It's understandable why a publicity department might think that knowing "Santa Clarita Diet" is a zombie comedy could distract us from the show's potential as a sendup of suburban living, marital ennui, lax parenting and the ongoing collapse of polite manners. It's all there, but it doesn't quite cohere as a work of satire.
That’s not for lack of trying. “Santa Clarita Diet” exerts a lot of energy pressing many buttons at once. Created by Victor Fresco (of the lamentably brief ABC series “Better Off Ted”), the tone is all over the place, ranging from slapstick to snark to bloody horror in mere seconds. That may not sound like a problem, since so many good TV comedies these days have a similar tendency to spew rather than flow, but “Santa Clarita Diet” truly seems to suffer from a hyperactivity disorder. It so eagerly dives for the easiest laughs that it forgets how much more effective the subtle touch can be.
Also, Barrymore is not very good at acting. Is that even a controversial statement anymore? She can wave her arms and approximate the responses indicated in the script, she can get her lines right, and that’s about it — another instance of Drew Barrymore doing an impression of Drew Barrymore. Things generally work all right for her when her co-star is Adam Sandler, but here, it’s Olyphant, who, after such a memorable turn in six seasons of FX’s drama “Justified,” is more than ready to declare himself a comic actor, delivering a performance she cannot hope to equal. “Santa Clarita Diet” is entirely dependent on him.
With that said (and expectations lowered), “Santa Clarita Diet” still manages to be a scream at least once or twice per episode. For reasons unknown, Sheila, who has built a successful real estate career alongside her husband, gets a queasy stomach — the first sign of her transformation. After she projectile-vomits all over a master bathroom during a house-showing, Sheila loses consciousness and emerges a changed woman: She has more confidence, more energy and an increased sex drive. After devouring a package of raw beef, she realizes she craves something fresher, which leads her to attack and eat the choice parts of a smarmy new co-worker (Nathan Fillion, one of the show’s several surprise cameos). She then asks Joel to help dispose of the mess.
Thus the Hammonds are launched on a misadventure that, on the one hand, invigorates their marriage; on the other hand, it’s disgusting and illegal.
"What won't we do?" Joel wonders aloud, as the killing spree mounts.
“I won’t wear fur and I won’t eat people’s [anuses],” Sheila declares.
"Yeah, we're great," Joel replies. "They should name a street after us."
The couple’s playful banter is often entertaining, but it’s also relentless and constantly corny, as if every single joke the writers came up with made it into the final draft. Less would definitely have been more in this case.
Luckily, not every scene is about them. Liv Hewson saves the day as Sheila and Joel’s rebellious teenage daughter, Abby, who convinces Eric (Skyler Gisondo), the hormonal nerd who lives next door, to help her figure out the cause of her parents’ bizarre behavior. The scenes they share turn out to be among the series’ funniest.
As you binge along, you’ll notice that things seem to gel nicely around episode 4-ish through 7-ish, as “Santa Clarita Diet” finds a balance and settles down. Even Barrymore’s struggling performance takes on a certain charm. But that momentum falters as the series searches for a suitable climax. While bits of Sheila’s body begin to break off and decompose, Joel desperately hunts for a scientific answer to what’s happening to her — and possibly a cure.
Don’t hold your breath. “Santa Clarita Diet” ends on a cliffhanger so blunt that the characters may as well hold up a banner that says “See you next year, suckers.” Because you cut the cord and decided it was Netflix or nothing, that’s probably true.
Santa Clarita Diet (10 episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.