and her stories are just her dealing with this strange new reality, acting out adolescent frustrations in an extreme circumstance, and Hewson has a dry, confident delivery that’s like a tonic on a show where too many people are trying too hard. A version of the show told from Abby’s point of view — with help from Skyler Gisondo as Eric, the nerd next door who understands Sheila’s situation better than the Hammonds — with Sheila doing crazy things off in the margins might feel more balanced, even if it would have been a much harder sell to Netflix.
So, back to that premise, in case you really want to know before watching (or have already decided not to watch but are curious): After Sheila has seemingly died from puking up most of her body weight, she wakes up an intelligent but uninhibited zombie, unable to stomach the taste of anything but fresh human flesh, and at risk of becoming a mindless monster if she doesn’t have a steady supply of the stuff. It’s presented less as a zombie story than a cannibal one, with Sheila frequently taking bites out of unsuspecting people who have the bad timing to upset her when she’s at her hungriest, and the show takes a lot of pleasure out of showing America’s once and future sweetheart Drew Barrymore with severed human body parts dangling from her lips, tangled in her hair, etc. (In one episode, Joel has to shave a corpse so she’ll stop gagging on the man’s abundant body hair.)
As I said, the realization that this familiar-seeming sitcom about repressed dysfunction in the suburbs was in fact a zombie show with tons and tons of gore was the biggest laugh I got out of the early episodes, as much out of disbelief as any humor inherent in seeing Barrymore eating people while they scream for her to stop. But even that shock value quickly grows as stale as the other raw meats that Sheila can no longer stomach, particularly as the Hammonds attempt to target particularly obnoxious people so they’ll feel less guilty about Sheila killing and eating them (and not always in that order). It’s meant to be a fantasy about a middle-aged couple shaken out of complacency and the polite norms of society, but it gets exhausting in a hurry.
I kept watching in hopes that all these talented people would figure it out, and there are definite signs of improvement over the course of the 10 episodes. Joel mellows out ever so slightly, for instance, and Abby’s presence grows, but Santa Clarita Diet never feels worthy of the time investment, either from me the viewer or from the many talented people trying to make the show a bloody good time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org