Santa Clarita Diet is a tough sell; a suburban sitcom about death and destruction that happily rolls around in the blood and guts of the zombie genre, but also aims for big broad laughs and warm, romantic comedy resonance. In its first season, the show sometimes struggled to land on a specific tone or truly understand the ramification and metaphorical implications of an upwardly mobile wife and mother waking up as the undead. Some of the episodes had to do some heavy lifting. Half a story about one woman’s personal empowerment through shrugging off the shackles of social expectations and half a slapstick adventure into murder and crime, it was good television, but not especially sure-footed.
Happily, the second season is a lot of what the first season promised but didn’t always deliver. Season two provides a genuine interrogation of what happens to a family when one member has to reinvent themselves; it takes a romantic look at a marriage, it’s a loose-limbed comedy and, ultimately, a subversive story about the sacrifices and re-configurations we will make for the people we love.
Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore), a realtor-mom-wife-friend, who woke up one day showing all the signs of our culture’s understanding of the zombie, has acknowledged that she cannot control her appetite for human flesh and has agreed to be locked in the basement whilst her family desperately search for a “cure”. Sheila’s body has started to let her down, her limbs are falling apart, and she’s becoming animalistic in ways both disgusting and traumatic for those around her, making her previous plans to control her appetites and continue her normal(ish) life untenable.
Drew Barrymore in “No Family Is Perfect” episode (Photo by Saeed Adyani/Netflix) (IMDB)
Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant), desperate to save his wife, has just grappled with an elderly Serbian woman to get her vomit, the key to stabilising Sheila’s zombie instincts according to a manual that the married couple found in an occult bookstore. Meanwhile, Liv (Abby Hammond), Sheila and Joel’s plucky daughter, has plans to acquire the vomit through more modern means — an ad on Craiglist.
Having Sheila go into self-imposed exile made for a neat capper to the first season and served as a de-facto cliff-hanger, but also could have become a narrative corner from which the show would have to exposition its way out. It’s a sharp move, then, that the conceit is removed pretty quickly from the second season and Sheila’s deterioration is almost immediately stabilised, thanks to a little chemistry know-how from next-door-neighbour-slash-zombie-expert Eric (Skyler Gisondo) and the above-mentioned vomit. Sheila’s zombification was good for physical gags and formed much of the stakes of the first run (after all, nothing will kick the narrative into high gear quicker than the threat of your protagonists’ limbs falling off), but it was also an unworkable and unsustainable premise and one which skewed the comedy towards gross-out in ways that could seem incongruous with some of the show’s central themes; namely, that when people change it often isn’t for the better or the worse, but just for the different.
The broad, violent humour that made
Santa Clarita Diet such a delightful oddity is still here, but with Sheila on a more even keel, the show begins to unpack what, exactly, her condition might mean for this family. It has always suggested that through becoming undead, Sheila is able to reinvigorate her life; that it’s a form of personal reinvention that allows her to be present in a life that she was taking for granted before she lost it. It’s a fascinating wrinkle in the story of the zombie in general — rather than becoming mindless, Sheila becomes infinitely more mindful of her hopes and desires, more aware of the life she wants for herself and those around her. A late in season twist, in which the audience learns that Sheila was transformed through eating bad clams, allows for a particularly canny look at Sheila as a character. She admits that she thought the clams were bad, but she didn’t feel that she could complain for fear that she would sound too critical or bitchy. It’s a sad revelation and an enlightening one; she just couldn’t stand up for herself. It’s fairly easy to read Santa Clarita Diet as a story about a woman learning to ask for what she wants and what she needs, but the show is never shallow in its exploration of that renewed empowerment.
Sheila has to make sacrifices, as the season goes on she has to contemplate the idea of quitting her job because she can’t quite draw the line between being assertive and threatening around her awful boss (Andy Richter) and her concerns about being a good mother and wife whilst also an active go-getter are movingly rendered. The show pretty convincingly argues that Sheila has to become a whole new person whilst still holding onto the essence of who she used to be and for such a bright comedy it’s never glib about her attempts to re-work her own emotional parameters. Its an oddly compassionate season, in ways that can be uncomfortable when it tries to unpick the morality of Sheila and Joel’s attempts to keep Sheila’s bloodlust at bay through killing neo-Nazis, and it’s keenly attuned to the shifting dynamics that occur when you have to support someone who is trying on new personalities.
Joel, too, gets more shading than before; his desire to go back to his normal life whilst attempting to conceal those nostalgic impulses (for fear of making Sheila feel guilty) are poignant and funny and his frequent discoveries of just how much he loves his wife make for genuinely romantic television. Joel feels like a great sitcom husband, without the flatness that description might suggest; he has personality to spare and each episode provides him with emotional quirks that guarantee he’s not just a supportive bystander in Sheila’s life. His story arc may not be as clear as Sheila’s but it’s subtle and no less emotionally rewarding, he learns that the mathematics of his life only truly make sense when he is with his family, regardless of what that family might look like.
This may make the second season of
Santa Clarita Diet sound dour or navel-gazing, but it’s still a riot — maybe even more so than the first ten episodes. The first half of this run has a consistently good hit-to-miss joke ratio and it never loses sight of the inherent slapstick potential of the premise. Early on it’s established that if a Zombie’s brain is not destroyed then they are still alive — leading to the discovery of Gary’s (Nathan Fillion) severed, vocal head in the desert. Fillion’s comedy chops are well known at this point and he’s especially well served here with rat-a-tat dialogue that’s a consistent delight. The show is also refreshingly quirky without seeming curated; a clam owner makes a distinction between her pet clams and restaurant clams, the Hammond’s lesbian neighbor (Natalie Morales) is a gun-toting sheriff with deep religious convictions and art aspirations, one of the Neo-Nazi’s who becomes her dinner (Sheila decides that she will eat her way through the secret violent fascists in the community) is an excellent craftsman. It’s our world but it’s tilted a little, which creates a place were big comedic set-pieces feel lived in and full of rhythm.
Nathan Fillion in “The Queen of England” episode (IMDB)
Drew Barrymore may be a limited actress in many ways, but when that range is harnessed she’s never less than sunny and deceptively astute. Part of what makes Barrymore a reliable presence is her willingness to telegraph every thought and feeling her character has; she’s able to pinpoint warring impulses and map them out across her face. That loose-limbed effusiveness fits into a show that’s all about contrasting tones. Sheila is toeing the line between revelling in her newfound agency and being upset that agency could destroy her family. Barrymore is able to strong-arm these difficult themes into buoyancy by force of smiley will whilst also maintaining Sheila’s acidic qualities; she’s not a glitter-machine here (the stakes are too high and too sad), but she maintains her trademark sparkle.
Timothy Olyphant is enormously appealing; put-upon but energetic, befuddled but invested. From the first episode, Olyphant’s was the most easily readable performance and, despite some big choices, it still feels like a grounding force in a show that can be quite intense. As with Barrymore, Olymphant finds ways to consistently undercut Joel’s most dominant emotional beats, suggesting that there are four or five different things going on beneath the surface. He’s a particularly adroit romantic lead; one of his final scenes with Barrymore in which they try to work out what their lives might look like if they are caught by the authorities is a surprising gut-punch, but he imbues that role with appreciable flavor and depth.
The supporting cast is comedically dynamic. Skyler Gisondo puts in a gonzo performance as Eric, a teen who is trying to map out what being a hero might mean to him when he’s nervous and prefers going by the book. It’s a performance that improves with a wiry bravery that’s hilarious but also heartening as he becomes more able to grapple with his own brand of heroism. Abby Hammond is one of the season’s greatest grounding forces without coming across as a buzz-kill; it’s a strong and emotionally precise look at what being the ‘normal’ person in an abnormal situation might be like and how it might make anger spill out in different directions (a late-season act of rebellion may point to where Liv’s arc might go if there’s a season three). Natalie Morales is excellently dead-pan as the sheriff who is getting ever closer to solving the mysteries of Santa Clarita.
The structure of the season dictates that the stakes keep shifting and that can become tiresome; just as Joel and Sheila solve one problem, another one rears its head. Whilst this is true for most narrative television, in a ten-episode sprint it can feel like there’s no air for the characters or jokes to breathe and here there are probably one too many twists, leading to a few narrative deadends. A subplot with a potential zombie girlfriend for Eric meanders without gaining much traction and there’s a sense that the show is spinning its wheels at the mid-point.
Santa Clarita Diet is also curiously uninterested in the moral implications of Sheila’s newfound desire for flesh. The Hammonds vaguely settle on only killing and eating “bad people”, but the parameters of that decision are never truly explored. Do the characters feel comfortable being the moral arbiters of Southern California? Do the “bad” victims have friends and family who will miss them? Obviously, unpicking these thorny issues isn’t particularly good grist for the comedic mill, but greeting them with a shrug can make the show seem tone deaf.
But ultimately the stakes are set high enough that the season culminates into a fantastic, witty, romantic, and ethically interesting finalé and offers more nuance to this world than might have seemed possible in the pilot. With a lot of tones to pick from,
Santa Clarita Diet eventually decides to lean into its sentimental streak and it’s a winning impulse. Sheila and Joel have to decide what they’re willing to give up for the sake of their marriage — and the answer is everything. Not everything works in Santa Clarita Diet’s new season, but it’s a pretty gung-ho success; a big-hearted, intelligent and funny love letter to changing your life by changing yourself.