Even zombies need sensible snacks. In Sheila Hammond’s case, that means a baggie of severed fingers, which she munches like baby carrots while stalking her next victim in a parking garage, her pink “kill poncho” pulled tightly around her shoulders.
In Santa Clarita Diet, the new 10-episode Netflix original series, zombies work a little differently — there’s no groaning, loss of identity or shambling involved, though “the change” is still characterized by an incessant craving for human flesh. Sheila's transformation announces itself when she projectile vomits yellow sludge all over a house she’s showing to a real estate client. I cannot overstate the amount of digestive refuse involved here — it is probably enough to fill the bed of a small truck.
“I’ll get a crew in here to clean this up,” Sheila mutters to her horrified clients.
A few hours later, after being turned away at the emergency room, she’s standing in her pristine suburban kitchen eating a package of raw ground beef, insisting she’s never felt better. That was the moment I decided to keep watching. When’s the last time a show about zombies surprised you in a good way — or parodied recognizably human compulsive behavior?
More about those zombies: At first, becoming undead seems a lot like experimenting with cocaine before everything gets weird. Sheila, played by a surprisingly charming Drew Barrymore, still goes to work, tries to bond with her teenage daughter and sips blood-and-guts smoothies while power-walking with her friends, but now she does everything with an alarming level of enthusiasm.
“I’m eating a lot of protein,” she tells her friends, when they ask why she suddenly has so much energy.
“How many grams?” they ask.
“All of them,” she replies.
It quickly becomes apparent that Sheila likes being undead — in fact, she prefers it, so much so that she’s initially hesitant to search for a cure. These twists on the zombie formula aren’t the only reason Santa Clarita Diet works. At its core, the show is a comedy about marriage — especially what happens when half of a couple transforms her life by doing something wildly out of the ordinary. You could replace eating human flesh with alcoholism or excessive gambling and the plot would have a similar trajectory and resonance.
Of course, Sheila’s husband, Joel, wants the kind of quiet, domestic life where finding the perfect toaster oven is his biggest problem. A wisecracking pot smoker played by Timothy Olyphant, Joel is equal parts concerned and exasperated over his wife’s new hobby — but unlike John Corbett’s long-suffering husband in United States of Tara, Joel seems worried without being uptight and helpful without being a total pushover.
“Until we solve whatever this is, I’d like you to meet me halfway,” he implores of Sheila while they’re wrestling with whether or not they should kill people so she can eat them. “At least control some of your impulses. I think it would be best for everyone if you only ate chicken or beef.”
But having tasted human flesh, Sheila can’t go back to packaged meats. Stomach rumbling, she remembers a beautiful meal she and Joel ate while vacationing in Tuscany.
“On the terrace,” Joel says dreamily.
“I keep thinking about how good that waiter would taste right now,” Sheila says, to Joel’s disgust.
Unsurprisingly, by the third episode, they’re plotting their first kill — but they’re only going after bad people who have it coming, lest the audience find them too morally reprehensible. The criteria, per Joel: The victim has to be someone who won’t be missed, without a family, who deserves it — “like a young, single Hitler.” Despite Sheila’s repeated declarations that she can hunt alone, Joel insists on coming along for the ride.
His participation in Sheila’s shady activities raises interesting questions about the nature of addiction and codependency in relationships: At what point is he complicit in Sheila’s decline, and when does he start acting out of desperation and fear rather than in accordance with his own beliefs and self-interest? That moment will be pretty clear to the audience, but for Joel it gets lost under layers of relationship self-help talk about the two of them being a team.
The Hammonds’ fierce 16-year-old daughter, Abby, further complicates matters when she and her dad have a revealing heart-to-heart. “Can Mom still love?” Abby asks, revealing perhaps the saddest crack yet in her deeply fractured disaffected-teenager façade.
Rattled by this question, Joel finally confesses that he’s freaking out. “Last week she organized our pastas by cooking time and wouldn’t let me eat crackers in the living room,” he says. “Tuesday she strangled a rooster!”
Then comes a truly heart-wrenching moment: “Did Mom die when Mom died?” Abby asks.
Because the audience’s continued investment in these characters demands it, Sheila’s actions quickly answer this question: Not yet. But things are rapidly spiraling out of control, and it seems obvious that the town’s growing list of unsolved murders will eventually lead back to the Hammonds. Several moments in this chaotic plunge are not so deftly handled, merely advancing the plot rather than playing as an organic progression of events — especially the super-blunt, hacked-off-at-the-knees cliffhanger we’re left with in the final episode.
But there are still enough unanswered questions to make a second season desirable — even if Sheila, in all of her cannibalistic, increasingly feral glory, has somehow managed to become the least interesting person in the room. Part of this might be due to Barrymore’s relentlessly perky portrayal of the suburban mom-bie, but perhaps also because addicts are notoriously predictable. It’s Joel and Abby — those left to find their way in the wake of Sheila’s deterioration — who have to carry most of the weight, and probably a spare kill poncho, just in case.