Netflix has taught me that when it comes to tv, I’m more about the buffet than the binge; my “Continue Watching” List is full of shows I’ve sampled but not gone back to, usually because I haven’t cared enough to bother. The latest of these is new zombie comedy – Netflix has also taught me that zombies have already taken over the world, they’re on the tv ALL THE TIME – Santa Clarita Diet, starring Unpopcult favourite Timothy Olyphant and perpetual romcommer Drew Barrymore.
Clearly determined to do something a bit different from their usual fare, Olyphant and Barrymore play Joel and Sheila, exaggeratedly dull real estate agents (or “real-a-tors” as Joel calls them) living a sort of Desperate Marrieds life in a wealthy California town which looks even less like a real place than Wisteria Lane did. Their mildly stressful, mostly sensible middle-class life takes a turn for the insane, however, when Sheila becomes a zombie with ravenous urges of all kinds, the most pressing, of course, being the urge to eat other people.
Like Dexter soundtracked by Dido, Santa Clarita Diet is a very odd, uneven mix of styles and tones: part gross-out comedy, part romantic one (not that different for Drew, then), part horror, part satire, and part feminist tract – the most interesting, provocative theme is that Sheila becoming one of the walking dead actually brings her to life, making her confident, assertive and happy in a way that years of placid domesticity had previously ironed out of her.
The mix is somewhat lumpy though; because each episode is so short (25 minutes), I had to watch three episodes to try and work out whether I liked it or not, and even now, I still don’t really know. It definitely has potential and I did laugh a few times – since I really don’t like gross-out comedy, a few times is a big deal – but, on the whole, it’s just too gory to be fun, too cheery to be horror and, ironically, too much of everything to be anything very much. The scene where Sheila makes her first kill, for instance, is clearly supposed to be played for laughs, but it’s so visceral and so unpleasant that I genuinely felt sick; I had to mute the sound and turn my head away till it was over, which is not what I’m looking for in my light entertainment, thanks very much.
Having watched the three eps, though, it seems like this is one of those shows that will get more confident and more coherent in tone as it goes on. Even 75 minutes isn’t much time when you’re trying to combine so many disparate tones but, by the end of ep 3, the Santa Clarita style seemed to be coming together, even if Barrymore is still in movie star rather than tv mode and very little about the story or the people in it seems real or true. Yes, I know, it’s a comedy about zombies, but the best genre tv is grounded in reality; Being Human, What We Do in the Shadows and the like work because they make the characters believable people, but the only people who get close to believable in Santa Clarita are teenage daughter Abby and her painfully awkward neighbour Eric. Everyone and everything else comes across as more spoof than substance, which is fine for a while but not for an entire season of cannibalism-as-comedy. Much as I love Timothy Olyphant, the Santa Clarita Diet really isn’t for me – I don’t think I’ll be back for seconds.