New Netflix show ‘Santa Clarita Diet’ worth a binge
Earlier this week, Merriam Webster announced that “binge-watch” was among the more than 1,000 new words added to the dictionary and surely some of the credit for that distinction has to go to Netflix.
In fact, the subscription streaming service is even name-checked in the dictionary’s sample sentence, which reads, “Even those of us who have bundled TV and broadband-internet subscriptions from telephone or cable companies increasingly use them to binge-watch Netflix shows like ‘Orange Is the New Black’ on an iPad … rather than flip through 500 channels to find nothing on.”
Netflix lived up to that reputation last weekend — at least in my living room — where I spent a big chunk of my Saturday evening burning my way through the service’s latest original series “Santa Clarita Diet.”
I’ll describe the premise of the show for the uninitiated while trying my best to keep spoilers to a minimum.
The series revolves around Sheila and Joel Hammond, played by Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant. The Hammonds are married Realtors raising their teenage daughter, Abby, in the California city near Los Angeles. When we first meet the family, the setup feels very familiar as they gather in the kitchen for breakfast to discuss their day and Abby’s college plans (or lack thereof). Joel is in the midst of a clearly long-running battle with the family’s toaster oven when Sheila begins to feel ill, but brushes it off as a mild case of food poisoning. But of course, it’s so much more than that.
Later that day, after a stop by the office where they are loudly berated by their overbearing boss, played by Andy Richter, and introduced to their new co-worker Gary, played by Nathan Fillion in full-on sleaze ball mode, Joel and Sheila are off to show a house to an indecisive couple for the third time. And there, in the completely remodeled master bedroom Sheila gets spectacularly, violently, grossly — and hilariously — ill, retreating to the bathroom where she repaints the wall with what has to be at least three weeks’ worth of breakfasts. When Joel finds her lying on the tile floor, Sheila appears to be dead, although she’s awake and talking, telling her husband she feels better.
Upon returning home and consulting the resident neighborhood zombie expert, Eric Bemis, the nerdy boy next door with a raging crush on Abby, the Hammonds decide the best course of action is to keep Sheila’s newfound undead status under wraps while trying to find a way to satiate Sheila’s need for human flesh until they can find a cure.
The series is produced by Victor Fresco, whose previous work includes the underappreciated “Better Off Ted,” which is also well worth a binge. The writing is sharp and strong, but what really sold me on the show is the cast.
I’ve always liked Barrymore, but she’d fallen off a radar in recent years after she decided to take behind-the-scenes jobs and raise a family of her own. I’d forgotten how funny she can be and as Sheila’s id increasingly takes control of her actions Barrymore gets better.
Teenage characters of TV shows can often exist for the sole purpose of causing problems for their parents, but Abby and Eric are worth watching for their own stories and they prove vital to moving the plot along. Even the tertiary characters, like the Hammonds’ collection of neighbors and a hilariously deadpan Rite Aid clerk who somehow finds herself as the family’s unofficial therapist, are entertaining.
But the real revelation of “Santa Clarita Diet” for me was Olyphant, who many know as Raylan Givens on “Justified.” Over the course of six seasons, Olyphant played Elmore Leonard’s U.S. Marshal brilliantly, as a man who lived by his own code and followed the rule of law only when it suited his purposes. (If you haven’t seen “Justified,” I highly recommend checking it out. It’s nowhere near as clichéd as I’m making it sound). Raylan cracked the occasional joke, but funny isn’t the first word anyone would use to describe him.
Joel Hammond, on the other hand, is a riot. As Joel, Olyphant is twitchy, nervous and sweetly devoted to his wife. A former quarterback who married his high school sweetheart, Joel kind of falls into a middle-class existence without any real passion for his career and hilarity ensues as he struggles to cope with the changes that inevitably arrive when your wife becomes one of the undead.
Fair warning, “Santa Clarita Diet” has its fair share of gore and foul language. Sheila is, after all, on a restricted diet of human flesh. But the blood and guts are cartoony and played for laughs and who wouldn’t drop an F bomb or two if you found your wife snacking on somebody in the backyard? It might be best to wait for the kids to go to bed before hitting play. But, if your sense of humor leans toward the dark side like mine does, I’d suggest giving “Santa Clarita Diet” a try. By the time my five-hour binge was over, I was definitely craving seconds.
Andrea Agardy can be reached by email at email@example.com.