Live Life Better Dead on the Santa Clarita Diet

By Emily Santiago-Molina

Every family has its ups and downs. Living in a typical suburban neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California, the Hammonds of the Netflix original “Santa Clarita Diet” are the definition of the American nuclear family. The heads of the household, Joel and his wife Sheila, are real estate agents whose marriage has fallen into a bit of a slump. Each hope for something exciting to come along while their 16-year-old daughter, Abby, tries to make it through high school. The family is stuck in an ordinary routine of suburban living, until Sheila suddenly dies, only to wake up to an entirely new life … as a zombie.

Bringing comedy and horror together in another modern twist on a zombie-infested life, the show follows Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and her family as they adjust to the impulsive and dangerous needs of her recent biological development. Her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) tries his best to handle the situation and be as supportive as he can, while keeping his terror and stress at bay by smoking a few joints when he can. Their teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), goes through her own adjustment of having an undead mother, whose new outlook on life makes her wonder about what really matters, which involves ditching class and reassessing her priorities.

Barrymore as Sheila strays from her popular romantic-comedy typecast and plays a middle-aged wife and mother, searching for a more confident version of herself when she joins the undead. It’s been a long time since Barrymore’s appeared in the horror movie “Scream,” but she successfully brings to life Sheila’s zombie personality through the unique perspective of a woman rediscovering her identity in light of her new persona, struggling with day to day paranormal urges while trying to stay close to the family she still holds dear.

Compared to other current zombie-themed TV shows, such as “The Walking Dead” or “iZombie,” “Santa Clarita Diet” places the popular monster in the unique environment of suburbia, in a family whose household is turned upside down with every episode as she slowly descends into her full zombie state. The family’s crazy antics unfold beside her transition, portrayed in a way that normalizes her killing people for food, rather than demonizing it like in the apocalyptic drama, “The Walking Dead.”

Unlike most zombie characters, Barrymore’s character develops because she dies and becomes a zombie; she finally blooms into her best self and starts living by what gives her the most pleasure. Within a world where these characters seem to have everything at their fingertips but still lack any real passion in life, Sheila finds life worth living only after she experiences death. Being undead has its perks along with its downsides, bringing much more to the table than Sheila’s suburban life ever did. Her transition seems to stand for a reality check in the drowned-out yearnings of middle-aged America, for a life more fulfilling, despite reaching a state of ease. In this disruption of the supposed American dream, the authenticity of such lifestyles are challenged and revealed to be under a false sense of security. The viewer witnesses the dissatisfaction of people who have apparently reached their peak, using Sheila’s zombie-ism as a metaphor for adapting to yet another mid-life crisis.

Her humanity still hangs in the balance, much like Olivia Moore in “iZombie,” who despite her transition into a flesh-eating creature, learns to see the best in her situation and actually joins the police in solving cases, portraying a more redeeming side of the zombie. Leaning away from the danger of zombies on the human population, “Santa Clarita Diet” focuses on the zombie individual in a more personal and comical way, capturing the social problems Sheila deals with as her bold decisions lead to unexpected consequences that only make the maintenance of her suburban appearance harder. She finds that following her impulses may have solved her confidence crisis but can’t ultimately keep her life intact. Sheila grapples with controlling her dangerous yet exhilarating impulses, illustrating a societal disapproval of following one’s indulgences and the potential fall-out.

The family takes each oncoming problem in stride, fighting for Sheila to remain herself but holding her back from an inevitable descent into the final stage of her afterlife. Between all the blood and guts, as Joel holds on to the tiny thread of morality he has left and Abby grips any sense of normalcy she can find, “Santa Clarita Diet” depicts a family journey to find meaning and live purposefully, albeit with a dark twist to their story.