Friday, February 3, 2017

Predictably Gross, Surprisingly Funny: Santa Clarita Diet Season 1 Manages To Work!

The Good: Very funny, Well-performed, Interesting characters
The Bad: The gross moments are very gross
The Basics: The first season of Santa Clarita Diet is so funny that the abrupt gore is even more unsettling . . . but Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant pull it off remarkably well!

As Netflix's television division rose in stature, it was easier for Netflix to create original programming using a-list actors. While Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright were the first big names to receive recognition for their work on Netflix Original Television projects, they were not the last and with its latest television outing, Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix managed to instantly raise the stature of the project with the participation of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant.

It is arguable whether or not the first season of Santa Clarita Diet would have received the attention of genre viewers, much less get greenlit were it not for the participation of Barrymore and Olyphant, as both actors and producers on the show. The premise of Santa Clarita Diet is an ambitious one, as it is a cannibal zombie comedy series and Netflix has a low success rate with horror and a very mixed record with their comedy works. Santa Clarita Diet generally finds the right balance, though with the comedy dominating the show, the quick turns into violence and gore are all the more unsettling.

After nineteen years of marriage, real estate agents Sheila and Joel Hammond experience an abrupt tragedy; while showing a house, Sheila vomits excessively (including what appears to be an organ) and appears to die. Sheila appears to wake up, though she is unable to find her own pulse. Sheila and Joel turn to their creepy cop neighbor's stepson, Eric, for some help in figuring out what might be going on with Sheila. Eric believes that Sheila is essentially undead and when her new coworker, Gary, becomes sexually aggressive, she impulsively kills and eats him.

While Joel copes with his wife's new status by getting high, their daughter Abby starts skipping school and Sheila discovers that she can only eat human flesh to survive. While Joel and Sheila attempt to figure out how to keep Sheila fed while showing houses, the Hammonds adapt to their new reality. Abby and Eric begin to bond, while Sheila starts to feel invigorated by her new diet. Joel works to research exactly what happened to his wife, while keeping Abby in school. But their lives continue to get complicated by things like the Hammonds inadvertently getting to know Sheila's would-be dinner and Eric's step-father, Dan, becoming increasingly suspicious . . . and finding Gary's finger in the Hammond's yard! When Dan tasks Joel with killing a criminal for him, the couple has to try to balance feeding Sheila with not getting caught under the sheriff deputy's thumb!

The first season of Santa Clarita Diet is much funnier than it is gross, though the sheer amount of vomit in the season is unsettling. While the special effect of Drew Barrymore's Sheila projectile vomiting an exceptional amount in the first episode seems like it cannot be topped, by the end of the fifth episode, there's even move vomit! When Santa Clarita Diet is gross, it is truly disgusting. While never quite as gory as The Walking Dead, Santa Clarita Diet is unsettling because twenty-six minutes out of the twenty-eight minute episode will have the viewer laughing and then there will be an abrupt thirty seconds to two minutes of gore that comes up abruptly. As the season progresses, the extortion factor from Dan becomes intense in a different way.

Santa Clarita Diet works to balance humor and horror, but at the core of the first season are the characters. The essential characters from the first season of Santa Clarita Diet are:

Sheila Hammond - Originally a fairly timid realtor, she is not feeling well one day until she vomits something mysterious and appears to be dead. She soon becomes consumed with eating human flesh and then gets controlled by her Id. While she starts to become more empowered and independent - in addition to bloodthirsty and actually thrilled by killing for her own food - she works to keep her relationship with Joel together and raise her daughter right,

Joel - The loving, pot-smoking husband of Sheila, he is instantly supportive of Sheila when she becomes undead. She is witty, fast-talking, but soon starts to feel like her sidekick. He and Abby bond over how weird their lives have become. He researches the Serbian myths surrounding Sheila's new condition and he steps up to be with Sheila when she wants to have help. He is extorted by his crooked sheriff deputy neighbor, Dan, and gets high with his other neighbor, who is in law enforcement,

Abby - Sheila and Joel's sixteen year-old daughter, she begins to skip school when nothing seems to matter after her mother becomes undead. She recognizes that Eric has a crush on her and is upset by how Dan berates his stepson. She becomes much more upset by the fact that her parents are hiding the truth from her, as opposed to the fact that her mother is suddenly a cannibal. She begins to bond with Eric and her father after her mother becomes a zombie cannibal,

Eric - The neighbor boy who has an attraction to Abby, which his mother knows about and embarrasses him about. He is into the paranormal and comic books, which makes him useful in diagnosing Sheila. He starts to slack a bit at school to be closer to Abby,

and Dan - Eric's bully of a step father, he is a nosy sheriff's deputy. He starts to extort Sheila and Joel thinking that Joel killed Gary. He starts to task Joel with killing people he does not like.

Santa Clarita Diet is very well-acted, mostly because Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have incredible comedic timing. Barrymore and Olyphant are hilarious and they get through some awkward pauses, repeated lines and absurd moments with impressive performances. Barrymore has great physical presence and Olyphant does absurdist deadpan extraordinarily well. Barrymore's facial expressions are precious, most notably the sad expression she has when Shelia splits her little toe!

Equally impressive are the young actors. Skyler Gisondo is perfectly cast to play an awkward teenager and he rises to the occasion without any of the fun that make his youthful performances on Psych seem perfectly in character for that character. Gisondo is much more subdued as Eric. Liv Hewson, who plays Abby, steals every scene she is in. She is funny and plays off all three of her costars expertly. Abby becomes both realistic and angsty throughout the first season of Santa Clarita Diet and Hewson finds the right balance between heart and humor for the character.

The first season of Santa Clarita Diet is exactly what one would expect if one were pitching Dexter and Weeds (reviewed here!) blended with Warm Bodies (reviewed here!). The first season is funny, has moments of clever, and is well-performed, though it lacks a truly universal or enduring quality. While I found myself laughing quite a bit, I was equally grossed out and realized fairly late in the season that I was not really looking forward to rewatching it. Santa Clarita Diet is entertaining, but whether it is truly enduring remains to be seen.

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
"The Return Of Doctor Mysterio" - Doctor Who
Travelers - Season 1
"Happy Fucking New Year" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Hot Potato Soup" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Dead Or Alive" - The Flash
"The Legion Of Doom" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"We Can Be Heroes" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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