Television

'Santa Clarita Diet' Poses the Question: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zombie-ism?

Jay Bamber
Sheila and Joel are ready to go to work.

Sheila's desire for fresh human flesh throws the Hammond's lives into disarray in the solid, surprising second episode, "We Can't Kill People".


Santa Clarita Diet

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewmore
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 2 - "We Can't Kill People"
Network: Netflix
Amazon

When we last saw Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant), she'd just eaten work rival Gary (Nathan Fillion), and he'd walked in on her devouring the barely cold body; "We Can’t Kill People" opens up in the direct aftermath. They're in the desert trying desperately to remove the evidence by burying the victim's constituent parts in a shallow grave. It's a memorable and well-acted sequence that reintroduces the audience to the show’s peculiarly peppy yet violent tone and leans in hard on the clash between family sitcom and outrageous body horror.

The Hammonds spill Gary's viscera all over the floor, just as their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) and their next door neighbour Eric (Skyler Gisondo) show up. Once they've established that Sheila killed him in a rage, Eric gets to work helping them cover up the crime; after all, his dad is a sheriff, and he has access to the internet. In a weird show, Gisondo offers perhaps the weirdest element; his portrayal of an awkward teen who's more comfortable talking about the mythology of the undead than flirting with girls is a comedic delight.

As Gary has no family and is a recent transplant to Santa Clarita, Sheila and Joel get to work making it look like he simply skipped town. They pack up his bags, leave them at the airport, and then make a quick getaway, confident that his body parts won't be found. Already Barrymore and Olyphant feel like a believable couple -- their domestic sniping whilst committing several crimes is very funny -- but they seem to be operating on different energy levels. Olyphant is all-wound-up everyman on the precipice of an emotional explosion, and Barrymore leans back into her character as if her new-found zombification is nothing out of the ordinary.

This may be revealing, shining a light on the fact that Sheila has a skewed perspective on her recent transformation, and the dueling portrayals make for tight, compelling television, but they can feel like they're battling each other to establish the exact comedic pitch of the show. Sheila reveals that she ate one of Gary's testicles, and Joel implores her to only eat chicken and beef; a fairly good explanation of their current worldviews.

That night, their nosey neighbour Dan (Ricardo Chavira) wakes up in the middle of the night to see Joel spraying their grass in an attempt to get rid of the blood stains. It's too dark to see the blood, but it's enough to arouse suspicion. The next day Dan walks into their garden to inspect the lawn, forcing Joel to make up a story about an ant infestation.

One of the funniest elements of the show so far is Sheila's willingness to say the first thing that comes to mind, to kick over the barriers of social niceties and be rude and cutting. Barrymore is a delight as she swears at Dan, tells him that their behaviour is none of his business and openly mocks him. The contrast between her inherent sunniness and the profanity of the material she's given makes for a spiky, funny dynamic that works so well in this setting. Joel discovers that there's a renowned molecular virologist nearby (played with stellar bemusement by Patton Oswalt) and takes a trip to see him after a bizarre and confrontational chance meeting with a bitter pathologist.

So far, the show's done a good job of handing out information about Sheila's condition without having to resort to elaborate exposition that would stop the episode dead in its tracks. Santa Clarita Diet is zippy and buoyant; it relies on a manic forward momentum that’s hard to maintain, but allows for a speed of laughs and poignancy that's invigorating. For those fans of series creator Victor Fresco's shamefully cancelled series Better Off Ted, Santa Clarita Diet offers a similarly whimsical but barbed tone that feels both niche and well suited to a mass audience (which the former show, sadly, never found).

The virologist asks if he can bring a second person in for a consultation, who turns out to be a psychiatrist who’s fascinated by his suspect behaviour. This is an obvious joke that doesn't land, but it's hard to overstate Olyphant's commitment to this particular character's unbridled energy. Joel escapes as quickly as possible, with a renewed understanding of how the outside world perceives his new-found zombie-adjacent dilemma. Exploring how the world interprets Sheila and Joel's increasingly idiosyncratic behaviour is going to be one of the biggest joys of the show.

In order to keep her promise that she won't eat humans anymore, Sheila prepares herself for a one-woman meat feast. Her plans are ruined when she realises that animal meat repulses her now; she's tasted human blood and now she wants more (insert your own Janet Weiss joke here). This revelation opens up the stakes for the show; the easy option, that she continues to eat meat until they can "fix" her, has been taken away. In an attempt to sidestep the awkward and messy situation, Sheila experiments with her cravings by chasing a rooster that's jeopardising a potential house sale, rationalising that she may still be able to eat animals as long as they're freshly killed.

This is the show at its most visually absurd. Joel tries to keep the house visitors occupied whilst Sheila throws herself around the garden in an attempt to catch and eat the rooster. It’s a funny image that the show sells for all its worth; the juxtaposition of well-appointed domesticity and outlandish, violent physicality is always funny. Olyphant is particularly good here; his high-pitched hysteria is genuinely thrilling when mashed up against outsiders who are oblivious to the situation. Unfortunately, Sheila can't eat the rooster, despite it being a fresh kill, and the Hammonds are back to square one. Either they kill people or Sheila starves to death. On the plus side, however, they sell the house.

Abby (Liv Hewson) and Eric (Skyler Gisondo) ditch school in search of excitement.

Meanwhile, Abby and Eric have ditched school. Since Sheila's transformation, algebra has become even more boring to them, and they're in need of a thrill. The relationship between these two is a surprising joy; she's confident and cool in a way that still, sadly, feels rare for a young female on television, and he's nerdy without that being his sole trait. He may be geeky and socially awkward, but also kind and smart and, with a nudge, capable of keeping up with Abby's fast-pitched banter. Hewson and Gisondo are both great, establishing a breezy, intimate dynamic that adds a lot of lightness to the proceedings, as well as shifting some of the focus from the bloody shenanigans at play with Sheila and Joel.

This is important because it offers the audience well-placed reprieves from the central narratives, which are becoming more and more fraught and frayed. It turns out that the idea of skipping school is more exciting than actually doing it; they don't know what to do with their newly found free time, so end up going to a comic book store. Attracted by "Mombie" a comic book about a '50s-era domestic housewife who becomes a zombie, Abby begins reading, despite Eric's protests. It turns out the book ends with the mombie killing and eating her family, an option that Abby had clearly never considered for her own domestic situation.

Since coming to terms with the idea that Sheila will now have to eat human flesh, Sheila and Joel go to the freaky coroner from before and bribe him into giving them a cadaver to devour. It says something about how crazy the premise of this show that the Hammonds feel comfortable telling the coroner they're necrophiliacs as a way of explaining their odd behaviour. Sheila tries to eat the expensive corpse, but is turned off by it; it's not fresh and she can barely digest it. It quickly becomes clear that this isn't going to be a cost-effective or adequate replacement for fresh flesh.

"We Can't Kill People" does a good job of closing down the Hammond's options and forcing them towards being actual, by design, killers. It's another sharp, funny episode that escalates the narrative in interesting and dynamic ways. The show is still trying to find its feet -- it still hasn't found ways to make all of its generic elements gel completely -- but it's a confident and loopy addition to what's shaping up to be a stellar season.

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