The subgenre of horror comedy remains a tough needle to thread with the premiere of Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, which casts Drew Barrymore as Sheila, a mother, wife, and realtor who one day loses her heartbeat and develops a taste for raw meat, leading her towards a cannibalistic diet. Rather than go for a grim aesthetic and moody tone to match the immoral decay that would engender such behavior and phenomenon, the tone is peppy but also largely empty. There’s a whiff of the high-brow awkwardness of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! in the style of performance and this is partnered with a gentle poking of stereotypical working class socializing and political discourses of the day. There’s an odd argument between to cops who live on either side of Sheila’s home that makes light of police shootings, and then there’s a familiar dig at the neighborhood 40-something flirt. Most of the show, however, entails Barrymore acting vaguely loopy and amused.
As a critique of modern superficiality, Santa Clarita Diet is woefully late to a party that ended about 13 years ago. The familiar joke that “no one would really care if you were a killer as long as you don’t rub it in their face” is employed here, but it’s only part of a whole problem that inflicts this show. There is a constant instability in the series, as much in the narrative as in the performances. When Barrymore’s husband, Joel, played by Justified‘s Timothy Olyphant, goes down on her, Barrymore purposefully makes a face as if she’s trying to remember the exact recipe for her Aunt Mildred’s Apple Crumb Cake. The dialogue is clunky and obvious but also often bewildering in its tonal shifts and this lack of cohesiveness leaves Olyphant’s straight man looking increasingly out of place and innocuous. The show makes clear, decisive moves to make sure you’ll never care about these characters, but refuses to counter that element with bigger ideas about modern living, white society, or the upper-middle class.
Indeed, one might argue that this is a radical formal and tonal reaction to a perceived contingency of shallow people, but there’s never any moment when creator Victor Fresco‘s thoughts on who these people really are feel firmed up and clearly conveyed. Even worse is how deeply unfunny all of this is in the moment. This is the type of show that will not only try to garner laughs from computerized vomiting but from a repetitive gag that desperately milks the moment for laughs. Mind you, vomit can be very funny; it’s just not funny here. Neither is 99% of what goes on in each episode, but there’s a potent sense of bemusement to everything, a fakeness bordering on overt coyness. Ultimately, Santa Clarita Diet stands most prominently as a sadly still-timely cautionary tale, a warning against those who might make a show that is much funnier to its creators than those who are actually watching the episodes.
Rating: ★ – What Just Happened?
Santa Clarita Diet premieres Friday, February 3rd on Netflix.