Suburban dramas and comedies are almost always about performance. There is usually a tension between the conventional middle class persona the characters have adopted and whatever it is they’re hiding, which would render them unusual, outlandish, toxic. In the new Netflix show Santa Clarita Diet, Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are Sheila and Joel, husband and wife realtors in anodyne Santa Clarita. During a typical meeting with prospective buyers, Sheila unleashes a heinous amount of vomit and promptly dies. Upon waking she finds herself quite undead and itching for meat, specifically of human stock. Her libido is likewise impatient, which Joel enjoys, though his spousal loyalty is tested by her culinary needs. Now they both need to become murderers if one is to survive (or at least not turn deader than dead), something that predictably disrupts their lives.
What follows is an adorable, disgusting, and frequently hilarious mix of Breaking Bad and American Beauty. The actors deliver each line with histrionic gusto, sometimes screaming at the back row even with the camera on their noses. It always seems like Barrymore and Olyphant are two gears above the speed limit, their subterranean desperation slowly claiming every one of their gestures. Their zombie problem is comparable to whatever mundane secret, infidelity, unhappiness, or resentment boils underneath real-life suburban facades, yet concealing the truth comes easy to them, since they’re experts in the art of imposture, of selling not only houses but also a lifestyle. Still, they’ve never had to cover up something so horribly unbecoming. The jittery, nervous awkwardness of the acting gives viewers the impression that the protagonists are sitting on the lid of a wicker box, trying to keep a raging lion trapped inside of it.
Sheila, of course, is both lion and tamer in this analogy, both worried about the implications of being a ravenous zombie and unabashedly excited about the potential of her newfound vitality, sexuality, and physical strength. In this sense – and, also, in her late-season physical deterioration – she recalls Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’s the dark, ugly side of the superhero’s journey, of suddenly becoming more than human; with great power comes, well, not necessarily great responsibility, but definitely a physical transformation so drastic that it forces the victim to reexamine everything, including daily habits, social and personal relationships, and even his or her basic humanity. Santa Clarita Diet is not aiming for disturbing, existential despair, as Cronenberg often is, but some of that 1986 movie’s nightmarish vibe comes through.
For the most part though, Santa Clarita Diet is uproarious and heartwarming. It would be a mistake to say that it doesn’t take itself seriously, because most good comedies are dead-serious about whatever they’re laughing about, but it definitely avoids solemnity. This is especially the case when it comes to family dynamics: Sheila and Joel have a daughter, Abby, played by relative newcomer Liv Hewson, and her most distinctive trait is that she doesn’t have one. She’s not an outcast nor a bookworm nor an airhead; she just “is,” nothing more than a teenager trying to rebuild her relationship to her parents. Of course, her mom eats people and her dad helps her out, but the show’s writers make her conundrum relatable. After all, one of the great rites of passage for all teenagers is discovering that their parents are faulty human beings, no longer the unblemished heroes of yesteryear, but people who can be criticized and disagreed with. That’s what Abby dramatically comes to understand, maturing past the disaffection she had cultivated before, and now approaching her folks anew from a position of equality and friendship, beyond the daughter-parent binary.
Abby’s neighbor, Eric, unfortunately is a bit more cliché, a prototypical klutzy nerd who behaves like a rejected character from The Big Bang Theory. Still, young TV veteran Skyler Gisondo (whose actual name is much cooler than Eric) gets fantastic mileage out of his effortlessly odd face, so perpetually flushed it looks like someone’s playing with your monitor’s display settings, especially during his countless squirmy scenes with Abby, with whom his character’s obviously in love. The show’s writers do tend to give him the thankless task of providing exposition and explaining the (thus far) disappointingly thin zombie mythos holding the plot together, since he’s the resident nerd and all, but Gisondo bears the burden well.
These main characters maneuver as well as they can through the zombie crisis, which refreshingly isn’t a worldwide apocalypse as in most stories in this genre. How they deal with this family dilemma is both ridiculous and oddly believable. The quotidian complications of having to feed a hungry member of the undead – who to kill, when to do so, where to store the body, and how to hide it from the neighbors – make up much of the running time, and are absorbing.
As their social selves become phonier, their private selves turn more open and honest. They learn how to trust and understand each other in ways they hadn’t before. Far from being contradictory, these apparently opposed attitudes are one and the same. After the watershed vomit event, the characters are more in control of what they want and who they care about. Their suburban performance, then, grows more self-aware, into a deliberate mise en scène. They don’t give up their performance so much as manage it more effectively. They no longer repeat norms and conventions because everyone else does, but instead use them to further their own agenda. The comedy emerges from how the family assimilates supernatural phenomena into the normality of Californian sprawl: how bleaching blood from the lawn is explained away as ant extermination, and how a beach getaway allows them to dispose of a body. They awaken from their everyday slumber to hold the reins of the performance they were previously slaves to.
This is what happens, too, in one of the classics of suburban awakening, The Desperate Hours. In this 1955 drama by William Wyler, a gang of escaped convicts led by Humphrey Bogart’s Glenn Griffin needs a hiding place while waiting for a package to arrive, so they take a suburban family hostage and camp out at their house. To keep up appearances and prevent the police from snooping in, Glenn allows the head of the family, Fredric March’s Daniel Hilliard, to show up to work, which forces Daniel to pretend to do what he’s always done without effort – that is, being an unexceptional citizen of postwar America. He’s always performed a version of himself for others’ eyes, just not so self-consciously.
Santa Clarita Diet makes a similar if not identical point, except with more jokes; when suburban normality is turned on its head, the characters are forced to re-read the stage directions they’ve always followed on autopilot. In doing so, they don’t turn away from the script, but instead become better performers, more attentive to their place on the stage. The show is not perfect, pushing black and Latino characters into supporting positions, depositing the origins of zombies in exotic Eastern Europe, a trope older than Bram Stoker (when the history of zombies is actually quintessentially American, in the sense of the whole American continent, rooted partly in Haitian colonialism and slavery), and sometimes defaulting to (what might as well be) stock footage of nerds being nerds at comic book stores and conventions. However, Santa Clarita Diet also knows why it’s hilarious and why it resonates. It takes advantage of its central conceit and the overblown tensions it gives rise to, and reminds us of how we relate to our spouse, kids, parents, neighbors, compatriots, and indeed everyone around us – how a layer of performance covers every interaction, in suburbia or anywhere else, with the key being to play the role we want to play without being played by it.