Television

'Santa Clarita Diet': "The Farting Sex Tourist" Is Both Deep and Deeply Silly

Jay Bamber
Abby (Liv Hewson) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) share a sweet father/daughter moment.

Despite its title, the episode brings both the funny and the touching in the series' inimitable style.


Santa Clarita Diet

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant, Liv Hewson
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The Farting Sex Tourist"
Network: Netflix
Amazon

It might sound strange to say that an episode called "The Farting Sex Tourist" is touching, but that's fitting for a show that finds its best rhythms when it's subverting genre tropes and questioning the role of normalcy. There are still some elements of Santa Clarita Diet that don't blend well, and some aspects that still require explanation, but the show, like its protagonist Sheila (Drew Barrymore), has found its groove and zeroed in on some of the most compelling eccentricities of the premise.

"The Farting Sex Tourist" explores the benefits and limits of pursuing your deepest impulses with little regard for those around you, as well as wrestling with ideas about changing family dynamics and personal transformation. By slowing down and letting the premise breath, the show shades in its "zombie as both personal empowerment and personal destruction" metaphor with wit and wisdom, whilst progressing the overall narrative arc and giving Barrymore more to do than ever before.

The episode opens with Sheila happily chipping away at the body in her freezer. She puts some fingers and an ear into a blender and makes herself a bloody smoothie, smiling cherubically as "Good Morning" by The Puppini Sisters blasts in the background. It's clearly a subversive image, hammering home the violence behind the show as well as the kind of bouncy positivity that makes up most sitcoms; it's both funny and appropriately chilly, raising the stakes while emphasizing the show's oddball tone.

The action quickly transitions to Sheila powerwalking through a comfortably upper-middle-class suburban street with her friends Lisa (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Alondra (Joy Osmanski), who've both noticed her new-found radiance. She's beaming; she's a woman renewed and reinvigorated. When her friends ask about her new lease on life, she mentions her high protein diet (thankfully skipping the gory details of her morning shake) and her unbridled willingness to throw herself into the world.

Gone are the days when she'd get in her own way or let fear push her off course, and she encourages her friends to follow in her footsteps, to "live the full Oprah". It's funny to link the modern self-help movement with the ancient cultural narratives of zombie-ism (both, after all, are about achieving some kind of new state of being); it offers Barrymore plenty of opportunities to funnel her unrelenting sunniness. She's so good at demonstrating Sheila’s blithe, inhuman joy, and has a genuinely funny physicality as she marches around town, both inspiring and intimidating her neighbors. Lisa invites Sheila to her son, Eric's (Skyler Gisondo) science fair, and in return, Sheila encourages Lisa to go after a work opportunity and advises Alondra to attend a John Legend concert.

Meanwhile, Joel (Timothy Olyphant) is marching around California for very different reasons; he's on a fact-finding mission, exploring occult stores to gain some information about zombies. The show always does a good job of showing how ridiculous the Hammond's lives have become; part of that is revealing the ignorance of the occult shop workers. For them, and for the occultists in the community, zombies are iconographic or hearsay, a way of turning their cultural anxieties into manageable narratives, rather than a real-world/day-to-day reality. After being offered a look at zombie porn, Joel nearly gives up, but sees two paintings on the wall that mirror Sheila's journey, including an illustration of a man throwing up a small fleshy ball similar to the one that Sheila found in her vomit.

Before Joel can show his wife the potential clues, however, he's interrupted by his neighbor, Rick (Richard T. Jones), who wants to take a look at their new car because he's recently become a father and needs to trade his motorbike in for something more practical. Luckily, Sheila notices a piece of scalp from the person she killed in the previous episode stuck to the truck and eats it before it's discovered. Olyphant takes the limelight for a minute with a perfectly strange piece of physical comedy, as he shakes his hips in order to distract Rick. When he says, "Look, I couldn't do this before", as he moves from side to side, his childish excitement is both funny and absurd, a combination that Olyphant hits hard throughout the show.

They're called to Abby’s (Liv Hewson) school to talk about her frequent absences, and the way that she's corrupted their star pupil Eric by encouraging him to ditch too. The principal, Novak, played by the always reliably strange Thomas Lennon, and his not-particularly-subtle suggestions that Abby is a mess are funny, especially when Barrymore matches his energy and frustration. She takes exception to the idea that Abby is both less remarkable than Eric and some kind of delinquent; however, the principle will accept no criticism of Eric, his choices as principal, or the school in general. Both Novak and Abby are both edgy and wired as they face off, whilst Joel tries to calm them both down, painfully aware of the bloody consequences of Sheila losing her temper. Eventually, he gets his wife to leave the office, but not before she vaguely, and bizarrely, threatens her new nemesis.

When they get home, Joel questions a despondent Abby about her behavior, but Sheila encourages her to pursue her dream of being a poet. She even suggests that her daughter leaves school in order to focus on her art full time, a suggestion that horrifies her husband, and prompts him to tell her that he thinks their family won't survive her recently discovered liberalism and dedication to living in the now. She asks if he wants her to stop being who she was always meant to be in a scene that’s both touching and sad, and brings up a lot of interesting and complex questions. Chiefly, the episode attempts to work out how much of a person remains after their worldview has completely changed, and if it actually matters if you love them enough.

Frightened that she might lose everything, Sheila runs next door to speak to Eric, the closest thing that she has to a zombie expert. He explains that part of what's made her outlook so sunny now is her lack of impulse control. Every story he's read about zombies says the same thing; they lose control in order to appease their basest desires. Barrymore sells the character's heartache at learning that she may one day hurt her family by proxy of honoring her nature, but lets her performance be warmed by a certain hopefulness that she can tussle with her essential desires. It's a beautifully pitched sequence, with both actors coming to play, as well as grounding the potential sadness in their futures.

In the meantime, Joel convinces Abby to talk about both her feelings and her school absences with the help of a grilled cheese sandwich. As different as their teenage years were, and will presumably continue to be, father and daughter find some common ground; her mother is the undead, and his was capable of making service workers cry. This further strengthens the idea that the writers are using the concept of the zombie to explore family dynamics and personal responsibility.

Remembering that he expunged his teenage angst and, it's strongly suggested, his negative feelings towards his mother, by riding a motorbike, he borrows Rick's and takes his daughter to the top of a hill, an area that he used to take Sheila when they were in high school. He looks around and explains that it was once just open space, not occupied by the houses now built into the hills. Abby makes the point that just because it's different doesn't mean it isn't beautiful, or that it doesn't still hold the texture and memories of her parents' courtship. This obviously has metaphorical value, but also allows Abby and Joel to truly express their confusion and fears as they shout their anxieties at each other. It's a moving and graceful sequence that avoids being heavy-handed.

At Eric's science presentation, Sheila encourages Lisa to grasp all the opportunities that her work has to offer before coming up against the principal again, who refuses to apologies for their earlier interaction. She follows him out of the room, and the episode suggests that he's going to be her next meal. Before she gets to him, however, she's interrupted by Joel, who tells her that he wants her to live her best life, and that he'll support her. He repeats his daughter's observations that when things change they can become more beautiful rather than less, and reaffirms the fact that he's loved Sheila since he was a teenager, and will continue to do so through this new, fraught transition.

It's hardly revelatory to say that Barrymore is good at portraying a romantic lead, but she's both lovely and relatable here. Somehow, she manages to convey the idea she’s hearing something for the first as well as hundredth time, being told something that she's known for years and yet is only just discovering. Instead of killing the principal, she threatens him, saying that she'll put his house up for sale without his knowledge and rezone his property so it's classed as a horse farm.

And just like that, the Hammonds leave hand in hand, their world changed but their family solidified. The next day, they have to make a quick getaway as they realise that Sheila's neighbourly advice has backfired in a variety of ways, including Rick purchasing an expensive car and Alondra booking three weekends worth of John Legend concert tickets. Despite that, everything seems okay, until their nosey neighbour Dan (Ricardo Chavira), sprays ant repellent on their garden and stumbles upon a severed finger. The moment offers both a mini-cliffhanger, and a nice capper to a truly fantastic episode. It's funny and insightful, both deepening the mythology of the show and reconfiguring it to be incredibly personal for these characters. "The Farting Sex Tourist" is a delicious mix of funny and sincere, and suggests that Santa Clarita Diet has real space and depth to tell a special, spiky story.

9
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