The Hilarity of “Santa Clarita Diet”

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santa-clarita-diet-timothy-olymphant

There’s never been a zombie comedy like “Santa Clarita Diet” before, that’s for sure. This Netflix Original Series has steadily gained in fans and popularity ever since all 10 episodes of he first season debuted on February 3. The reason for the popularity is simple: the entire premise of “Santa Clarita Diet” is just hilarious. When you have a zombie family in the middle of suburban California, you can’t help but laugh.

Drew Barrymore’s comic genius

First of all, you have Drew Barrymore as a genuinely funny zombie. Ok, maybe the gruesome gore can be a bit much, but let’s just repeat this: Drew Barrymore is a zombie. In addition to being a wife, mother and real estate agent, of course. She’s enjoys eating human flesh, but even Slate.com forgave her for this, calling her “adorable.”

What makes it work is how much Drew Barrymore really embraces her role as Sheila Hammond. Becoming a zombie was difficult at first – she didn’t understand all the stomach aches and sudden craving for raw meat – but now it’s easy. “I’m so much more confident – I can parallel park in one move now!” she proudly tells her family.

A new kind of zombie genre

Let’s face it – everyone is at a saturation point with zombie apocalypse movies. And that’s what makes “Santa Clarita Diet” so enjoyable: it completely reinvents the zombie genre. The whole series is really more akin to “Dexter” or “Desperate Housewives” (or a mix of the two) rather than any zombie movie you might have in mind. That’s because, as much as it’s possible, this zombie only kills people who deserve it. There’s no more of the undead mindlessly searching out victims!

This new genre is a mash-up of a family drama and the undead horror film. Mom is afraid she might want to eat her family. The husband (Joel Hammond, played by Timothy Olyphant) is initially concerned about living with a zombie wife, but then decides to get in on the action himself. And the family’s sole daughter – Abby, played by Liv Hewson – views her mom’s transformation into a zombie as just one more growing pain of adolescence.

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California satire at its best

What’s also brilliant is the skewering of suburban California life. Take the title of the show – it seems to invoke a very California thing like “the Malibu Diet,” but it turns out that the Santa Clarita diet involves human flesh. But, hey, if it keeps you looking young and full of energy, then it must be doing, right? Just tell that to all the women in California, who inject themselves with a poison (Botox), in order to keep their skin looking young and rejuvenated.

What makes this California satire work so brilliantly is that the beautiful neighborhood cul-de-sacs all look so wonderful. It’s the same idea as in “Desperate Housewives” – behind all this scripted wonderful life, there must be some deep, dark secret, right? Zombie shows are supposed to take place in dark, creepy locales – not in the middle of bright, shiny, happy California. Every joke in “Santa Clarita Diet,” then, takes on a whole new satirical side.

Things are not what they seem

The executive producers of the show – which includes both Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant – are not going to be content just swapping in a few zombie jokes here and there. They want to challenge the conventional notions of what’s possible with the plot line.

The one episode that everyone is talking about is Episode 5 (“Man Eat Man”), in which a cop neighbor (Dan, played by Ricardo Chavira of “Desperate Housewives” fame) discovers a human finger in Joel’s backyard. As a cop, he immediately runs the finger for prints and finds that it belongs to a California neighbor who’s been missing. So what is he supposed to do – arrest Joel and Sheila after confronting them with the evidence?

Ha, that would be the easy way out. Instead what Dan does is ask Joel to kill someone for him – to murder a murderer. What could possibly go wrong? Well, since this is “Santa Clarita Diet,” a lot can go wrong.

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A family comedy with zombies

On one level, a teenage daughter who’s starting to question her parents and her role in life is the stuff of family sitcoms. But what happens once you work in zombies? In many ways, the fact that Abby’s mom is a zombie is a metaphor for something much larger. There’s one line of dialogue – “Did mom die when mom died?” – that perfectly captures both the ridiculousness and the horror of Abby’s new situation.

And, with plenty of wacky neighbors, there’s no shortage of potential friends – or victims – for the family. The family that craves together, stays together. This is a horror-comedy, with everything that makes zombies so horrifying (their undead status, their craving for human flesh) turned into a source of rich, hilarious comedy.

A whole new kind of physical comedy

American comedies have never been afraid to embrace physical comedy, but “Santa Clarita Diet” takes it one step further, because the physical comedy often involves blood and guts (literally). The show gives entirely new meaning to the idea of “chowing down” and will make you re-think the next time you decide to pig out on some chicken wings (beware the bones!).

Some of the physical comedy is meant for laughs – like Episode 8, titled “How Much Vomit?” But all those vomit chunks are also meant to be a type of comic glue that holds each episode of the series together. Don’t worry — once you’ve embraced the idea of Drew Barrymore as a mom who craves human flesh, you’ll start to see the hilarious comedy involved in having a little human midnight snack.

Ultimately, “Santa Clarita Diet” is a very dark comedy even if it’s filmed in very sunny California. But that’s exactly the point – each episode can be thought of as part of a dark comic journey that viewers take together to some place lighter. Already, “Santa Clarita Diet” has picked up a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score and a rating of 8.0/10 on IMDb, so it’s clear that it’s doing something right. If you’re looking for a hilarious new comedy to watch, you absolutely have to watch Netflix’s new original series, “Santa Clarita Diet.”

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Why Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the Show America Needs

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atlanta-donald-glover

Right now, America is a polarized nation, split by class, by race, and by gender. What it needs more than ever right now is a show like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” which is not afraid to take on some really big issues without taking itself too seriously. In fact, the FX Network bills the show as an “innovative comedy” and it’s this humor that keeps the show from getting too heavy.

A solid dose of reality

Donald Glover, the creator of the show who also plays the role of the protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks, has said that, “I wanted to show real people in real situations.” And that’s exactly what “Atlanta” has delivered ever since it debuted in September 2016 – a dose of reality about what it’s like to be black, single and trying to make it in the hip hop industry in Atlanta. This is not some glamorized view of what it’s like to be a rapper, and it’s also not a dark look at the crumbling state of America’s urban neighborhoods.

In other words, this isn’t a show that’s been infected with the deeply polarizing sentiment of the recent election campaign. Yes, it can be tough trying to make a living in urban Atlanta, but it’s not the dark “American carnage” described by the current Trump administration. It’s a reflection that reality can be messy and convoluted. There’s no easy way to make it – you have to keep working at it daily.

Characters we can identify with

Earn is a college dropout with no money, no real home, and no real prospects. He has a daughter, too, that he’s trying to provide for. And he’s still trying to patch things up with his girlfriend, Vanessa (“Van”). He’s hustling to make a go of it, and he spots any opportunity with his cousin Alfred Miles, who is now an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta known as Paper Boi. Along the way, Paper Boi and Earn are helped by Darius, who has become an indispensable part of Paper Boi’s hip hop entourage.

Starting from Episode 1 of Season 1, the stories of these characters become intertwined in ways that have audiences coming back for more. Viewers are truly invested in the lives of these characters. So much so, in fact, that the series picked up two Golden Globes this year. “Atlanta” won Best TV Series (Musical-Comedy) and Donald Glover won Best Actor for a TV Series (Musical-Comedy).

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Relevant political themes

Atlanta” is not afraid to take on a lot of big issues that Americans are talking about these days – the nation’s drug problem, racial inequality, poverty, and police brutality. It’s far too easy to separate along party lines and come up with a quick and ready response to any of these problems.

But it’s clear that these widely differing approaches to the problem haven’t worked. By politicizing the problems, we’ve only made them worse. Ferguson was only a symptom, not the problem itself. Solving the problem shouldn’t pit black vs. white or urban vs. rural. We’re all in this together.

And that’s why “Atlanta” is such an important new TV show. It sketches out the people who populate the reality. And they are not cartoon characters, either, they are real people. Deep down, they are well-meaning, but they’ve been put into difficult situations. They have families they care about, and people they love, but they also have to put money in the bank and that’s where things are tough because there are no easy answers. They are trying to head down a positive path, even if everything around them is negative.

“Atlanta” should be required watching for any politician or political lobbyist who thinks that the answer to our problems is to “lock them up” or “build a wall.” These are real people with real problems, something we see everyday with Earn, Paper Boi and Darius.

A new kind of binge watching

Some TV critics have pointed out that “Atlanta” doesn’t seem to have a real plot, and nothing ever seems to get resolved. There are “no cliffhangers” and “no jaw-dropping moments.” In short, this is what a comedy looks like when the laugh track has been stripped away; this is what a comedy reality show should look like, instead of having tiny scripted moments intended for TV audiences.

What all this means is a new kind of binge watching, if you decide to watch all 10 episodes of Season 1 at one time. As Donald Glover explains, the city of Atlanta influenced the tone, rhythm and pacing of the show. For some, the pace seems to be too meandering. But it perfectly matches what is happening in the real lives of the characters – they are meandering through life, trying to grab things when they can, realizing there’s no easy answer.

One scene perfectly illustrates this – the scene where Paper Boi goes after the club promoter and gets back the money that’s been taken from him. Earlier, the club promoter had taunted Earn, giving him only $750 instead of the $5000 due him, citing all kinds of things, like extra security for Paper Boi’s shows. But Paper Boi doesn’t even hesitate, “We’re getting our money.” And that’s where the comedy of the show takes over and keeps things from getting too dark: the club promoter has just been beaten up and his money taken from him, but all he can say is, “That boy’s gonna be a star.”

The healing power of music

Finally, “Atlanta” seems to stretch across generations with its appeal, and one way it does this is via music. There’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as hip hop  and rap from the current era. Plus, there’s an eclectic mix of music: jazz, soul, hip hop and rap. The music, one could argue, is the “glue” that keeps all the parts of the show together. It unites races and it unites generations.

And, so, at a time when so much of America seems starkly divided, there’s a sign of hope that the nation can finally find a healing solution. Music and comedy may be the two keys to getting different races and classes to come together as one united society, and that’s something that “Atlanta” makes clear from the very outset. For that reason, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the show America needs right now.

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7 Shows To Watch While We Wait For “Game Of Thrones”

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game-of-thrones-vikings-history

It’s already been a long wait since the last episode of “Game of Thrones” aired on HBO in June 2016. But as we gear up for the new Season 7 sometime in mid-2017, there are plenty of shows available for streaming to recapture the mix of action, fantasy and adventure that we’ve come to expect from “Game of Thrones.” So, as we prepare for the imminent arrival of Season 7 of “Game of Thrones,” here are 7 shows that might be reasonable alternatives.

Vikings (History)

You’d normally expect a big blockbuster series like “Vikings” to appear on a premium cable TV channel like HBO or Starz, but this is actually a History channel original series that’s remarkably good. First of all, you have Vikings, so you know that there’s going to be plenty of action and violence. And there’s a great back story, too, as we watch the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok from poor farmer to Norse legend. There’s plenty of power struggles and warring kingdoms, so this is actually a really good “Game of Thrones” alternative. The only downside is that it’s not currently available on Netflix – but it is available via Hulu, Amazon Prime and Apple iTunes.

Spartacus (Starz)

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Just from the title, you know this “sword-and-sandal” series is going to feature some amazing gladiator action from ancient Rome. What makes this series unique is that it has 3 regular seasons and 1 prequel season, so you learn the whole story behind the rise of Spartacus as an unknown Thracian warrior into one of the true legends of the modern era. For a series so packed with action and bloody fight scenes, it’s also remarkably filled with sex scenes and frontal nudity scenes. The historical backdrop, the gladiator scenes and all the imperial drama of Rome makes “Spartacus” a very good alternative to “Game of Thrones.” It’s available via Netflix and Amazon Prime, but not on Hulu.

Marco Polo (Netflix)

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In December 2014, “Marco Polo” was Netflix’s big, splashy entrée into the world of sweeping historical dramas. While Season 1 starts off relatively slowly, by Episode 5, the action really starts to pick up. And, whoa, just wait until you get to Season 2. If you’ve been fascinated by the story of Marco Polo and his travels around the world, this is the place to start. The narrative focuses on Marco Polo’s early years in the court of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol empire. In this series, you get the same sweeping storytelling arc as “Game of Thrones.” This is a Netflix Original, so of course, it’s available via Netflix. You can also find it on iTunes. Unfortunately, Netflix canceled the series after just two seasons, reportedly after losing $200 million on the production (try explaining that to your boss!).

Outlander (Starz)

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“Outlander” is a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. It tells the story of a World War II nurse who finds herself transported back to Scotland in the 18th century, where she encounters a band of Highlanders. And, from there, it’s on to the Jacobite rebellion, featuring the attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne. Unlike other series that have tried to emulate elements of “Game of Thrones,” this series is strongest on the romance angle. As an added bonus – Diana Gabaldon, the author of the books that inspired “Outlander,” is a friend of George R.R. Martin, the creator of “Game of Thrones.” You can definitely see some of the shared influences on both shows. The series is not yet available on Netflix or Hulu, but you can find it on Starz On Demand, Amazon Prime and iTunes.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV)

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Part of the re-invention of MTV was coming up with original programming like “The Shannara Chronicles,” which adapts the popular “Sword of Shannara” trilogy series from Terry Brooks. There are plenty of elves, demons and quests to satisfy most fans of magic and fantasy, especially fans of movies like “Lord of the Rings.” (And, just like LOTR, “The Shannara Chronicles” was filmed in New Zealand.) The good news is that this 2016 series is now available via Netflix, just in case you don’t get MTV.

The Last Kingdom (BBC)

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This BBC historical drama is based on books written by Bernard Cornwell, who is also a colleague of George R.R. Martin. And the storyline should be familiar to any fan of “Game of Thrones” – a displaced heir is on a mission to unite all the kingdoms of the land. “The Last Kingdom” tells the story of England in the ninth century, when the land was divided into several kingdoms while being attacked and ruled by Danish invaders. As an added bonus: Netflix has decided to create a second season of 10 episodes that will premiere in 2017.

Rome (HBO)

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Bruno Heller’s “Rome” is an old HBO show, so you won’t have to go very far to get your “Game of Thrones” fix. In many ways, back in 2005, this HBO show was “Game of Thrones” before there was “Game of Thrones.” It tells the story of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. So much of the look and feel of the show will remind you of “Game of Thrones.” As an added bonus, a surprising number of “Game of Thrones” cast members actually showed up in “Rome” first – including Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar. So if you’re looking for greater understanding of how “Game of Thrones” started, look no further than “Rome.”

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That just about brings us full cycle, from “Game of Thrones” to the show that inspired and laid the groundwork for “Game of Thrones” on HBO nearly a decade earlier. Of course, there’s not a single show on TV today that can match “Game of Thrones” for its storylines, mix of fantasy and history, and combination of violence and drama. So one option might just be to go back and re-watch “Game of Thrones” from Season 1 through Season 6 so that you’ll be ready for the awesomeness that’s about to happen in mid-2017 when we finally get Season 7 of “Game of Thrones.”

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Review: Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

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series-of-unfortunate-events-neil-patrick-harris

The Netflix content studios continue to produce some of the highest-quality original content that you’re going to see on TV these days, and that now includes Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It’s clear that Netflix has figured out the formula for success: bring in top acting and directing talent (in this case, Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, with Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket), give them some amazing source material to work with, and let them tell a story the way it should be told.

That approach works especially well with “A Series of Unfortunate Events” because Netflix has decided to re-tell all 13 novels in the famous young adult fiction series. So, Season 1 features eight episodes, adapting the first four books of the series. And Season 2 (already approved and on the way) will adapt books five through nine. Season 3, if it gets the green light from Netflix, will cover books ten through thirteen. The math here is simple: 2 episodes per book, so that gives plenty of time to tease out all the wonderfully “dark” and “awful” secrets that made the book series so popular.

What’s wonderful is that Netflix has worked with Daniel Handler (who wrote the books under the Lemony Snicket pseudonym) to reproduce faithfully the look and feel of the books. That means Lemony Snicket (in the form of Patrick Warburton) shows up as the narrator again and again throughout the episodes, reminding viewers of how “horrible” everything is and why it’s best to “turn back while [we] still can.” This perfectly captures the idea of the books. In fact, NPR has called this series “inspiringly faithful” to the original book series.

There’s also the matter of the stage sets, which look like nothing else you’ll see on TV today. The sets appear to be grayed out with a sepulchral filter, creating the right sense of doom and gloom. But then these sets are suffused with fairy tale-like colors. And then there are the CGI effects, which are so over-the-top at times that they are meant to remind the viewer: this is not really happening. All the gothic elements are there to make this a creepy tale of woe – a mansion that appears haunted, a mysterious outdoor maze and whipping winds on a lake. Not to mention some really quirky, if not spooky, characters.

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Some critics have complained about the tone and pacing of the show. And, indeed, there is quite a bit of variation in how long each episode runs. That might make binge-watching the show a little less formulaic than you might expect: some episodes clock in at 40 minutes or so, while others run well beyond an hour. So give yourself plenty of time to watch on any given night.

What matters here is the story of “woe” that we get to watch unfold, in different forms, throughout each of the episodes. Episodes 1 and 2 introduce us to the main characters (the Baudelaire children) and the evil Count Olaf, who is intent on stealing away their fortunes. We hear their tale of woe, and learn that Count Olaf hardly has their best intentions in mind.

If you haven’t read the series of books, the plotline goes basically like this: Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) Baudelaire had their home destroyed by a fire, in which their parents also died. Thus, they are basically orphans with no place to go, so they end up at the home of Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris in a campy, over-the-top manner).

He, of course, has other plans for them. If all goes according to plan, he will subject them to a life of servitude and steal away their fortune. In Episode 2, we learn the full evilness of this plan – Olaf plans to acquire the fortune by marrying young Violet. When the Baudelaire children try to warn the family banker (Mr. Poe) about this, chaos ensues.

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That same plotline, in varying forms, plays out in each of the next episodes as well. For example, in Episodes 3 and 4 (“The Reptile Room”), the Baudelaire children are sent to live with their uncle Monty Montgomery (played by Aasif Mandvi), but we learn of an evil plan by Count Olaf to use a dangerous viper to kill the children and take away their money. And in Episodes 5 and 6 (“The Wide Window”), the children are sent to live with their Aunt Josephine, but once again, things are not as they first appear. Count Olaf keeps appearing again and again, in different forms.

The question that you should be asking right about now is the following: Is this show really for young adults or for older adults? After all, even though the show’s heroes and heroines are young kids, there’s a lot going on here that might be hard for young kids to fully grasp. Dead parents, evil guardians and gothic gloom?

What keeps the whole Netflix original series together is the role of Count Olaf, played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris finds the perfect notes to hit in his portrayal of the Count, making him the right mix of “campy” and “dastardly.” There’s also a bit of humor in everything that he does – as well as an accompanying amount of weirdness. But his endless attempts to don disguise after disguise in his pursuit of the Baudelaire children gives him a sort of cartoonish villain character. (Keep in mind, the original casting called for Jim Carrey in this role, so you can get an idea of what the show’s producers had in mind)

If you’ve already seen the 2004 film version of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law and Meryl Streep), it’s time to forget everything and start over. There’s just so much more you can pack into an 8-episode TV show than you can a 2-hour movie.

Ever since “A Series of Unfortunate Events” premiered on Netflix on January 13, viewers and critics have been near unanimous in their praise: it currently has a rating of 8.5/10.0 on IMDb and a 92% freshness score on Rotten Tomatoes. If you loved the whole book series, you’ll love the Netflix TV adaption of this young adult fiction series. The “Series of Unfortunate Events” is not so unfortunate as its title might suggest. It might just lead you on a wonderful new journey.

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