The undead plague arrives in the California suburbs in Netflix’s newest original series, “Santa Clarita Diet,” though the zombies here shy away from the standard shambling gait so often applied to reanimated corpses, instead opting for more of a mall walker’s clip. The result is about as absurd as it sounds.
Sheila and Joel (Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant) are a married pair of California realtors living a life of detached bonus rooms and converted garages until Sheila up and dies in a flurry of tacky vomit while showing a listing. She perks right back up though, flooded with new levels of energy, a go-getter attitude and a heightened sex drive. Her transformation has all the makings of a Dr. Oz-approved juice cleanse, if it weren’t for the added caveat of craving human flesh.
Rather than completely upending her world, Sheila’s bout of the undead-itis breathes new life into her marriage and worldview. Joel isn’t as quick to jump onto the “being a zombie is a blast” train as his wife is, and the subversion of marital life and squabbles is one of the show’s main mines for jokes. Family outings to the beach with daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) include a cooler stuffed with half-eaten human remains rather than Sunkist and brewskis.
The overtly gory and gross don’t make their way into every one of the first season’s 10 episodes, but when they hit, they hit hard. Though it may feature zombies, “Santa Clarita Diet” is far more comedy than it is horror, and gore is handled with a mostly slapstick approach that never crosses into scary territory. Still, it does turn gratuitous at times, and those prone to getting queasy will probably find their stomachs tested.
The comedy is only skin deep, with slapstick gags of fingers in blenders as Sheila preps a manflesh smoothie and similar undead snack-packs landing quickly and then abandoned. Fans of more meta comedy made popular by shows like “Community” might be left wanting for more self-referential gags given the show’s goofy premise, but for the most part, the quick pace and unwillingness to dwell on any one bit works well.
Olyphant’s Joel, a former jock who has breezed through life without having to think too hard (right up until his wife went all undead), is the strongest part of “Santa Clarita Diet.” He’s just barely holding it together while trying to remain a devoted husband and father, reluctantly hashing out plans to stalk and kill the next family dinner and prone to yelping freakouts at the newfound absurdity that seems to fill every day.
Given how committed Olyphant is to capturing the ridiculousness of the show, it’s disappointing that Barrymore doesn’t quite climb to the same level. Despite being the focus of most every running gag, Barrymore pulls her punches and doesn’t fully embrace the zaniness of the premise, coming off a little stale as a result. The best jokes the show has to offer come about at the expense of her character, but it seems that she’s never the one delivering them. Still, for a breezy comedy that’s as easy to turn off as it is to turn on, “Santa Clarita Diet” scratches a certain easygoing itch.
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