One of the most enjoyably ridiculous recent Netflix releases, Santa Clarita Diet stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as Sheila and Joel Hammond, a pair of Santa Clarita realtors whose lives are turned upside down when they discover that Sheila has contracted a rare virus that has rendered her undead. At first raw meat is enough to satisfy her cravings, but once she gets a taste for live flesh nothing else will do – not even human cadavers – forcing the Hammonds to use their real estate business to seek out human prey. While that produces moments of extreme gore and violence, Sheila also discovers that being undead ironically provides her with a new lease on life, removing her inhibitions and self-doubt and turning her into a parody of Californian self-actualisation, a repository of new age wisdom (“Live your best life!”) replete with aphorisms and maxims for every occasion. Converging the brightness of suburbia with the queasiness of cannibalism, Santa Clarita Diet therefore traffics in a very heightened mood that, at times, makes it feel a bit like a graphic novel adaptation and, at other times, recalls and intensifies the hyperactive energy of Desperate Housewives.
With another lead actress, that might get a bit grating, but Barrymore’s emphatic manner and heightened bodily and facial gestures perfectly match the energy of the series as a whole. While “high energy” expressions and gesticulations are obviously part of the performativity inherent in being a realtor, they also increasingly characterize Sheila’s undead symptoms as a whole, with the result that being undead quickly comes to feel like being an uber-realtor – a realtor, as Sheila puts it, who can put in a brilliant day’s work on only an hour’s sleep every night. As the series proceeds, then, she starts to speak to her family with the same crazy intensity she adopts for customers when taking them through houses – she’s never “off” – while it’s only a matter of time before she and Joel start to use house inspections to try and lure victims into their snare, as well as treating every encounter with a potential victim as if they’re a prospective buyer as well. Throughout all these sequences, Barrymore has just the right brand of oblivious hyperactivity to make it all feel crazily plausible – it’s the kind of show that demands an actor who can just go with the total absurdity of the premise without awkwardness or excessive self-awareness.
That’s something Olyphant struggles to do to the same extent, making his performance frequently feel more staid or blandly self-consciously – while he may be a great wry actor, as evinced in Deadwood or Justified, I’m not sure that he’s a great comic actor in the manner that is demanded here. Certainly, he doesn’t quite work with the slapstick intensity of the series as a whole, except when he is inevitably caught up in Barrymore’s own energy. For that reason, I found myself wondering whether there was something about Barrymore’s pedigree as a film star who came of age in the 90s and early 00s that made her so suited to this role.
Perhaps it’s simply because that was the period when I was also growing up, but there’s always seemed to me to be a particular brand of heightened inanity to 90s American cinema. In effect, this was the last real decade of the confident blockbuster, as well as the last point at which cinema wasn’t under attack from new media and post-cinematic media. In an era in which blockbusters are characterized by extreme conservatism – endless remakes and reboots as well as hyperbolic serialization and universe-building – it can be quite surreal to look back at some of the bizarre attempts at blockbuster appeal that characterized the 90s. Faced with much less competition from other media outlets and confident of cinematic hegemony in a way that seems implausible now, films could take the most absurd and inane risks when pitching themselves to a mass audience. In a sense, that’s what Santa Clarita Diet feels like – a weird 90s pitch that never got off the ground, and yet another one of the bizarre romantic premises that Barrymore managed to somehow make her own and render plausible in the process as well, which is perhaps why I often felt as if Adam Sandler, rather than Olyphant, was the natural choice to have played her husband and partner in crime.
Yet Santa Clarita Diet also recalls Barrymore’s heyday in the nostalgia with which it pores over her legendary mouth – the most corporeal part of her face – and its uncanny refusal to ever settle itself into a stable expression, or abstract and naturalise itself from her body. You might say that Barrymore acts from the mouth, chewing over her dialogue with her trademark dimple-smirk until you can almost taste the mouthfeel of every single word. As a paean to Barrymore’s mouth, and her ability to chew scenery, Santa Clarita Diet’s comic cannibalism is almost unthinkable without her, not least because of the way in which her mouth also suggests a charismatic appetite that is never stable, settled or satiated – one of the reasons why she could always redeem and reinvest even the most staid and stagnant romantic comedies with something touching and tremulous.
In other words, the sheer appetite of Barrymore’s mouth makes the cannibalism of Santa Clarita Diet feel like a cipher for those elements of female pleasure that defy masculine control or containment, turning the series as a whole into a comic, parodic riff on the kinds of misogynistic anxiety those pleasures produce in turn. As many critics have noted, all Sheila’s victims are men – she’s a literal man-eater – while her undeadness also makes her more dominant in the bedroom and more assertive, authoritative and “masculine” in her sexual tastes. At first Joel finds that a turn on but after a while he starts to grow anxious, as the series jokingly suggests that men might love female domination when it is contained and cordoned off as a fetish but perhaps regard it with less equanimity as it starts to become the norm. While sex and cannibalism are linked in various lurid ways, they all contribute to the sense that female sexual empowerment might as well be cannibalism in the visceral horror with which it objectifies and consumes the male body, culminating in the final third of the series in which Sheila starts to experience the final stages of the virus and Joel seeks out medical assistance.
Physiologically, the virus culminates with the victim’s body gradually decomposing and falling apart, resulting in some predictably grotesque and gross-out sequences, especially in and around the bedroom. Psychologically, however, it results in the victim gradually going “feral,” seeking out human flesh without any regard for family, friends or other connections. As Sheila is gradually consumed by this feral femininity and Joel himself starts to look like a viable victim after all, the prospect of emasculation intensifies and a fear of dependent, cuckolded masculinity starts to contour all the comic sequences and set pieces. In particular, there’s a wonderful plot development that sees the Hammonds having to seek help from the principal of their daughter’s school – an embodiment of technocratic male impotence who still lives with his mother, a slice of raw ultra-oestrogen played by Grace Zabriskie, in a wonderfully inspired piece of casting. Similarly, the doctor who is brought in to help Sheila – the only American specialist on undead virology – is played by Portia di Rossi as a cool lesbian who is totally uninterested in Joel’s mounting insecurities. Normally I don’t find di Rossi that compelling as an actor, but her flatness works really well here in its refusal to engage with the mounting male hysteria that assaults her from all angles, not least because it’s clear that she is also in some sense playing herself more openly than at any other point in her acting career.
That all culminates with Joel being hysterically apprehended by the police and scheduled for psychiatric care while Sheila, chained in the basement, starts to plan the final part of her feral phase. If that sounds like a dark ending, then it’s offset by the fact that this “feral” phase pretty much involves Sheila acting like a bro in a gross-out, frat-pack comedy, a situation that’s given additional comic weight by Barrymore’s own enduring screen persona as a “girl who could hang” and hold her own with the most extreme masculine infantilism of her generation. After all, this is the actress who made Adam Sandler seem plausible in romantic comedies and who married Tom Green, an actress who is more than comfortable amidst male messiness, so to see Olyphant unable to live up to her energy just makes the horizon of emasculation even more comically pointed. So, too, does the lack of any real exposition or narrative complexity, both at the beginning and end of the series, which presumably results from creator Victor Fresno’s decision to present undeadness as a viral thing, rather than a supernatural thing. Devoid of the forensic morbidity of most films about zombies, Santa Clarita Diet is driven entirely by a propulsive, compulsive energy that not only feels inextricable from Barrymore’s screen persona but from the Netflix model as well. On social media, I’ve noticed that virtually everyone who has enjoyed the series has commented on how quickly they binged it, as if the cannibalistic drive of the narrative were a synecdoche for the manic mode of Netflix consumption itself. In that sense, Santa Clarita Diet’s greatest achievement is remediating and rehabilitating Barrymore as an agent of Netflix, a personification of Netflix, rediscovering the charismatic appetite and lust for life that has always made her so wonderful.