Zombies have been everywhere for years — well, in popular culture, anyway. Yet it feels like the audience for a good zombie comedy has largely gone underserved (with the exception of iZombie, of course). Last year, Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet aimed to solve that problem with a funny look at a potential outbreak of the undead, told through the lens of a couple suffering, perhaps unknowingly, from a bit of suburban malaise. The story of Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) Hammond subverted the usual trappings of most pre-apocalyptic scenarios in an effort to turn the zombie sub-genre on its rotting ear and refocus the narrative’s energies into even more unnerving subjects, such as self-improvement and moral relativism.
The show doesn’t actually dive headlong into those topics so much as it dances around them with some of the sharpest dialogue on television at the moment, and that’s okay. Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet is mostly interested in exploring the ways in which a family faced with what is really an unprecedented and insurmountable problem adjusts to their newfound and discomfiting situation because there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another. In essence, the series isn’t just subverting the typical zombie narrative, it’s also taking a clever cue from and jab at family sitcoms.
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That one-two punch, combined with the general lack of content restrictions available to creators on Netflix, made the series, from creator Victor Fresco, an irreverent and bloody addition to the streaming services’ ever-expanding content library. But as much fun as season 1 was, watching Sheila, Joel, their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson), and next door neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo) navigate the joys and complications of living while dead, the season threatened to go off the rails in search of a cure for Shiela’s condition, one that included a surprising amount of (presumably made-up) Serbian folklore and a magic recipe that called for the bile of anyone from that region. The season ended on a cliffhanger that saw Joel locked up in a mental institution and Shiela locked up in the basement of her own house, because, well, she was getting a bit bite-y.
Season 2 picks up right were things left off. The series moves with haste in order to resolve some of the more pressing concerns of the first season, like Shiela’s rapid deterioration and what looked to be the Hammond family coming apart at the seams. The events of the premiere, then, aren’t so much a repudiation of certain events in season 1, as they are gentle course correction. It’s easy to think the writer’s room saw Sheila becoming a rotting corpse as one-way ticket to an unsustainable storyline, so her downturn is quickly halted in its tracks, thanks to a deviant Serbian name Goran who provides the requisite bile before becoming a tasty snack for Sheila.
Not having to worry about Sheila’s decomposition gives Santa Clarita Diet a chance to expand in some clever ways, but it also affords the series the opportunity to retract in perhaps more important ones. While the mystery of Sheila’s zombie-ism is still very much on the minds of the writers (and, who knows, maybe even the audience, too), the show is still primarily about the ways in which the Hammonds are coping with rapid, unexpected change and discovering who they really are in the process — like, you know, murderers who only kill really bad people in order to maintain an increasingly complicated lifestyle.
It felt as though the series lost sight of the family dynamic somewhat late in season, which makes its resurgence throughout the first half of season 2 a step in the right direction. But the show isn’t looking inward entirely; there’s also a new element introduced with the addition of more zombies and a pair of mysterious newcomers played by Zachary Knighton and Jee Young Han, who definitely know more about what’s going on than they seem to. As such, Santa Clarita Diet season 2 walks a fine line between being a subversive family comedy — think Night of the Living Dead meets The Middle — and having the sort of convoluted mythology that will please a zombie-loving audience that’s pretty much seen every take on the undead already.
That is no easy task, and as the season moves on and more undead people-eaters are introduced and characters previously thought dead are literally dug up, uncertainty does start to set in. Yet as much as Santa Clarita Diet threatens to go off the rails in search of answers it doesn’t necessarily need, it still manages to be funny and entertaining, while maintaining a through-line of the joys and perils of self-improvement.
Much of that has to do with the aforementioned dialogue, which is often razor sharp, clever, and the source of the most genuine laughs the show has to offer. In a series filled with unsightly sight gags, like Drew Barrymore snacking on a eyelid like it was a piece of popcorn, it’s refreshing that not only does it not rely on such things, but that’s not even where its real strengths lie. Instead, Santa Clarita Diet relies on the chemistry of its cast, and the way they excel at delivering the rapid, back-and-forth dialogue that’s the real cornerstone of the show’s success. Watching Barrymore and Olyphant debate the morality of killing Nazi’s while standing in a plastic-wrapped kill room is, strangely, an early high point for season 2.
In all, the show adds up to a bunch of seemingly disparate parts that, like a zombie, absolutely should not work but somehow do. Not only does the series function as the weirdest and goriest comedy on television, it also maintains a level of consistency that’s unheard of in a series that takes as many big swings as Santa Clarita Diet does.
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Santa Clarita Diet season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.