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With ‘Santa Clarita Diet,’ Netflix Aims for the Cult Hit

Most shows that blend morbidness with satire tend not to last long. But most shows like that don’t have Zombie Drew Barrymore.

(Netflix/Ringer Illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer Illustration)

They don’t have sex. They have opinions about the number of slats on their toaster oven. They fight with their teenage daughter about whether or not she can have a car. Joel and Sheila Hammond (Timothy Olyphant and Drew Barrymore) are in a middle-aged suburban rut. Until a gush of neon-colored vomit streaks right through it.

Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix’s latest original series, has enough bodily fluids to temporarily distract you from the fact that Drew Barrymore is now a TV star. More than that, she’s the star of a show with a premise so perverse, so gross, it threatens to alienate more than it compels. After all, that was the fate of its own creator’s last show. But industry math has shifted such that yesterday’s bizarre one-season wonder is today’s lauded (and maybe even popular) streaming gambit.

Back to the diet: As those pitch-perfect faux-infomercials suggest, Santa Clarita Diet is heavy on the human protein. For no reason anyone can discern, Sheila dies, though not before puking enough to positively wreck the house she and Joel were showing off to some prospective clients. (They’re husband-and-wife real estate agents, for maximum normie-ness.) Then she’s reborn with an appetite for other people. But what’s a hankering for human flesh when it comes with so much energy, plus an amazing sex life? Turns out devouring intestines does wonders for one’s libido. Joel becomes her literal partner in crime, with Olyphant doing his sleazy best as a former homecoming king feeling more left behind than appalled by his wife’s transformation.

Santa Clarita is a comedy, black as the sludge that now runs through Sheila’s veins. But Santa Clarita’s central comic mechanism is the same as any number of McMansion-set satires before it: maximum contrast between the repressive, mild-mannered niceties of life in a homeowners’ association and its complete, disruptive, expulsive opposite. Santa Clarita bridges the chasm with moments of head-turning banality, like when Sheila asks Joel to get toilet paper on his way back from a crime scene. Something cataclysmic has happened to the Hammonds, and yet they’re able to subsume it into the mundanity that governs the rest of their lives in mere days. It’s Desperate Housewives with the paranormal, Weeds with gore, Edward Scissorhands with an R rating.

All this insanity comes to us by way of creator Victor Fresco, best known for the tragically short-lived ABC comedy Better Off Ted. It’s only in the context of Ted and shows like it that Santa Clarita Diet starts to make any kind of sense. Back in the pre–Peak TV Jurassic Period of 2009, Ted was a workplace comedy with a shockingly pessimistic take on work. Set at the vaguely space-age Veridian Dynamics (company motto: “Money Over People”) prone to cryogenically freezing its employees and using child labor, Ted was a not-so-subtle condemnation of untrammelled corporate greed. A puckish sense of humor was the only thing keeping it from unrelenting darkness. Ted was a contemporary of Bryan Fuller’s similarly short-lived Pushing Daisies (the two shared a network, even overlapping for a few months on ABC). A love story at heart, Pushing Daisies was sunnier than Ted while still fundamentally macabre; its central couple is a man with the power to reanimate the dead and a woman he revived but can never touch, lest she die again. One recognizes Ted’s twee cynicism and Pushing Daisies’ matter-of-fact madcap in not just Santa Clarita, but the small and intensely loved tradition of which they’re a part. The playfulness is laced with a hint of acid, and the sharpness is softened by joy.

The genre has been missing from television for some time, most likely because it tends to meet an early demise; neither Daisies, nor Ted, nor Fuller’s equally oddball Dead Like Me lived to see a third season. Robert and Michelle King’s BrainDead made a promising start on CBS this summer by swapping out the nation’s capital for cul-de-sacs only to get the axe after just 13 episodes. Combining normcore with magic was a surefire recipe for a cult hit, not an unqualified one.

The economics of TV have changed from the days when “cult hit” was code for “death sentence.” It makes sense that the style would establish a toehold on Netflix, the platform chiefly that figured out how to turn sleeper hits into good business. Santa Clarita is the streaming service’s second entry into the sprightly satire category this year: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events shares an executive producer with Pushing Daisies in Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men in Black), and the creative kinship is obvious. Like the books on which it’s based, Lemony Snicket pokes fun at its own baroquely depressing subject matter. To the original’s self-consciously clever prose, though, the series adds plenty: elaborate, quasi-Victorian set design; a personified narrator with his own, wordless subplot; a theme song urging viewers to “look away” from the story of three chronically imperiled orphans, thereby ensuring they won’t. It’s an anti-fairy tale wrapped in storybook trappings, with a sense of humor to go with its true weirdness. Unfortunate Events is a children’s show while Barrymore claims eating people makes her feel “a tingle in my vagina,” but the overlap with Santa Clarita is undeniable. Both have a lightheartedness and a morbid streak that reinforce rather than contradict each other.

That the spiritual successors to both Better Off Ted and Pushing Daisies landed, like their parent shows once were, on the same distributor at the same time isn’t a coincidence. Companies like Netflix are in a position to capitalize on niche appeal, and both Lemony Snicket and Santa Clarita have built-in boosters in the form of massively popular source material and a movie star, respectively. Even if those fail to bring in a mass audience, a subscription service without advertisers can afford to let the likes of Fuller House and House of Cards subsidize its weirder efforts, or even sustain them. Black comedies risk continuing long enough until the show devolves into its own spoof, which is precisely what happened to Housewives, and Weeds, and Dexter, and True Blood. (Cable, with its proto-Netflix business model, has a higher batting average for these shows’ survivals, if not their long-term success.) But Better Off Ted, like its peers, never got the chance to jump the shark. We may finally get to see what a cult show looks like without a “tragically canceled” qualifier tacked in front.