Santa Clarita Diet Recap : S01E01
With all of the press shouting at you preceding the premiere of a television show featuring a high-profile star, or just the inescapable watercooler buzz from Hunter at the office who “doesn’t own a tv” but seems to watch a hell of a lot of what we all still call “television shows”, it’s interesting to sit down to watch a series knowing nothing about it. With a film, I’d argue that this is a good thing – trailers can tell too much, show the best scenes or in some cases, really mis-sell the movie (hello, “Passengers”). A movie has two hours to draw you in and make its point.
TV is different – a pilot episode is such a crucial thing. It not only almost always served as the clunky sales tool made for the network deciders (though we all know some pilots lead to a recast, tweak, etc before going forward), but once put out there to the masses, it must do the heavy lifting of setting up the whole concept. We are usually treated to one of two scenarios: either not much happens except blowhard scenes where the leads say things like, “well, you know, ever since I gave up my job at NASA after the big mistake which not only annoyed my overbearing astronaut father but spurred my move to this New Orleans parish to work with underpriveleged cats…”, or where everything expository is crammed into 22 network minutes and you are as befuddled as someone joining “Lost” in season three. But hey, if you’re either hooked, or patient, you see the first episode of a program as a prologue, an amuse bouche if you will, and you sit back for more.
So I went into “Santa Clarita Diet” knowing nothing except our Drew (we all do feel like we’ve known her forever, right?) is back in action after a while working behind the scenes and keeping the mortgages of her divorce lawyers paid, and that the title sounds almost wacky, like we’re going to be spoofing Californians in some way, and this can be fertile ground for comedy. Hey ev’rybody, Middle America sure does love to laugh at those nutty, trend-happy, traffic-obsessed West Coasters. Right? Ha ha, we chortle, as we shovel snow and shake our heads at their politics and porn industry.
A Comedy About Weightloss in LA?
Um, no. Let’s recap. Not wasting time, “Santa Clarita Diet” quickly establishes a few things: a married couple (Drew Barrymore as Sheila and Timothy Olyphant as Joel), kind of well-off, attractive people gently bickering about sex, living in a McMansion in a neighbourhood that makes Wisteria Lane look like Compton, are real estate agents, have a sassy teen daughter right out of central casting circa 2007 and oddly own a toaster-oven, an appliance that doesn’t get enough love in real life. The set up here is straightforward to the point of banality; we get it, they’re so just like us, so normal, except, what’s with the creepy horror-movie background music? And was that a drop of blood in the opening credits?
We are about to find out, in an quick and huge exposition with so little explanation, or repercussion, that I am puzzled to the point of needing to be openminded and betting this will all have to pay off in later episodes. After a somewhat tense driveway chat with the competitive neighbors on either side, both cops of some sort, an unwell Sheila goes off to work. A potentially wonderful Andy Richter is her boss, there’s a flirty new guy, Gary (Nathan Fillion in his smarmy lady killer persona) who is definitely going to be trouble for Sheila, but off she and Joel go, to show a house.
So it is a weird first 7 or 8 minutes where we learn little about these two main adults and too much about the broad, awful adults surrounding them in this flavorless universe, though there’s a boy next door in place as well for daughter Abby to bounce off of, and then, and THEN, we have a massive thing happen at the house showing.
Santa Clarita Diet Review: Comedy Gore?
Sheila rapidly feels worse and throws up, and this is horrendous, “Team America”-level puking. After returning from a hospital visit where you think they would suss out such things, she has no pulse. Not as phased as her worried spouse, she smiles and even gets some sickbed nookie from him. Just after, Gary, who has just met her and is just starting his job so really should be out spraying cookie-scented air freshener in his for-sale properties, shows up to check on Sheila, with flowers, and, as he is Nathan Fillion, manages to convey smarm, incredulity at the vomit incident, handsome snakiness, and romantic desire for Sheila in a conversation with Joel. (Have to note for oldschool Fillion fans, there were a lot of Joey Buchanans on “One Life to Live” but Nathan was definitely in the top ten.)
But back in the house, Joel has bigger problems. Sheila may be sitting up in bed chatting, but she also may be dead. She’s…yeah, dead. Undead? Seems fine, almost cheerful, but, nope, no heartbeat, black blood, she’s dead. Husband Joel is baffled, stumped by the news which he shares with daughter Abby, who’s also a bit bemused and at the risk of totally ruining her highschool cred, calls in neighbor Eric (played by Skyler Gisondo giving off a cute Jon Stewart vibe) to confirm Mom’s new zombie – don’t say zombie!- status. So it is.
A Girl’s Gotta Do…
Within hours Joel starts adapting and deals with these new wifely quirks – Sheila maneuvering him into more oral sex, eating raw meat, making impulsive purchases for Abby, then that night going partying with the obnoxious neighbor lady, Eric’s mouthy mom, Lisa. Oh, honey! That is one supportive husband.
Joel does show up to stop the girls night and finds Sheila chatting with, guess who, Gary. There’s a showdown between the two men where Olyphant confirms he is in charge of this show, or at least committed to giving the pilot his all as a comedic actor, where Joel is a protector, a placater, a wimp and a loving husband (of, we should remember, a suddenly undead wife who more importantly, lost that listing where she puked, thanks for that) all at once.
Death Sparks Your Appetite
The next day, meat-hungry Sheila is visited by creepy Gary in her backyard, and while no flowers this time, he is following up on what he thought was their chemistry at the bar. She does note, perhaps even sincerely as she is just figuring out this new randy person (person?) she is, that his advances make her feel sexy. He suggests an affair. She sucks his fingers for a second, then starts eating him. Joel, trying to make breakfast without the lovely, practical toaster oven he smashed in frustration, comes out to find her crouched over Gary’s chunked-out corpse. Oh, sweetie!
This comedy is created by Victor Fresco, the man behind “Better Off Ted”, which I never saw but about which I heard good things, and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”, which was really good and should have existed when Netflix and its compadres were out there to nuture oddball brilliance. Richter could be doing a cameo here as a favor, or could be a series regular, I didn’t look ahead. Against type, he is another unlikeable supporting character to add to the nicely multicultural but angry, weird or cliched bunch of neighbors, friends and coworkers. Barrymore and the very game Olyphant are cute together. Though it is still hard to think of the girlish Barrymore as the mother of a teen, her natural whimsy makes you buy into her almost amusement at her predicament, but the overall tone here is hard to read. A gory comedy can be done, may horror movies have actual tension-relieving bits (“Reanimator” comes to mind), but where is “Santa Clarita” headed? Let’s assume this is an overpacked pilot episode, and it will get better. I’ll stick with it, and we can find out together.
More Santa Clarita recaps here: EPISODE 2 – “So Then a Bat or a Monkey” EPISODE 3 – “We Can Kill People”
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.