He does see past it, but the casual Netflix viewer might not. Even after three seasons, “Santa Clarita Diet” is still often reduced to “the Drew Barrymore zombie show.” Last week, Netflix wound up canceling the series, which fell through the cracks despite its A-list leads, their charismatic performances and the surprisingly authentic relationship showcased by the Hammonds’ antics.
“Santa Clarita Diet” might be over, but as Sheila would point out, death doesn’t signify the end. Netflix users can still stumble upon this odd gem, which began two years ago with Sheila projectile vomiting while she and Joel, married real estate agents in Southern California, show a house to potential buyers. She dies in the bathroom and comes back to “life,” without a heartbeat and with intense cravings for raw flesh. The show follows the Hammonds’ attempts to keep Sheila’s undead state under wraps, with help from their stubborn teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), and their geeky neighbor, Eric (Skyler Gisondo), who’ll do anything to spend time with Abby.
It’s an intriguing enough premise, and the writers grounded it in real life by riffing off current events. (In the second season, for example, Sheila begins to target neo-Nazis.) The mystery of why the show lacked a renewal-worthy following deepens when considering the largely positive reviews it garnered. When the first season hit Netflix, the New York Times praised the use of “zombification as the route to midlife rejuvenation,” while the Boston Globe applauded creator Victor Fresco (“Better Off Ted”) for his mastery of the show’s “droll, perverse humor.” The Atlantic noted that “if you can get with the gore, there’s frequently a sweet, oddball marital comedy fighting to get out.”
Warning: The video below contains explicit language.
The comedy leaned into its screwball nature more and more with each season, a trend matched by stronger ratings: Rotten Tomatoes gave the first season a 78 percent rating, the second an 89 percent rating and the third a solid 100. As a friend pointed out, “Santa Clarita Diet” thrives when it abides by improv comedy’s “Yes, and …” principle. Both Barrymore, who took on the role during a difficult time in her life because of how much she loved the script, and Olyphant, who found the right stage to show off his comedic chops, seemed more than happy to oblige. Despite being the show’s rationalizing straight man, Joel will almost always go along with Sheila’s plans, no matter how absurd.
Consider, for instance, the opening scene of the show’s second episode. Joel digs a hole in which to bury the remains of a loathsome colleague Sheila killed while she cheerfully tells him about a listing they might be able to snag: “Guess what Kelly told me last night?” Sheila says. “She and Ben are selling their home. It’s a beautiful property.” Joel affirms her excitement through gritted teeth — “That’d be great, honey. We can’t be Realtors if we don’t have listings!” — but seems more bothered by Sheila misplacing the lid of the container holding the colleague’s body parts than by the gruesome murder itself.
Similar to the vampire-centric “What We Do in the Shadows,” an FX series based on Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s cult film of the same name, “Santa Clarita Diet” derived its humor from the mundanities of life as a bloodthirsty creature — at the end of the day, the Hammonds are just an unconventional suburban couple trying to run a successful real estate business.
The show’s tone struck a halfway point between melodramatic and blasé, a tricky balance maintained by Barrymore and Olyphant’s complementary performances. Whereas Sheila is light and erratic, Joel holds down the fort with restraint and reason. They brought the star power, but Hewson and Gisondo, who will soon be seen on the big screen with Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” rounded out the talented main cast. (Not to mention Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Natalie Morales and Joel McHale in supporting roles.)
With three seasons of 10 episodes each, “Santa Clarita Diet” is a quick and lighthearted watch. Fresco and fellow executive producer Tracy Katsky wrote a farewell note to disappointed fans in a similar style late last week: “Everything ends. This was a thing. And so it ended,” they captioned an Instagram post. “We’ll miss it but we are proud of the work we did and will always appreciate the love and enthusiasm we felt from our audience.” The note also included statements from a grateful Barrymore and from Olyphant, whose devotion to the work seemed akin to Joel’s.
“I loved working on this show,” he wrote. “I’m going to continue coming in and doing scenes. If they don’t want to film it, that’s up to them.”