'Santa Clarita Diet': Barrymore and Olyphant Have Bloody Fun in "So Then a Monkey or a Bat"

Jay Bamber
Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) finds her tastes have changed.

Santa Clarita Diet offers a kind of Eat (People), Pray, Love, but this show has more bark -- and more bite.

Santa Clarita Diet

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "So Then a Monkey or a Bat"
Network: Netflix

Despite the fact that it's only February, it's hard to imagine a television show coming along this year that's more inherently bizarre than the premise Santa Clarita Diet bases itself around. Stop me if you've heard this one before (you won't have): Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) is a somewhat uptight suburban realtor who’s been with her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) since high school and has a smart teenage daughter. They have a vague approximation of the traditional American Dream: a nice house, a solid marriage, expendable income, good looks, and a network of friends.

One day, whilst showing a house to potential buyers, Sheila is violently, comically sick; waves and waves of vomit cover the carpet, the walls, and the bathroom fixtures. At home, she discovers that her heart has stopped beating and she has a desperate craving for raw meat. When she cuts herself she bleeds a kind of black tar, and her attitude to life has seemingly transformed overnight. Gone are her concerns about appropriateness, of fitting in, of being a good role model; they've been replaced by an insatiable compliance to her id. After a conversation with their geeky teenage next door neighbour Eric (Skyler Gisondo), Sheila, Joel, and their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) come to a shocking realization: Sheila is the walking dead.

If this sounds like a strange jumping-off point for a family sitcom, that's because it is. It's a testament to the quality of the pilot that it doesn't feel as if it's belabouring the somewhat suspect mechanics of its high concept. There's always a danger that when a show springs from such an off-centre premise, it gets wrapped up in justifying its existence. Despite hitting some of its comedic beats a little too hard -- the above-mentioned vomit set-piece is pushed to its limit -- Santa Clarita Diet is remarkably and refreshingly confident. It assumes that the audience is smart enough to connect the various dots, and starts the work of establishing its zippy, profane, slightly loopy tone.

The show has a lot of balls to juggle, and it's playing around with so many genres, or at least generic elements, that some of them hit the ground harder than others. It's a black comedy, engages in sitcom hi-jinx, has an absurdist tone, has moments of startling gore, and plays around with sex farce; it's also a family drama, a relationship comedy, and works through interesting themes of female self-empowerment. It's admittedly an exhausting list, and the pilot sometimes feels as if it's straining to contain all of its influences and intentions; it's the rare case in which a longer running time may have ironed out some of the wrinkles.

More frequently than not, the episode strikes unexpected gold. Using zombie-ism as a tacit metaphor for a woman throwing off the shackles of societal expectation is endlessly fascinating, Sheila is forced to reconsider her life at the very moment that it ends. In the opening moments of the pilot, Sheila turns down her husband's sexual advances and talks about Jennifer Lawrence's decision to cut her hair despite the public's negative reaction, as if it's some incredible act of personal bravery and fortitude. She looks at Joel longingly and sighs that she would like to be just "20 percent" braver, "20 percent" more like The Hunger Games star.

It's through, however, embracing some of the world's biggest taboos (murder and cannibalism) that she’s able to challenge societies most arbitrary ones (the need to be polite, to tamper down sexuality). She becomes sexier, and more profane, frivolous, and adventurous, because she's given a different lens through which to look at her life. It's an unexpected twist, but it forms the (unbeating) heart of the series; a kind of Eat (People), Pray, Love that has both more bark and more bite. The very best part of Sheila's narrative is her newly developed forthrightness; when her neighbour asks her what she's doing on his lawn, she replies "What are you doing here?" and she swears at anyone who gets in her way.

One of the things that Barrymore doesn't get credit for is the fact that she's uniquely readable; she has the strange ability to hold a seemingly exhaustive array of emotions on her face at any given time. When this goes wrong, it can make her seem like an old vaudevillian star hoofing it for the cheap seats, but when it's properly channeled it makes her one of the most human and empathetic presences on screen. It's what makes her such an adroit romantic lead, her willingness to be all things all at once, to acknowledge that humans rarely ever feel one way or the other.

Barrymore's stock and trade has long been her ability to be both achingly vulnerable and admirably strong in the exact same moment; when this works, it does so like gangbusters; when it doesn't, it can read as two different characters thrust into the same body. In Santa Clarita Diet pilot she leans into both her best and her worst acting instincts. When she runs away with her daughter to buy the Range Rover she's been lusting after, she's pure Barrymore joy -- the flower power child who both did and didn't ever grow up -- but when the script requires her to go broader, she meets the challenge by funneling an overwhelming amount of energy. It can feel a little like getting on a rollercoaster without seeing the tracks in front of you. Largely, Barrymore gets the big stuff right -- Sheila's inner workings are admirably and compelling upfront -- but some of the comedic beats could use some finessing.

For Olyphant, every time he's on screen, it feels like some mini revelation; he's always good, and always displays a preternatural confidence that informs every character. His stellar work on the unfortunately cancelled Rob Lowe vehicle The Grinder revealed his comedic chops, but Santa Clarita Diet offers him so many avenues to explore his ability. Olyphant has a wiry tautness that's a perfect counterpoint to Barrymore's airiness, and he plays Joel like an animal standing on a hot plate; practically jumping out of his skin with every new plot twist.

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Joel is trying desperately to paper over the zombie-sized hole that's sped through his life, attempting so desperately to establish normalcy that he becomes the crazy one. It's a fantastically well-calibrated performance; sweet and ridiculous and emotionally expansive. Even better, it's strange enough that it works with the overall eccentricity of the show but it remains emotionally resonant enough that Joel's decision to stand by Sheila at least somewhat realistic. Olyphant feels as if he's constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown or a complete emotional renovation, and whilst that should be exhausting, it enables him to grab the comedy elements of the script and shake them out for all they're worth.

The series finds its storyline in the closing moments of the pilot when Sheila accidently kills and eats the predatory, sexually inappropriate Gary (the always reliable Nathan Fillion). It's a genuinely shocking and violent scene that expertly plays on the audience's expectations of the zombie genre, as well as ratcheting up a surprising amount of tension for a sunny sitcom. If the pilot can sometimes feel like a pilot in search of a structure, then this is the moment when the foundation of the following episodes reveals itself. Sheila has tasted blood now. The emotional stakes of the situation have been apparent from the opening sequence of the episode, but now the physical stakes are introduced in the most shocking and bloody way. It's impactful and hard hitting, and points to much darker things ahead.

Pilots are notoriously tricky to get right; they have the establish tone and infrastructure whilst also laying groundwork for what’s to come and introducing characters worth investing in. Santa Clarita Diet's opening gambit isn't quite as sure-footed as it could have been; some of it feels as if it's massaging knots along the way, and it's mashing genres together that don't always make for the best bedfellows. Despite these reservations, it's a whip-smart subversion of some familiar themes with two solid central performances that manages to be funny, moving, and shocking. If the pilot is any indication, the show will be a meal worth devouring.




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