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Weekly Watch: ‘Santa Clarita Diet’

| Monday, February 20, 2017

Weekly Watch_ Santa Clarita Diet_WEBLAUREN HEBIG | The Observer

Everything about the Netflix original show “Santa Clarita Diet” is nauseating. A nauseatingly flawless suburban landscape is filmed in bright lighting. Hostile yet friendly neighbors in unhappy marriages engage in bickering and affairs. And of course, the fad diets abound — like Sheila Hammond’s (Drew Barrymore) human-flesh-only fare.

In an uptight family where both parents are realtors, it might prove difficult to accept an unconventional challenge faced by a family member even despite the stigmas of suburbia living. Families might experience this if their mom is going through addiction or mental illness — or, of course, if the mother of the family becomes a flesh-eating zombie.

Sheila’s husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) copes with his wife’s new condition by having existential conversations with the pharmacy staff. He ultimately commits to stick by his wife through thick and thin, even when that means mopping up a murder scene. Their teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) deals with the situation with both teenage irreverence and commitment to family, teaming up with the “geeky” (but really too cute to be geeky) neighbor boy who helps to uncover her mother’s ailment.

The juxtaposition of sterility with gruesome murder recalls the images of “Dexter,” along with the good-guy-needs-to-murder dynamic. Though Dexter is emotionally cold-blooded whereas Sheila is physically cold-gooey-and-black-blooded, somehow the violence in “Santa Clarita Diet” is so much more disgusting.

Where the drama “Dexter” approaches murder and death with a dramatic seriousness sprinkled with irony, “Santa Clarita Diet” is entirely comedy — tremendously dark comedy. The irreverence with which people are killed is part of what makes “Santa Clarita Diet” even worse. Watching people get eaten gives the stomach a special kind of churn.

The gore isn’t only nauseating in theory. It’s presented in the goriest possible way. The blood that often covers the face, arms and chest of Drew Barrymore isn’t a campy red paint. It’s dark and viscous, and anyone with an aversion to blood will find themselves affected by it. The black goo that has replaced her own blood is even more unsettling.

In the first episode, Sheila, a realtor, shows a house to a couple for the third time. In the middle of the tour, she projects an impossible amount of vomit onto the pristine carpet of the master bedroom. She goes into the bathroom only to puke up more, covering the walls and ceiling. The substance is not quite realistic — a nearly-electric green-yellow with visible chunks — but is nevertheless unwatchable.

The entire premise of “Santa Clarita” rests on complete absurdism, which comments on the various skeletons in the closets of suburbanites committed to convention. Even after the couple becomes desensitized to Sheila’s meals of human flesh, they are appalled by tamer yet still unconventional propositions, such as their daughter’s suggestion that she might not want to go to college.

In episode 8, the Hammonds’ neighbor, an aspiring musician, records a phrase he said in conversation which he found particularly artistic on his phone. He said he embraced violence “like a drop of dew embraces a blade of grass.” Sheila compliments him: “Blade of grass. Blade. Violence. It’s a twist on the familiar that makes it so profound.”

Profound is not the first word I would use to describe “Santa Clarita Diet,” but it’s certainly a twist on familiar suburban conventionalism, right down to Sheila’s fleshy adaptation of the annoying health smoothie obsession.

Even as a minimally squeamish viewer, the series left the taste of bile in my mouth. I don’t recommend trying to eat while watching it, unless you’re feasting on human flesh.

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