Few shows excel at being so unabashedly weird as Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, and fewer still manage to blend the inherent weirdness of something like, say, a suburban zombie sitcom, with humor that functions outside the immediate predicament of Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) Hammond — the suburban couple dealing with matters of the undead. For two seasons, the gory comedy has been constructing a surprisingly rich (albeit absurd) mythology around its unique take on zombies, turning the usually brainless shambling corpses into surprisingly lived-in characters, who nonetheless still have an endless appetite for human flesh.
Aside from being a sharply written, well acted, and consistently witty comedy, Santa Clarita Diet deserves praise for its decompressed storytelling, which has allowed creator and showrunner Victor Fresco to spend 30 episodes telling only the first month or so of the Hammondses’ first-hand experience with that whole zombie thing. To be fair, the series isn’t plot driven so much as it’s characters are driven by self preservation and the need to find solutions to a seemingly never-ending cascade of obstacles and challenges, many of which arise as a consequence to the most recent solution found by Sheila, Joel, their daughter Abby (Liv Hewson) and neighbor Eric (series MVP, Skyler Gisondo).
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In a sense, Santa Clarita Diet season 3 becomes inadvertently meta-textual as the series is faced with a number of casting dilemmas presumably caused by members of the supporting cast — namely, Nathan Fillion, Natalie Morales, and Zachary Knighton — moving on to other projects (The Rookie, Abby’s, and Magnum P.I.). But Santa Clarita Diet is nothing if not game to have a little fun at its own expense, explaining Fillion’s absence by way of the ongoing deterioration of what’s left of Gary’s body. Similarly, Knighton’s Knight of Serbia, Paul, asks his sharpshooting brother (Ethan Suplee) to take his place, so he can move to Hawaii. Thankfully, Morales is able to stick around for a little while longer, as her character, Anne Garcia, overcommits to Shiela after being convinced her undead-ness is actually a sign from God.
Unlike Anne, Santa Clarita Diet doesn’t overcommit to any of its plot threads. The majority wind up resolved thanks in large part to Shiela and Joel’s moxie, Abby’s fear-inducing stubbornness, or Eric’s clumsy charm. Some, though, get resolved off screen; a character in question might just disappear and no one seems to notice because they’re too busy (the audience included) dealing with the next big thing threatening to expose Sheila’s secret and put the Hammonds away for a good long time. The constant influx of new obstacles and challenges helps keep the show moving at an incredibly fast pace, a feature that not only helps justify what might be thought of as an attention deficit, but it also prevents the season’s 10 half-hour episodes from sagging in the middle like so many other streaming shows.
That’s not to say Santa Clarita Diet is aimless, by any means. In fact, with each passing season it’s managed to progress its story in steady increments, like introducing the Order of the Knights of Serbia, the bad clams that caused Sheila’s undead condition, and the mysterious spidery meatballs the zombies puke up when they’re first turned. Season 3 is light on firm answers to what it all means in the grand scheme of things, but that turns out to be for the best. The series is better suited to telling a small story told on a micro scale, as opposed to delivering on the macro-narrative elements being revealed piecemeal with each new season.
As such, season 3 is largely concerned with the question of how long Sheila, Joel, Abby, and Eric can keep this up. With law enforcement bearing down on them, the neighbors and fellow Realtors (played by Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson) growing increasingly suspicious of their odd behavior, and the promise of stranger more absurd individuals and adversaries popping up out of the woodwork, it’s beginning to feel like the Hammondses’ days are numbered. Despite the overwhelming threats to her safety, Sheila comes to the conclusion that she’s essentially immortal. That realization creates no small amount of friction between her and Joel as the question of whether or not she’ll spend the next thousand years or so alone or with her husband ultimately takes precedent in a busy, sometimes overstuffed season of undead comedy.
Though the season introduces plenty of new characters, played by the aforementioned Ethan Suplee, as well as Goran Visnjic (Timeless), and Linda Lavin (The Good Wife), all of whom add to the laundry list of obstacles facing the lead characters, the main story boils down to a pair of will they or won’t they scenarios involving Sheila and Joel, as well as Abby and Eric. To its credit, Santa Clarita Diet has done such a remarkable job with its characters that these questions actually feel bigger and more pressing than anything involving the undead, the Knights of Serbia, or whatever else the show throws at them.
At this point, considering how many more high-profile shows are dropping like flies on the streaming service, Santa Clarita Diet feels like an unlikely success story for Netflix. And given how things resolve themselves (or don’t) at the end of the season, that apparent success will ultimately determine whether or not audiences get to follow Sheila and Joel to the end of their story, or if Santa Clarita Diet ends up like so many supporting characters this season.
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Santa Clarita Diet season 3 will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, March 29.