A high tech thriller with plenty of tech and not enough thrills.
Netflix’s new series “Santa Clarita Diet” is a hammy horror/comedy about living in the suburbs, and also about having a spouse with a zombie's taste palate. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play Sheila and Joel, a married couple with one high-schooler (Liv Hewson’s Abby) who make their living as realtors in their neighborhood. For reasons unexplained, after a dramatic episode in which Sheila has explosive vomit (covering the walls in one of the show’s rare gross-out moments) she displays the symptoms of the undead: having no blood, wanting to eat human flesh and such. ("But we're realtors!" Joel reasons, twice, as to why this couldn't happen to them.) Through the power of full marital support, they try to figure out ways to get Sheila the food that she wants, starting with eating raw meat straight from the package, to attacking a neighborhood rooster (...?) and eventually electing to kill people in their amateur clumsiness. All the while, the family has to maintain their composure among neighbors who can be either highly social or nosy, and who see Sheila as new and improved, thanks to all of the protein in her life.
By the start of episode three, the slow-developing series (with a few episodes directed by Ruben Fleischer of "Zombieland") finally settles in. The tone is clear, that of an ABC-level suburban comedy with a TROMA-lite premise, weakening its initial promise to be a dark comedy with unlikable characters—you have to really like the dopey folks of "Santa Clarita Diet," but they don't give you much in return. The shenanigans are set too, with Sheila and Joel entering a rhythm in creating her feeding schedule, being pushed to kill with calculation and to keep even more secrets. “Santa Clarita Diet” takes on a lot of subgenres—killers in the suburbs, zombie jokes, bad mom liberation, you name it—but establishes a consistency as well of being pretty bland in spite of all this dark comedy potential.
“Santa Clarita Diet” is a project with its curiosity factor driven solely by narrative motion, not striking comedy or worthwhile performances. I say that as someone who watched six episodes of the eleven within season one, curious about new mysteries developed (like why this undead-thing happened, or how it could possibly spread), but I didn't laugh a single time watching the show. It comes down to the series' lacking taste in comedy—how else to explain the way it constantly overplays Drew Barrymore’s lifelong ability of comedic timing by putting her into tacky slapstick (as when she’s trying to kill and then eat someone)? Or the way that Timothy Olyphant plays his stressed-out character with over-the-top peppiness, unable to make his character particularly likable despite endearing values? In the process, both of them create shallow ideas of the type of people they're meant to reflect, just so "Santa Clarita Diet" can be silly instead of remotely interesting. Even brief appearances by accomplished comedians/crowd-pleasers like Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt and Thomas Lennon are completely thankless, all the more indication that the writers don’t know good comedy.
The best thing I can say about the show is that it is busy. But, as you can see, it leads to far more questions than concrete statements, nor does it inspire the most affirmed recommendation. Shouldn’t a premise like this be grosser, funnier, or more clever? Isn't there something else, just like this, somewhere on Netflix? "Santa Clarita Diet" leaves more to be desired in seemingly every way possible.
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One of the most important and dazzlingly original works by Coppola comes to Criterion Blu-ray.