Don’t eat dinner while watching “Santa Clarita Diet.” Don’t even eat popcorn. You may think you’re sitting down to watch a situational comedy about a married couple in Southern California, but there’s quite a twist. Entrails, to be exact.
“Santa Clarita Diet” is a comedy about how suburban real estate agent Sheila (Drew Barrymore) turns into a creature of the undead, with a ravenous hunger for human flesh. It’s a wacky, odd production, with a spare mythology of horror and a penchant for surprising, stomach-turning gore. In an early episode, Sheila — hungry, but out of any nearby bodies to devour — bargains a foot off of an unethical mortician. She tears into it as if it’s a turkey leg at a county fair, gnawing at a flap of skin until it slowly peels off. In the first episode, actuated by apparent sexual desire, she relieves a man of his fingers. This escalates until the man is disemboweled on her nice green lawn and Sheila is covered in blood.
“Santa Clarita Diet” is a treat for a very specific sense of humor — and a little unpleasant for everyone else. It’s B-movie camp, set in the Los Angeles suburbs; in between eating people, Sheila, with her devoted husband, Joel (Timothy Olyphant), sells ranch houses with plush-carpeted rooms.
Both Barrymore and Olyphant commit with deadpan brilliance to the ridiculous story, playing self-conscious camp with admirable balance. “Santa Clarita Diet” flirts a bit with the horror genre before shifting to crime, as Joel and Sheila evolve into conspiring murderers to sate Sheila’s hunger. Sheila, now ruled by undead desires, sometimes launches into devouring people by accident — which is probably good for their overall success rate, as Joel turns out to be pretty terrible at delivering the killing stroke. (He’s a pro at cleanup, though.)
What is genuinely great about “Santa Clarita Diet” is just how surprising each plot development is. Because it is unafraid to dabble in gore, murder, or high school drama, the show is capable of moving in a lot of different directions. In the midst of a dark comedy with bloody humor, Joel has to mourn the woman his wife once was — a slightly pathetic, somewhat affecting display of pathos that is both funny and sad, even as Sheila, half-mad with zombie-like hunger, has to try to remember that she has to make sacrifices for the people she loves.
Like so many Netflix comedies, “Santa Clarita Diet” is a slow burn, and the first batch of episodes doesn’t quite deliver the sendup of suburbanite foibles that it could. But the seeds are all there. In one brilliant sequence in the fourth episode, Sheila chips some meat off of a frozen corpse and tosses it into her blender, making a smoothie she can take on her ladies’ power walk. The other women admire her energy. She tells them she’s really upped her protein intake. (“How many grams?” “All of them!”) Barrymore is particularly gifted at tempering California-girl ditziness with inscrutable spurts of stone-faced sadism, stalking unassuming strangers like a tiny tiger cub with its first prey. She takes to cannibalism like a house on fire, savoring her chunks of human meat over a family-bonding dinner with Joel and their daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), without a trace of shame or self-doubt.
It is disconcertingly hilarious how easily devouring human body parts and cleaning up after dead bodies becomes part of their daily routine; with good-old-fashioned Southern California optimism, Sheila converts her cheeriness at being a cannibal into encouraging her friends to go out and live their lives to the fullest. This inspirational speech leads to two different sets of people buying Range Rovers.
It’s hard to imagine “Santa Clarita Diet” will work for everyone. The show is deliberately stylized and devoid of most, if not all, moral consequences. But in the specific juggling act it is attempting, it nails it — a very strange marriage of tone, content, and performance, but one that is much more satisfying than a cold piece of foot.