The Hilarity of “Santa Clarita Diet”

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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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