Family, feminism....and zombies. Welcome to the brilliance of 'Santa Clarita Diet'
The premise of 'Santa Clarita Diet' begs some questions. Why do we need another show about a middle class family in California living in a huge house? Indeed, why do we need another TV show or film about zombies?
The series ended two years ago after being adopted (and then brutally orphaned) by Netflix, but I only came across it this past Christmas while on a Timothy Olyphant binge.
The description certainly raised eyebrows: the couple at the centre, real estate agents Joel and Sheila Hammond, see their humdrum existence thrown off-balance when Sheila (Drew Barrymore) becomes one of the undead and has to eat human flesh to survive.
There are many ways this could have gone wrong.
Yet somehow, this series beats the odds and is hilariously original without reinventing the wheel, demonstrating how much you can achieve by re-configuring worn-out tropes.
In particular, the script is a great example of how to have a screwball comedy without needing to dumb things down. The writing is sharp and often very droll: references to rotting Nazi meat and the logistics of keeping a mutant zombie organ as a pet coincide with whether or not bird feeders are a good barometer of someone’s character and how to retract a bad restaurant review on Yelp. Although there is still the occasional gross-out moment (flatulent corpses anyone?), it has far more in common with 'Arrested Development' than with 'The Big Bang Theory.'
What also sets it apart is that unlike other shows that make fun of suburban America, such as 'Modern Family,' 'Santa Clarita Diet' has positive messages at its core without being mawkish. The big heart never quite undercuts the gore-spattered irreverence.
On example is that instead of using marital discord as a cheap plot device, Joel (played by Olyphant) and Sheila are shown to adore and respect each other. They are equals in every sense and in many ways, the challenges they face from Sheila’s new condition make their relationship flourish.
Despite having been a jock for most of his life, what Joel loves about Sheila isn’t threatened when she radically changes from someone uptight and reserved to one who is outgoing and impulsive. He loves her for who she is, allowing her to change and develop rather than clinging to his own limited, unchanging vision of her rooted in their time in high school.
The show also gleefully undermines our expectations of the other characters. At various points we are introduced to a gangster who is fussy about his couch and owns a rescue snake (christened 'Baby'), a middle-aged mother who oozes self-confidence and has a rampant libido, a devout Christian police officer whose lesbianism never clashes with her evangelical fervour, and a tattooed motorcycle mechanic who likes listening to schmaltzy children’s songs.
In fact, the zombie virus helps most of the characters affected by it move closer to their true selves, or the version of themselves they always wanted to be, unburdened by other people’s expectations.
This is summed up in one of the show’s recurring catchphrases - “people can be more than one thing.” The suggestion is that turning into a zombie can make you a better person - or if not, turn you into someone more interesting. After all, as Joel regularly points out, “we kill people.”
Another crucial factor is that the feminism on display is coy, played in a way that rarely gets didactic or makes the audience feels lectured to. Eric, the boy next door who tries to help the family find a cure for the zombie virus, is a nerd who is shy and self-effacing with women without being a bitter misogynist. His mother Lisa juggles her work as a pharmaceutical rep with being a borderline nymphomaniac, all while raising a son whom she teaches to have healthy and respectful sexual relations with women.
Importantly, Lisa’s sexual confidence comes from herself rather than from others - she regularly comments on how attractive she is, rather than absorbing those comments from anyone else.
Furthermore, Joel and Sheila’s daughter Abby is independent and sassy without playing up to the vapid ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope, and is never portrayed as manipulative. Although Eric assists the Hammonds whenever he can, Abby endlessly wrangles over how she should manage her friendship with him, keen not to lead him on and to protect him from the excesses of her new zombie-afflicted life while greatly valuing his friendship and support.
She even says to Eric, who becomes her ever-loyal sidekick, that his job is not to keep her happy - his (mostly doomed) romantic interest in her is not something she has any interest in exploiting.
It shouldn’t be surprising that 'Santa Clarita Diet' was written by a man - yet I still often read scripts where the much-maligned ‘male gaze’ is active. Hackneyed tropes when it comes to writing women still creep into the work of a lot of aspiring screenwriters. 'Santa Clarita Diet' shows how high the bar has become, which makes it all the more tragic that it was cancelled after its third season, for a murky and (as ever) unexplained reason by Netflix.
Until another company picks up season 4, use your lockdown time wisely. Enjoy this masterclass in thoughtful and life-affirming comedy writing.