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February 21, 2017

‘Santa Clarita Diet’ delivers on the laughs and the scares

Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Current television sitcoms are regularly criticized for being unoriginal and bland carbon copies of one another. From time to time, of course, there are exceptions to this standard. Netflix is more frequently becoming the go-to place for well done original television series. With hits like “Stranger Things,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and countless others, the streaming service’s newest offering, “Santa Clarita Diet,” is a fine addition to the Netflix canon.

“Santa Clarita” takes place in the upper-middle class town of the same name. This town is the epitome of what anyone would think upon hearing the words “suburban” or “bourgeois.” It is a town of juicing fads, perfectly manicured lawns, multiple marriages and the suburban zombie mom played by Drew Barrymore.

The show opens with beautiful aerial shots of Los Angeles County, before the viewer is introduced to the Hammond family. Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant are cast as Sheila and Joel Hammond, a married couple of realtors who have been together since high school. They preoccupy their mundane lives with petty concerns that seem to be tongue-in-cheek jabs at the stereotypical Californian (Think “Saturday Night Live’s” “Californians” sketch, but significantly subtler in tone).

Joel genuinely worries that the family’s toaster oven has too many “slats” per knob to make an acceptable piece of toast, and Sheila is enamored with Jennifer Lawrence’s latest short crop haircut.

The calm yet comedic stasis of the Hammond’s lives is completely muddled when Sheila becomes violently ill while showing a house with her husband.  While directing their clients to view a laundry chute, Sheila begins vomiting a mustard yellow fluid directly onto the immaculate, white carpeted floors of the clients’ potential new home. She politely excuses herself to the pristine bathroom, and while Joel continues to show the house, we can hear the sounds of Sheila’s awful retching off camera.

When the clients decide they’ve heard enough of Sheila’s background music, Joel rushes to the upstairs bathroom to find his wife sprawled out in what can only be described as an “Exorcist” level of vomit.

Naturally, Sheila and Joel look to find answers as to why Sheila regurgitated her whole body weight, along with a small red ball (possibly an organ?). The source they initially settle on is their quick-witted teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson) and the nerdy, comic book-reading boy next door, Eric, (Skyler Gisondo) who makes little secret of his love for Abby.

These two characters, had they been on a network like CBS or NBC rather than Netflix, could have easily become clichés of teenagers ­- whining, complaining and rolling their eyes. However, due to the exceptional writing of Victor Fresco (“Better Off Ted,” “My Name is Earl,” “Mad About You,”) Abby and Eric remain interesting, witty and able to hold their own storylines, which are equally as entertaining as Sheila and Joel’s. It is Eric, who spent weeks building a robot called King Robot Baratheon, who realizes that Sheila is undead and slowly evolving into a zombie.

This suburban zombie conflict provides plenty of comedic situations and struggles for the Hammonds. In an attempt to morally justify their actions, Sheila and Joel take a tip from “Dexter,” and plan to strictly limit their killings to people who are evil or harmful to society.  This, of course, leads to laughable failures when they repeatedly believe they’ve found malicious beings only to learn that they are actually caretakers and charity workers. Later on, the Hammonds find themselves purchasing a human foot from a morgue in exchange for $400 and a Starbucks card, only to realize that the meat isn’t fresh enough to be consumed.

“Santa Clarita” expertly takes on the hipster culture of Southern California. It easily pokes fun at the mothers who shop exclusively at Wegmans after their SoulCycle classes and juicing cleanses, and teens who skip school to go to Starbucks. The calming blue and yellow tones of the Hammond home seem to be something straight out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Goop” playbook, while Barrymore’s musings about food conditions and chemicals are exactly what Jessica Alba would be proud to hear.

The show laughs at its own silly premise and satirical characters in a way that keeps its audience engaged and wanting more. With 10 episodes that each clock in at under 30 minutes, “Santa Clarita” is an easy, yet worthwhile watch. Comedic moments like a running joke with a monotone-voiced Rite-Aid worker, taking shots with an old woman, a loosely falling eyeball and dropping guacamole on an ancient Serbian text are what make “Santa Clarita Diet” a succulent treat.

Chantel Cohen can be reached at chantelcohen@umass.edu.

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