“Only the good die young,” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL and that we have been sad to see struck down in their primes. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Hawk Ripjaw takes a look at Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.
Santa Clarita Diet is the most wholesome show about serial murder that you’re ever going to watch, and it was taken from us far too soon. Victor Fresco’s dark comedy focuses on the Hammond family: husband-and-wife realtor team Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant), and their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson). At the outset, the biggest problem in Joel’s home life is that the toaster oven’s knobs don’t have the right amount of slack. Sheila’s a little too timid, and she knows it, but they still make a great realtor team (or, as they pronounce it, “real-a-tor”). There’s not much more they could ask for, but there’s something vaguely monotonous about their suburban living.
It’s a pretty standard setup for a half-hour sitcom, until Sheila begins to projectile vomit uncontrollably and dies, only to quickly reawaken without a pulse, with a fresh appetite for human meat and a much stronger id. She still looks exactly herself, though, so she and Joel go about their lives with a new wrinkle: not only do they have to keep Sheila’s secret from the rest of the world, they also need to figure out how to keep her fed. Fresco chose for the couple to be realtors because realtors have an element of “forced friendliness,” a learned behavior that helps the Hammonds maintain Sheila’s facade.
That facade wouldn’t work if Barrymore and Olyphant’s chemistry and comedic timing weren’t master-class, but they are. Joel is a treasure trove of gif-worthy reactions, as his combination of constant incredulity and deadpan reactions play magnificently off of Sheila’s matter-of-fact approach to murder, which never gets old. The situation has a similar tempo to more generic sitcoms, such as someone’s in-laws moving into the house and creating a high-stress environment for the marriage, except in this case the wife has an insatiable appetite for fresh human flesh.
As the cycle of killing bad people, cleaning up, freezing the remains, and looking for answers to Sheila’s zombification goes on, Joel and Sheila generally follow the same pattern: they attempt to act normal to dispel suspicion; they act so abnormally that suspicion increases; and the situation somehow resolves itself but eventually morphs into something more serious.
This formula never gets old, particularly as the Hammonds’ attempts to lie themselves out of situations get progressively stupider as the series goes on. Joel, in particular, is not quick on his feet, but his ridiculous white lies and attempts to distract potential witnesses are so absurd they end up working anyway. It’s a reliably hilarious pattern.
The Hammonds are a wonderful family. The crux of the entire series is their strong relationship. They check in, they’re endlessly supportive of each other, and nearly every interaction between them is wholesome and often selfless. Joel does everything he can to support Sheila’s change, including frequently endangering his own life. Sheila does what she can to make sure the nastier parts of the situation don’t have to directly involve her loved ones. 16-year-old Abby is initially cynical but eventually wants to do whatever she can to protect her mother, despite her parents’ attempts to protect her. Frequently, these attempts to help others and each other backfire, but instead of dropping the mishap as a comedy punchline, the characters own their circumstances and try to fix things.
I don’t believe there is a single episode of Santa Clarita Diet that’s main focus is its characters being upset with each other and things needing to get patched up (besides maybe half of the pilot). Disagreements and anger are often resolved in a couple of scenes, or more often in the same scene, and then the characters return to working together and communicating with each other. When Sheila is fired from the real estate company she and Joel have been a team at for years, she laments the dissolution of their working partnership when Joel doesn’t stand up for her and quit on the spot…until one scene later when Joel reveals that he quit and has put together plans for him and Sheila to start their own company. In a lesser show, the remainder of the episode would focus on the characters being upset at each other until a last-minute resolution, but Santa Clarita Diet opts for a more positive, feel-good vibe. It’s a nice balance to some of the best gross-out gore moments on Netflix.
While Joel and Sheila are perfect for each other, Abby and her friend Eric (Skyler Gisondo) initially have a more complicated friendship. Eric has had a crush on Abby for some time, which Abby does not reciprocate. Yet the nerdy and intelligent Eric is uniquely positioned to provide research and advice for Sheila’s condition, so he and Abby are inevitably pushed together.
It gets to a point where they have to pretend to be dating as a cover story for their illegal actions helping out her parents—something that Eric is more than happy about. When it gets too weird and Abby gets uncomfortable with the public reaction at school, Eric sets his feelings for her aside and loudly “breaks up” with her. It stokes a deeper level of care between the two of them, and while Eric remains hopeful of a relationship with Abby (and she herself privately questions her own feelings for him), they maintain a selfless and supportive friendship. In a rare emotional moment, she opens up to him about a nightmare she has about being unable to save her parents, and Eric immediately tells her she can always confide in him. In the finale, he’s at home watching a movie in bed when she enters his room and climbs into bed next to him, cuddling up. “What’s going on?” he asks. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I thought maybe we could try to find out.”
Despite this not being the intended series finale, I do think this exchange serves as appropriate closure for Eric and Abby. Except for in the very beginning, there’s never really a true “will they won’t they” element to them. Eric still likes her, but he respectfully keeps his distance and works tirelessly to help the Hammonds. And the ending here doesn’t necessarily mean they get together. They don’t even end the scene with a kiss. They are just two best friends figuring out their feelings for each other, and whatever that means, they’re going to be just fine
The third season really starts ramping up the lore, introducing the Knights of Serbia: an ancient order of hunters of the undead. It digs into the source of the infection, mapping out how far the knowledge of the undead reaches and what may have originally caused the transformation. It also introduces a pivotal plot point that we don’t get to see fully develop: Sheila, undead and immortal, asks Joel if she can turn him so they can be together forever. It’s a lofty proposition, and one that Joel struggles with; he loves Sheila with all of his heart, but he still really hasn’t gotten used to the concept of eating people.
Even as the stakes rise in the final episodes, the unity of the Hammond family and friends remains. When Abby is distraught over the possibility of Eric going to prison for blowing up a fracking site with her, Joel and Sheila immediately table their own current problem to console her and find a solution. The most effective plans the Hammonds come up with are the ones in which all three of them have a part, but Joel and Sheila rarely shirk their parental duties and have a near-constant dialogue about how best to raise their daughter even amidst all of the chaos. It’s feel-good television of the highest order, and Netflix’s abrupt and unceremonious cancellation of it still stings, particularly as it wasn’t allowed to fully provide proper closure for such lovable characters.
There’s really nothing like Santa Clarita Diet, and unless it gets miraculously resurrected like Sheila herself, there probably won’t ever be. We’ll miss it for a while, too—where else are you going to watch a hilarious, very functional pair of relationship role models support each other over a dead Nazi? I revisit the Hammonds regularly, and they still never fail to ignite a very specific feeling of warmth in my stomach.